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Barred From Many Hill Trails, Cyclists Fight to Regain Access

May 25, 1989|RICHARD LEE COLVIN | Times Staff Writer

The biker was cranking hard along a shady fire road toward a pair of older riders in Point Mugu State Park's Sycamore Canyon.

A slight swerve by one of the slow riders forced the young man to sharply maneuver his 18-speed mountain bike off the road and back on. He pedaled away without a word.

But Mark Langton, coordinator of a group of mountain bikers who patrol Santa Monica Mountains park areas, saw the incident and caught up with the speeding biker.

"You're in Sycamore Canyon, and you have to mellow out," Langton told the bicyclist. "You can't ride that way here."

Operating on fire roads and trails in a number of popular biking areas since late December, the 25 volunteer members of the Van Nuys-based Mountain Bike Unit hope that their presence will serve to moderate the sometimes dangerous behavior of thrill-seeking fellow riders.

The patrol's members, who underwent extensive National Park Service training, want to be ambassadors for their sport. They want to calm the fears of hikers and equestrians who see mountain bikers as a safety threat.

They hope to demonstrate that mountain bikers also cherish the natural beauty of the Santa Monica Mountains.

Formerly unregulated, many trails have been closed to bikers in recent years amid concerns by hikers about safety, trail damage and destruction of wilderness calm.

By improving the image of mountain bikers, members of the patrol units and the Concerned Off-Road Bicyclists Assn.--the patrols' parent organization--hope to regain access to back-country trails. Although substantial barriers remain to achieving that goal, CORBA has won some converts during its 18 months of existence.

"We have, if nothing else, put a face on the mountain bike riding community," said Langton, an editor at a Woodland Hills-based off-road biking magazine and a member of CORBA.

"The attitude and the climate toward mountain bikers has improved. We're not faceless marauders. We're a group of individuals . . . concerned about the environment as well as with enjoying the aesthetics of the area."

Indeed, partly as a result of CORBA's efforts, the Santa Monica Mountains Trails Council, a longtime opponent of mountain bikers, has endorsed opening three trails to the bicyclists.

In addition, the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy plans to supply equipment for CORBA to expand its patrols into conservancy territory, and CORBA intends to recruit additional volunteers. The expansion would be a prelude to giving bikers access to most of the roads and trails on conservancy property, a conservancy official said.

"Their presence in our parks is good for their image, and our image," said Carolyn Barr, a project analyst for the conservancy, a state agency that acquires and manages parkland in the Santa Monica Mountains.

The patrol units can "explain to people why they need to be polite," Barr said. If mountain bikers behave irresponsibly, other groups will question their presence in the back country, she said.

Even though the state Department of Parks and Recreation and the National Park Service--which together control 56,000 acres in the mountains--welcome the bike patrols, each has strict limits on where bikes can go. Essentially, the agencies allow bikes only on fire roads.

A state parks department policy, which became effective in January, allows district park superintendents to grant exceptions to the restrictions. A public meeting was held this week in Malibu on whether more parkland trails should be opened.

The problem, said several longtime Santa Monica Mountains hikers, is not the behavior of mountain bikers, but the sheer numbers of them. Practically unknown five years ago, riders of the durable, fat-tired, multispeed bicycles have become the largest and the fastest-growing recreation group in the mountains, parks officials said.

A ranger in Point Mugu State Park, one of the most popular biking areas, recently counted 700 bikers in Sycamore Canyon during a single day. Also popular are Malibu Creek State Park, Topanga Canyon State Park and trails in the Cheeseboro Canyon area.

"We're the newest, fastest-growing user group out there and that isn't making the other two groups very happy," said Peter Heumann, a Woodland Hills bike rider who helped form CORBA. The other major groups are equestrians and hikers. "They don't see us as legitimate back-country users. They see us invading their privacy."

The CORBA patrols, modeled after the Mounted Assist Units organized by equestrian groups, have been trained by the National Park Service to give first aid and cardiopulmonary resuscitation and to keep their unofficial standing in mind when dealing with the public. The two-person bike patrols are equipped with emergency radios, first-aid kits, repair kits and maps.

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