Drawing The Line On Trails At Loch Raven Reservoir


December 13, 2009|By Candus.Thomson | Candus.Thomson , candy.thomson@baltsun.com

It's a problem that's not older than dirt. It is dirt.

Specifically, how you divvy up public dirt among all the folks who rely on it and like to play in it.

Such is the case at Loch Raven Reservoir just north of the Baltimore Beltway, where competing interests are clashing. On the one hand, you have public officials charged with protecting the water supply for 1.8 million customers. On the other hand, you have thousands of outdoors lovers who revel in the recreational opportunities afforded by its 50 miles of shoreline and thousands of surrounding acres.

The city of Baltimore, which owns Loch Raven along with the Liberty and Prettyboy reservoirs, is doing its best to keep things such as zebra mussels and invasive plants from fouling the waters, and the burgeoning deer population from defoliating the trees and brush that hold back erosion.

Its latest line in the dirt has been drawn where mountain bikers ride, anglers walk and hikers bushwhack: the miles and miles of unauthorized trails that honeycomb the tract. Department of Public Works officials say illegal trails cause runoff that is difficult to remove and treat before it reaches the region's spigots. They are using newly hired watershed rangers to run people off these trails and ticket those who ignore ample warnings.

Let's be clear here: The city is not banning mountain biking. It is finally enforcing a ban on one (popular) segment of riding - single tracking.

"Mountain bikers are great people. Most of them are responsible. Most of them are reasonable," says Kurt Kocher, a spokesman for Baltimore's Department of Public Works. "Our rangers are letting cyclists know the rules, rules they were very involved in creating. We are in an education campaign."

Mountain bikers say the reservoir rules are antiquated and fail to take into account modern trail-building techniques that mitigate erosion. Enforcement, they say, came without warning.

"This is rallying the local biking community, and I am part of that rally," says Chris Eatough, six-time world champion in 24-hour solo riding who uses the reservoir to train. "Loch Raven means a lot. It's one of our crown jewels."

Riders say they've kept up their end of the bargain outlined in the city's 10-year-old management plan by maintaining and cleaning up trails, teaching users about stewardship and acting as additional eyes and ears for the city in places cops don't usually go.

"Their primary responsibility is to protect the reservoir, and I appreciate that," Eric Crawford, spokesman for the 600-member Mid Atlantic Off-Road Enthusiasts, says of city officials. "Every time I pull the tap I get clean water, and it's good water."

But he notes that runoff created by recreational users is nothing compared with the glop kicked up by subdivisions, commercial parking lots and golf courses.

It's not that bikers close to the city haven't pursued other single-track riding options.

"But the areas we have are few and far between," Eatough says. "There's Loch Raven, and there's Patapsco."

And pickings are even slimmer for night riders, who, especially in winter months, don't get out of work until the sun is long gone.

A twice-weekly program, Patapsco After Dark, gives thrill seekers and exercise junkies the opportunity to test their skills in Patapsco Valley State Park, providing they play by the rules: Register, bring a first-aid provider and have a leader at the front of the pack and a sweep bringing up the rear.

Further afield are similar night programs at Rosaryville State Park in Prince George's County, Gambrill State Park in Frederick County and Fair Hill Natural Resources Management Area in Cecil County.

"The key to providing mountain biking in state parks, even in sensitive watersheds and river valleys like Patapsco, is designing and building sustainable trails," says Nita Settina, superintendent of Maryland State Parks and a mountain biker who has ridden at Loch Raven.

Settina, who cut her teeth building better trails for the state, says the science has evolved in the past several years as designers figured out why some dirt paths fell apart at the first hint of mist while others have withstood hundreds of years of pounding feet and rain.

"As land managers, we hated trails. They were always failing. They used up precious resources. They were eyesores," she says. "But instead of continuing to throw money at failing trails, we close them down now and build better ones, sustainable ones."

Settina praises groups such as MORE and the International Mountain Biking Association for helping lead trail-building workshops.

Keith Voss, a biker from Baltimore County, acknowledges that there are maybe a dozen points where trails run right up to the water's edge at Loch Raven.

"Let's close those off and fill the low-lying areas with brush - we can do that in a weekend - and then build sustainable trails 200 feet back or whatever is acceptable," he says.

So, in the words of Oscar Goldman in "The Six Million Dollar Man," "we have the technology" to build smart trails. Mountain bikers have shown their willingness to invest sweat equity in Loch Raven. And federal grant money is available to carry out trail improvement projects.

Representatives of the mountain biking community will be getting together with Nate Evans, Baltimore's bicycle and pedestrian planner, Monday afternoon to get the wheels turning on a compromise. Then, at 7 p.m. Monday, everyone is invited to discuss the Loch Raven issue at REI Timonium, 63 West Aylesbury Road.

"Trails are one of the most costly outdoors expenditures for government," Settina says. "But if you design it right, you only have to build it once."

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