Mountain biking in Santa Cruz, California, is quite popular, as it should be. There are scores of redwood-lined trails and open hilly grasslands overlooking the Pacific Ocean. It’s freaking awesome there. There is a reason mtb brands like Santa Cruz (duh) and Ibis are based there, with Specialized nearby in Morgan Hill.

Because Santa Cruz is also home to a University of California campus that does lots of earth science research, many of those bikers huffing it out on the trails are also soil scientists, geologists and the like. Lots of those scientists are also active members of the Mountain Bikers of Santa Cruz, a mtb advocacy and volunteer organization. A few years back, MBOSC decided to utilize their member’s expertise and put together a science committee to examine the impact of mtb riding on trail systems and wildlife. They then spent a couple years collecting and analyzing data about environmental impact, wildlife impact, and user groups.

It took several years to amass enough data to come to meaningful conclusions, and now, MBOSC has released their findings in a new report called the Mountain Bike Trail Impact Review. They looked at the impact to trails from bikes versus hikers and equestrians, how erosion is managed, what it means when riders build unsanctioned, unplanned trails, and how everybody can use the trails, from cyclists to trail runners, to, well, whatever you can dream up.

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They’ve broken down their findings into a very reader-friendly series of FAQs.

Some of their findings aren’t all that surprising. Illegally and hastily built trails are far more damaging than trails built by land use management agencies that take hydrology and erosion into account when building trail systems, for example. Also, those kinds of trails are often a symptom of a big unmet need in trail networks and a poorly planned working relationship between mtb groups and land use managers. Also, probably not terribly surprising that some animals are disturbed by busy trail networks while others use the trails for their benefit.

But there were lots of interesting finds too. Primarily that, on a general basis, hiking and biking have roughly the same impact on trails, when it comes to things like soil erosion, trail widening, and ruts. Both were far less damaging to trails than horses, too. Building well-planned trails near areas that have lots of unsanctioned trails has shown to reduce usage of the illegal trails, lessening the impact of those hastily carved networks. Also, some evidence suggests mountain bikers might unwittingly spread pathogens like that that causes Sudden Oak Death Syndrome, just because bikes cover a much bigger range than people do on foot.

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It’s certainly worth reading the whole series of FAQs here.

Obviously, this study focused on the Santa Cruz region, but there’s little reason to think the lessons learned wouldn’t apply to trail networks around the country.

More of these sorts of studies, please.


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