Off-road bikers have rangers on watch

Riders ticketed as officials worry about erosion, runoff at Loch Raven

December 10, 2009|By Candus Thomson | Baltimore Sun reporter

Ribbons of hard-packed dirt with nicknames like Sam's Grave, Seminary Loop and Ewok stitch the woods around Loch Raven Reservoir, a training ground for world-champion mountain bikers and urban warriors for more than a decade.

But city officials want to halt off-road use by bikers and others trying to reach the water's edge, saying the activity increases erosion and runoff into the reservoir and makes water treatment more expensive.

Six watershed rangers have been hired this year with seven more on the way whose duties include enforcing a 10-year-old policy that requires bikers to stay on maintained fire roads. Rangers have issued several $100 tickets for late-night riding as well as countless warnings, which, in turn, have generated hundreds of protest e-mails to City Hall.

"It's an outdated management plan that they're trying to enforce," said Eric Crawford, a spokesman for the 600-member Mid Atlantic Off-Road Enthusiasts (MORE). "It's a little obsessive and a little bit off the mark. They've never revisited it, and they should."

Today, 10 City Council members will request a public hearing for early next year to start talks between officials, members of MORE and the International Mountain Biking Association that could lead to a compromise on access. Meanwhile, preliminary discussions between the riders and city officials have been scheduled for Monday.

Loch Raven, just north of the Baltimore Beltway, is one of three reservoirs owned by the city that supplies drinking water to 1.8 million customers. Over the years, thousands of outdoors enthusiasts - from anglers and hunters to birders and bike riders - have turned its 50 miles of shoreline into an informal park.

"The watershed is a drinking water supply first and foremost," said Kurt Kocher, spokesman for the Department of Public Works. "It's too bad so many areas have to be off limits, but that's the way it is."

Narrow paths originally carved in the landscape by deer were deepened and widened over the years by people. Mountain bikers who enjoy the thrills of so-called single-track riding adopted the routes and sometimes added ramps and bridges. Loch Raven's steep hills and slick stream crossings have attracted Baltimore's elite riders such as 24-hour endurance champion Chris Eatough, downhill and cross-country titlist Marla Streb and Pan American gold medalist Jeremiah Bishop.

More recently, bikers with small, powerful lights on their helmets have taken to after-hours riding - trespassing in the eyes of DPW officials and their rangers, who have begun issuing tickets.

Kocher said the city's management plan was drafted with the help of riders a decade ago.

"These are clear guidelines so that you can have recreational biking without degrading the habitat around our drinking water supply," he said. "This international organization doesn't know a thing about Loch Raven. They don't care about wildlife or sensitive plants, they just want to ride. If they were riding over George Washington's grave, they wouldn't care."

But the mountain bike community says it has lived up to its part of the management plan: maintaining trails, picking up trash, educating users and acting as extra eyes for security.

"We felt we were on the right path and doing the right thing," said Keith Voss, a Baltimore County mountain biker who regularly rides at Loch Raven.

Kocher said DPW is marking fire roads with new signs, refurbishing and installing information kiosks that were damaged by vandals and printing maps of legal trails that will be distributed at bike shops.

But mountain bikers say the difference between single-track trails and fire roads is like the difference between Skyline Drive and Interstate 95.

Crawford said right now the two sides "are not speaking the same language," but he hopes a compromise can be reached. "Loch Raven was the first place I rode a mountain bike and next year I hope it will be the first place my daughter will ride a mountain bike."

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