Nature vs. Nurture in mountain bike trail battle

Editor’s note: The following is being reprinted as its own separate online story because the top two portions were accidentally deleted during production of the original version. The story did appear in full in the printed version and the online printed “green” edition of the Bainbridge Island Review.

Two large groups of people will face off in front of the Bainbridge Island parks commissioners to decide if mountain bike trails will be built at Grand Forest North.

Proponents say there are a growing number of mountain bikers who need places to ride. While they share all the trails on the island with other users, supporters say they need their own facility – such as what others have at skateboard parks, tennis courts, pickleball courts, etc. However, proponents emphasize that even if the new trails are built, only one uphill one-way trail will not be available for other types of users.

Those in opposition say Grand Forest North, when it was purchased, was supposed to be for passive use. It was supposed to be for wildlife and remain in its natural state as much as possible. And trails there, just like everywhere else on the island, should be all-inclusive.

The stances of the parties involved are shared below:

No to mountain bikes

Nora Masters and Kent Salisbury are two of the people leading the charge against mountain bike trails at Grand Forest North, but it’s not because they don’t like the sport. They think it’s the wrong location. They also don’t like that it’s not all-inclusive and that it took so long for the park district to let the public know what was going on.

Masters lives across from the park and says it’s used more than people think. She has lived here since 1994 and knows the Islanders like the environment. “They want to keep what they have,” she said. “They want to keep it a forest.” Masters said mountain biking isn’t a passive use, which is what Islanders thought they were voting for in approving the 1989 bond levy. “It surprises me given the history” that the park district is even looking at such a use, she said, adding the district should be asking the public what it wants now.

She said Islanders don’t want to make things exclusive. “How to be on the trails together. That is the answer on Bainbridge Island,” she said. Masters is concerned that if mountain bike trails are built it could negate a land trust deal for a wildlife corridor between North and West Grand Forest that is in the works. She said she loves the multi-generational usage of the trails. She also likes the multi-uses, such as for hikers, dog walkers and bird watchers. “When you’re a hiker you see the beauty” of seeing wildlife like coyote and deer. Masters said she is in the forest every day, and even loves seeing mountain bikers there. “Others have told me they’ve been run off the trails, but I haven’t had any trouble with them. I love kids,” she said.

Salisbury said the original charter says the Grand Forest is for general use. He is upset at how quiet the park district has been about the proposal. He learned about it word of mouth from the horse community. Opposition folks emailed out a petition that quickly gathered about 500 signatures. “That got the attention of the parks department,” he said. “At least we’ve got them thinking about it.” Salisbury said mountain bikers have been “grooming” the parks board for 1 1/2 years with their proposal, while the public is just finding out about it. Salisbury said it’s a “generational thing” because older people would rather walk and ride horses in the forest.

He said he “sees bikes all the time in the forest” and said they are good about sharing the trails. But he’s concerned if the new trails are built bikers will get bored and go to Grand Forest West and “ride with the same abandoned.” He questioned why it couldn’t be built at Sakai Park. “It’s a wonderful sport. The kids love it. The question is where?” Salisbury said it would be hard for the park district to turn down their offer because mountain bike organizations would be doing all the work and paying for it. “They get a lot of Brownie points for doing that,” he said.

Masters and Salisbury are part of the larger “Save Grand Forest North” group that has a website. They agree the forest was saved by voters years ago and is supposed to stay natural and passive. They are concerned about wildlife like raccoons, rabbits, owls and hawks. They are worried about trail erosion, tree removal and tourists coming from Seattle and elsewhere. They say it would be only natural for mountain bikers to “venture outside their area.”

Their website says: “We need to support kids, but Grand Forest North is the wrong location. The animals and birds that occupy this area would be displaced, their habitat and the native plants destroyed. We do not believe this change is consistent with the ‘Save the Forest’ campaign and bond levy to voters when this land was purchased from the Department of Natural Resources.”

They say conserving land throughout Bainbridge Island was enhanced with the Grand Forest purchase. “The acquisition of these natural lands in the island’s central core… validated and catalyzed the vision of a major wildlife corridor…that would stretch across the island from east to west. It set the precedent and recalibrated expectations as to what is possible with conservation on the island. The tremendous success of this vision is a testament to the power and influence of Islanders’ voices in keeping land natural and accessible.”

They say making trails for a single use is against the park district’s own mission statement. “Promote health and wellness for community members with nature trails for pedestrian, bicycling and equestrian use. Design multiuse trails for public use that carefully consider the impacts on wildlife. Design trails that protect, conserve and blend in with the natural landscape by maintaining tree canopy and minimize impacts to natural stormwater flow. Provide a sense of spiritual, mental and emotional well-being through immersion in nature as well as moments of peace and tranquility in an increasingly noisy world.”

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Favor mountain bikes

John Benjes, president of the Bainbridge Island Mountain Biking Club, said some folks react negatively to the proposal because they don’t think mountain bikers should have their own trails and get special treatment. Cyclists of all types, including mountain bikers, enjoy riding the many multi-use trails on the island. Mountain bikers have helped build several miles of those trails. “We all benefit from them,” he said.

But there are ways to have mixed-use trails. “Communities around the country have developed wonderful models that include multi-use and single-use trails within the same system, allowing for all users to feel welcome and supported,” he said. Benjes said specific types of trails are needed for mountain bikers. Supplying them would be no different than building pickleball or tennis courts or ballfields or skateboard parks for other sports.

“This is a pressing unmet recreational need. With mountain biking, the sport has evolved over the years and has specific needs for the sport including berms, rollers and other features. Riding a properly designed trail in the forest with some elevation change and linked turns and features is what draws many folks to the sport,” Benjes said. Mountain biking is growing on Bainbridge Island. Hundreds of participants take part in the park district mountain bike programs. The need for mountain bike features was highlighted during the lengthy Sakai Park community input process – a mountain bike park was among the top activities identified as most needed on the island.

“Kids and families need more outdoor recreation opportunities,” Benjes said. “BI kids and families should not have to leave the island to ride mountain bike trails. Mountain biking can offer island children an appreciation of nature, a focus on fitness, an alternative to screen time, and a boost in confidence and self-reliance.”

The proposed design at Grand Forest North lays out four one-way beginner and intermediate mountain bike flow trails and a learning area. With proper signage and education, it will be a park all users can safely enjoy, Benjes says in a letter to the park district.

“Trail etiquette is a key part of the Gear Grinders’ training program and team riders have been praised for their politeness and consideration on the trails,” he said, adding an important feature of the proposal is that it retains and enlarges the outer loop multiuse trail.

Benjes points out that the club will not only build the trails with volunteer labor, but also fundraise to pay much of the cost. He also pointed out that the club does a lot for the community. It raises funds for the Gear Grinders mountain bike teams made up of middle and high schoolers. It proposed and has maintained Jay’s Pump Track at Battle Point Park.

The Gear Grinders also have a strong history of volunteer service on park district trails. The teams worked to reopen the loop trail at Grand Forest North in the first place thanks to their stewardship a decade ago. They made major contributions to the three miles of new trails built since 2012 and continue to make major contributions to trail maintenance across the island. ”Our Gear Grinder students are provided a fun, healthy and safe program to develop as an athlete, an environmental steward and a hard working volunteer in our community,” Benjes said.

Addressing some concerns of opponents, he said no trees need to be removed, and the trails would be built with careful attention to the environment.

Parking is available on Koura Road. Many users, such as the Gear Grinders teams and parks recreation programs, will ride their bikes there. Given the small size of the park, supporters do not expect families to spend more than a couple of hours at a time there, which will reduce the pressure on parking.

“We expect island kids and families to be the main users of the proposed trails. The trails would add a little over one mile to the parks trail system of 32 miles. An area this small would likely not draw off-island riders,” Benges’s letter says.

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Parks District

Dan Hamlin, Park Services Division director, said the district’s programming for mountain biking has grown over the years, and there’s been an uptick during the COVID-19 pandemic. When mountain bike clubs approached the district with the idea of building and maintaining trails the district agreed to listen.

“User conflict is the biggest challenge with trail management” mixing mountain bikers with other users. “This idea seemed good to us because it provides an outlet for the kind of trail riding that other folks are concerned about sharing the trail with.” However, Hamlin emphasized if trails eventually are built at Grand Forest North they will not be exclusive to mountain bikers, although the activity is likely to cause some to avoid the center trails.

“Trail No. 4 is uphill only for bikes making it less of a concern for hikers. The outer loop will remain multi-use,” he said, adding equestrians will be limited to the outer trail, which will be improved if the proposal is approved.. He said North is not used as much as other parts of Grand Forest. On a recent visit he saw no one enter the trail system for 1 1/2 hours.

Hamlin said he finds it ironic that for 10 years mountain bikers have used Grand Forest North without complaints. The complaints only started when the new trails were discussed. Hamlin said there would be no trails at North at all if it wasn’t for the Gear Grinders mountain bike club. Prior to 2010 the site was choked off with fallen trees with no district maintenance due to limited resources and limited use. “It was only because we had a stewardship group that we opened it,” Hamlin said of the Gear Grinders.

He said the park district is already looking at ways to mitigate new trails. “It will just be designed in a way that is more fun for the bike riders with flowing banked turns and such that control the speed at intersections, have site lines for user safety, and are built to sustainable trail construction standards that mitigate any negative impacts to the environment.

“We are conducting a wildlife biology review to determine the impacts of the design on existing wildlife, considering changes to the skills zone, considering the proximity of the interior trails to the outer multiuse trail, and looking to make sure all four of the downhill trails are necessary.”

Terry Lande, executive director of the parks district, said the Gear Grinders already have been using the one outside loop trail at North a few times a week after school. The parks district looked at other sites, but none seemed to work as well, he added.

Lande emphasized that the district wasn’t trying to keep this project secret. It has been in the investigation and research phase, just like any project. Now the project will be coming before the park commissioners for a few meetings where they and the public can ask questions.

“There will be a lot of input on both sides,” Lande said. “You didn’t miss your chance.”

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The Grand Forest encompasses 240-acres across three parcels, with approximately 8 miles of trails in largely second growth forest that was previously a state Department of Natural Resources tract. The Grand Forest was purchased through a local bond and grant funds in 1989. The $5 million bond levy passed with 82% approval. It is now paid off. Grand Forest is a popular destination for trail users. It has a canopy of lush firs, cedars and maples and a few giant conifers. Trails are relatively flat with few inclines and a trail surface of dirt, mulch and gravel.

The West Grand Forest (121-acres) is a trail user destination with the “Main Trail” loop being a flat 1.5-mile walk with wood bridge over Issei Creek and a small pond on the eastern boundary shared with Hilltop. There are three connecting pathways that lead from West to East Grand Forest with The Forest to Sky Trail the longest (1 mile) and leads to Battle Point Park. The North Grand Forest (39 acres) is a separate non-contiguous parcel with similar terrain and forest canopy. A deal is in the works to connect those two parts of the parks. Approximately 10 parking spaces are located at Miller Road and the West Grand Forest and eight spaces at the East Grand Forest, Mandus Olson Road.

The pro-group wants a place where mountain bikers can go.