Bikes should be allowed at Loch Raven reservoir

March 12, 2011

When it comes to allowing mountain bikers to ride the narrow trails around Loch Raven reservoir, Baltimore officials have waged a two-year campaign of sticking their fingers in their ears to avoid the voice of compromise.

Let's be clear: Their concern for maintaining the watershed's integrity is admirable given that the reservoir is part of a drinking water supply that serves 1.8 million customers. Loch Raven is not a park.

But these officials act as if they alone possess the wisdom to protect the watershed. In their stubbornness they refuse to acknowledge that time, and best trail-building practices, march on.

And if they are successful in bottling up bikers on a tiny portion of the watershed, what happens to access for anglers, deer hunters and hikers who also embrace open space so close to the city?

After all, if rubber tires are a menace, what of boots?

Ask them about access for other users and city officials refuse to say. Bad sign.

MORE, the Mid-Atlantic Off-Road Enthusiasts, has been lobbying for continued access — where appropriate — to the single-track trails. Members have put money and sweat equity (more than 800 hours last year alone) into proving they are good stewards.

The Department of Public Works, charged with maintaining Loch Raven reservoir, has rejected those requests, contending that single-track trails create erosion in the buffer zone that protects the water. Officials insist that the only sanctioned riding is on four unconnected fire roads.

In 1998, the cyclists and the city agreed on a plan to allow riding on 12 miles of fire roads and to have the cyclists assist in maintaining them and policing activities.

For years, the plan was largely unenforced because the city lacked the manpower. In the meantime a network of single track trails continued to grow in the woods. Naturally, anglers, hunters birders and hikers began using the narrow dirt paths as well.

But today, that plan works about as well as any other 1998 relic (As the owner of a 1997 Toyota, I say that with great respect and a certain amount of fear).

The mud hit the fan after the city revived its force of watershed rangers, who started confronting recreational users — especially bikers.

Prodded by biking groups, the City Council reacted in November 2009, passing a resolution to get both sides working on a revised mountain bike plan.

Less than a month later came the Great Unpleasantness, when the mayor who liked the idea of bike trails was convicted of gift card hanky panky and resigned weeks later to be replaced by a mayor who wasn't as enamored.

The ensuing rearrangement of the City Hall guard saw the DPW head replaced by Alfred Foxx Jr., the city's Transportation chief and a former Army Corps of Engineers colonel.

All that explains, in part, why a resolution approved in 2009 remains unfulfilled.

Now we come to the tough nut.

Yes, Loch Raven is first and foremost a reservoir and all other uses and activities take a backseat. And there's nothing bad about public officials protecting a public resource — that's what we pay them to do.

But trail construction has improved since the days of Lewis and Clark. Heck, techniques have improved in the last decade. Those advances have allowed paths to be built near sensitive places such as rivers and marshes, areas that drain into reservoir watersheds, with little threat of runoff.

Groups such as Maryland's Department of Natural Resources, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, American Trails and the International Mountain Bicycling Association have incorporated those practices into their trail-building projects with success and are willing to share their knowledge.

MORE and IMBA have offered to help raise $50,000 for a thorough assessment of the trails and to help close those that are a public nuisance. State Sen. Jim Brochin of Baltimore County is working to broker a deal with the help of Under Armour.

But at a City Hall meeting last Tuesday, DPW officials clutched their talking points about buffer zones, sediment runoff, and the 1998 plan like a woobie.

Riddle me this: if the integrity of Loch Raven is so sacrosanct, why is it OK to have three golf courses and a shooting range within the watershed? And why is the city allowing heavy trucks to chew up the fire roads and create chocolate-colored rivers during the muddiest time of the year?

During the Gulf War, Foxx commanded an engineering unit that built roads to move soldiers and equipment into Iraq. He also managed military public works projects in the Republic of Korea and Germany.

No doubt he is a leader who has seen and successfully adapted to change. It would be nice to see him do it again.

"We've been back and forth and around and around on this," exasperated city councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke told both sides. "It's bikes, gang. Bikes and sediment. We should be able to work it out."

Indeed.

candy.thomson@baltsun.com

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