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Thursday, October 27,2011

Battling over bicycling

City Council vote on mountain biking raises pre-election attacks

By Elizabeth Miller
photo by Paivi Rytivaara

Mountain biking is hot, but is it hot enough to become the single issue that costs a Boulder city councilwoman her seat?

After City Council voted 5 to 4 Tuesday night for a trail management plan for Anemone Hill, a 226-acre open space property that does not include a proposed loop route for mountain bikers, an email campaign started that calls for bikers to not vote for City Council member Lisa Morzel. Morzel is the only one of the five “nay” votes currently running for re-election.

“[Tuesday] night was, I think, the best and last chance the mountain biking community had for getting access to a trail that we could ride to ride, sort of the carbon-free recreation experience, the place for kids to get to without having to get into a car, the sort of lunch loop, the hour-long after-work ride, the missing piece of the puzzle for recreational mountain bike riders,” says Jason Vogel, president of the Boulder Mountainbike Alliance. The loop trail on Anemone Hill would have allowed bikers what hikers, trail runners, climbers and kayakers in Boulder County can enjoy: A place close to downtown to sneak in an hour or so of doing whatever sport it is that keeps them sane.

“Cyclists are the only group that I think don’t have this opportunity,” Vogel says, “which is ironic in a town where we’re supposedly trying to support the idea of cycling as a lifestyle choice.”

The problem with the plan for Anemone Hill that included mountain bikers, Morzel says, was that it put too many trails in too small an area.

It would be so concentrated it would basically tear up the little bit of land that it was being proposed. You see one trail from another. … There are seven trails that are stacked right on top of each other,” Morzel says. The plan would put 6.5 miles of trail in a patch of land 8/10 of a mile long and 6/10 of a mile across. “And that would have all been in very steep terrain and I could not be convinced that just any average rider could access that.”

Isaac Stokes, who started the email campaign calling for Boulder residents to not vote for Morzel, says this isn’t about creating a rush for the “frat boy 20-something downhiller.”

“I can’t believe in 11,200 acres there’s not a square inch of terrain that’s suitable for mountain bikes,” Stokes says. “I think that we just keep rolling over as a user group and we need to go ahead, and I think city council ignores mountain bikers because there are no repercussions at the elections to them, and it just happened now right before an election, and I think it’s a great time to make a statement to Lisa, in particular.”

Stokes has followed the West Trail Study Area for years.

“I thought, ‘Oh, this is it. We’re finally going to have some access to the crown jewels of Boulder,’” he says. “I mean the idea that there’s no mountain biking, period, from Eldo to Sanitas and however far west that extends, it’s absurd. There’s got to be some space.

I have a 5-year-old and I talk to him every day about sharing, and the people who are protecting the status quo don’t want to share.”

Mountain biking advocates came away from the council session with the feeling that part of the reason mountain biking was disallowed was that it has a significant environmental impact, an argument they say doesn’t have enough evidence to support it.

“As soon as you draw that line on the map that’s going to draw people to the area, you’ve done the vast majority of the impact you’re going to have,” Vogel says. City council members agree that the least invasive measure would be to put in no trails at all.

“The science is clear that bicycling has no greater environmental impact than other forms of trail use, and so to ban bicycling but allow other use is misguided and doesn’t follow the best science,” says Pete Webber, author of Trail Solutions and Managing Mountain Biking and a former employee of the International Mountain Biking Association with experience working with land managers and trail recreation experts from around the world.

City Council recommended a plan that includes two pedestrian/equestrian loops and a 2.9-mile mountain bike connector trail for the Open Space Board of Trustees to consider. That bike connector trail could form a loop with Boulder Canyon and provide access to the mountain biking trails at Betasso Preserve.

“Mountain bikers would love this connector, but mountain bikers also wanted access to this loop because it would provide a high-quality mountain bike experience right on the edge of town, and a loop is vastly better than an out-and-back,” Webber says. “If you have only one trail open to bikes on the whole western backdrop of Boulder, it’s going to become very popular, and because it is going to be an out-and-back trail, then it will seem more crowded because as you go on it you’ll meet a lot of people both coming [and going].”

Whether it's an out-and-back or a loop with Boulder Canyon has yet to be decided, Morzel says.

“It’s anything but certain that it can actually happen,” Vogel says. And even if it did, he says, “It’s just not what most people in this town are looking for. It’s not the big missing thing people are looking for.”

Vogel says he’ll be reaching out to the 3,500 BMA newsletter subscribers and 2,500 Facebook friends to let them know to vote for the council candidates that support mountain bikers, namely, Deputy Mayor Ken Wilson and Councilman George Karakehian. Members of the city council during the 2009 elections were voted in with just 2,611 votes. County clerk numbers show that 17.5 percent of ballots sent out had been returned as of Oct. 26. In the 2009 city council elections, 34 percent of ballots were returned by election day, leaving roughly 30,000 ballots — about the total number of mountain bikers in the county, based on Vogel’s estimates — likely to be received, but yet to be mailed.

“I think that it’s a sad sign that we have come to such a contentious place in the relationship between mountain bikers and our city leadership that people are starting to become single-issue voters,” Vogel says. “I’m personally disappointed in Lisa. She has historically been a supporter of cycling. The BMA has supported her for council in the past, and she has voted against mountain biking interests every single time they come before her.”

Morzel’s response to the email campaign has been to point out that her vote was not, as some have said, for a ban on mountain biking access at Anemone, and that she has a record that includes acquiring 2,500 acres of open space and working to get bike lanes, bike paths, greenways, underpasses, safe pedestrian bike intersections and crosswalks.

“I’ve voted a ton for different mountain bike options,” she says. “So because I did not vote for Anemone does not mean I am anti-mountain biker. … There are a lot of issues to balance in the city and I think to be single-issue on voting for city council is short-sighted. And I would hope that people, when they go to the ballot, regardless of who they vote for, really look for somebody who can achieve their goals, and I think I have achieved a lot for bicyclists’ and mountain bikers’ goals.”

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