August 20, 2013

Equestrians, mountain bikers tussle over Western States Trail access

As it turned out, it wasn't just horseback riders and hikers who had something against the Tahoe Sierra 100 endurance mountain bike race: Mother Nature, in the form of a wildfire, also had something to say.

As it turned out, it wasn't just horseback riders and hikers who had something against the Tahoe Sierra 100 endurance mountain bike race: Mother Nature, in the form of a wildfire, also had something to say.

The race, using portions of the rugged Western States Trail over the Sierra, had been scheduled for Saturday.

The trail, once used by miners, is now the province of hikers, horsemen, runners, bikers and motorcycle riders. Connecting Squaw Valley to Auburn, it's home to the Tevis Cup horse race and Western States 100 run. In both races, participants cover 100 miles in a single day.

Jim Northey, organizer of the bike race, envisioned the Tahoe Sierra 100 growing to the same stature as the horse and foot races and making Auburn the nation's endurance race capital.

But in the face of opposition from a recently formed group called the Western States Safe Trails Alliance and without a permit to hold the race in hand, Northey canceled the event in early August.

An official with the U.S. Forest Service, which has authority over most of the trail, said the agency had verbally committed to granting the permit.

"I'd have been canceling the race either way now," Northey said, in light of the American fire. The fire started on Aug. 10, 17 miles northeast of Foresthill and has consumed nearly 15,000 acres. A portion of the trail is within the fire perimeter, but the extent of the damage has yet to be determined.

"In the long run, it was a good call," Northey said Thursday.

Over the last several years, Northey's race has grown and evolved in fits and starts. At some points, it followed the traditional route; at other points, it used more mundane fire roads.

Judy Suter, a horse enthusiast leading the charge for the Safe Trails Alliance, said the group's goal is to close the Western States Trail to motorcycles and mountain bikes.

"We do want to stop the race on this trail. We just don't think it's a place where you should have mountain bikers and motorcycles," Suter said. "This trail was built for pedestrians and horses."

The alliance includes 11 gold-country organizations, including the Sierra Foothill Audubon Society, Sierra Club (Placer Group) and five groups with horse ties.

Suter plays a significant role in the Tevis Cup horse race as volunteer coordinator, but the Western States Trail Foundation, which puts on the race, has not endorsed the safety group's cause.

Suter argues that, especially on narrow portions of the trail, the speed of mountain bikes and motorcycles makes them incompatible with equestrians and hikers.

"We're not against mountain bikers; we're just for safety," Suter said.

The fear is that a mountain biker will come tearing down a narrow, cliff-exposed trail, spook a horse and send the rider tumbling to their death, Suter said.

Northey argues that there have been "zero safety issues."

But last year during the race, a Cool woman was paralyzed after she was thrown from her horse when a cyclist passed her.

By all accounts, the cyclist showed perfect trail etiquette, stopping his bike and communicating before, upon mutual agreement, passing the equestrians. Despite the care, the bike threw some gravel, the horse was spooked and the 50-year-old woman was critically injured.

Northey said the safety group has twisted the accident to its benefit.

"It's unfortunate that a horse came onto the race course. You don't see mountain bikes or motorcycles on the course during the Tevis," Northey said.

The safety group also contends that bikes and motorbikes do more damage to the trail than horses.

Northey said he's tried to meet with Suter and her husband, Bob, in hopes of finding common ground, but so far he's been rebuffed. Judy Suter said she didn't show up at one meeting called by the Forest Service because online threats made her concerned for her safety.

Northey said he wants to move past the sharp words and get trail groups working together. He said he rejected the aggressive responses suggested by bike race supporters, including one to enlist PETA to attack the riders' treatment of horses.

"I'm trying to keep this civil," he said.

The portion of the trail within the state-controlled portion the Auburn State Recreational Area is already closed to mountain bikes. To change the usage rules within the federal forest, significant administrative hurdles would have to be crossed.

While the Western State Trail Foundation (Tevis Cup) has not taken a position on the trail dispute, it is not a new issue for them.

"We've discussed it for 58 years," said Kathie Perry, president of the foundation.

She said trail interests should work toward common ground.

"We can't just keep hitting each other in the head. Bicycles are not going to go away. Horses are not going to go away. And neither are runners," she said.

John Trent, president of the Western States Endurance Run Foundation, also preached compromise.

"If all the concerned groups can come together, we can usually find a solution," Trent said. "It would behoove them to have a sit-down meeting. Put those online comments aside."

At various points of her life, Sacramento resident Nicole Dolney, 35, has competed in equestrian, running and cycling events. She too hopes that all sides can come together.

She said she tries to do her part by volunteering to do trail work and by educating other cyclists.

"I try to hold my fellow trail users accountable," said Dolney. "If I'm riding with someone, and they do something stupid, I call them out on it."

Call The Bee's Ed Fletcher, (916) 321-1269. Follow him on Twitter @newsfletch.

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