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Trails and Tribulation : Rangers Try to Help Bikers, Hikers and Equestrians Get Along

URBAN FOREST: The Angeles Turns 100: one in a series


SAN GABRIEL MOUNTAINS — From a vista point on a narrow, winding trail in the Angeles National Forest above Pasadena, the rider gazed out from her perch atop a horse.

Without warning, two mountain bikers hurtled around the corner and startled the horse. The animal tumbled to its death, taking the equestrian on an injurious fall down the mountainside.

This horror story from last winter is the type that fuels the perception that mountain bikers, hikers and equestrians absolutely can't get along in the Angeles National Forest.

It is the extreme example of the tensions and conflicts that have been building among the three recreation groups as more and more mountain bikers pedal their way into canyons and onto the mountaintops that once were the domain of hikers, joggers and horseback riders.

Bikers discuss rumors of sabotage on the trails. Is it true, a group of bikers asked one another last Saturday in the forest, about the reports of boards with nails found on another trail?

More than flattened tires or actual broken bones or bruised bodies, the tensions center on the mere specter of such occurrences. It is largely a conflict confined--for now--to the realm of emotions and territorial rights: People are frightened or startled on the trail. Sometimes words are exchanged in anger.

A century after its inception, the Angeles National Forest, one of the nation's most heavily used chunks of public land, is on the cutting edge of the nationwide battle over trail access. Increasingly, the forest is being jammed with mountain bikers, hikers and horseback riders.

Managers of public lands and parks throughout Southern California and elsewhere have responded to similar pressures by limiting access to mountain bikes and then studying whether to later expand it.

But Angeles officials, observing a mandate of "multiple use," the policy of accommodating as many different uses of the national forest as possible, have been loath to restrict access.

In the process, the Angeles National Forest has become a refuge for mountain bikers, sometimes hundreds of them occupying individual trails and roads on weekends.

The forest provides one of the country's biggest stretches of "single-track" (narrow) trails in close proximity to a major metropolitan area. A biker, hiker or equestrian can go for miles and miles "and never touch pavement," said Alan Armstrong, one of the founders of the Mt. Wilson Bicycling Assn.

Bikers have virtually free rein over the 1,000-square-mile national forest with its 561 miles of trails and 700 miles of fire roads. Mountain bikes are banned only in the established wilderness areas and along the Pacific Crest Trail.

Now Angeles officials, who for nearly a decade have struggled to manage the prickly competing interests, are weighing the findings of an environmental study on the issue. By this fall, they expect to create a formal policy, at least for three trails in the Arroyo Seco District, one of the forest's most heavily used sections.

"Mountain biking is a legitimate recreational use," said Mike Rogers, supervisor of the Angeles National Forest. "The philosophy is to allow as much of it as we can," he said, "without endangering other users" or causing undue damage in the forest.

During the past decade, bikers have forged an uneasy alliance with hikers, equestrians and U.S. Forest Service officials over trail access throughout the San Gabriel Mountains.

"We have managed over the years to reach some degree of harmony," said Terry C. Ellis, the ranger in charge of the Arroyo Seco District.


But to critics like hiker David Czamanske of South Pasadena, the situation is far less harmonious than Forest Service officials say.

The bikers are becoming so dense in some spots, he said, "they are driving out the hikers." Overcrowding is as much a problem as discourteous riders, he said.

Czamanske, vice chairman of the Pasadena group of the Sierra Club's Angeles Chapter, said, "I can't say I've had any bad incident happen to me. But there are certain trails I won't even bother to go on anymore," especially the Gabrielino Trail where it traverses the lower Arroyo Seco in the forest.

The Forest Service, Czamanske said, "has done next to nothing" to resolve the conflicts.

The time for the Forest Service to have taken action was four to five years ago, said Czamanske, who several years ago had meetings on the subject with other hikers and Forest Service officials.

Armstrong agrees that bikes can be a problem for non-bikers.

"You're out there in the mountains. You get in this meditative state. All of a sudden you hear something coming up behind," he said. Then, wham-o, a biker zooms by."

Once, in 1987, one of the country's top mountain bikers was training on the Mt. Wilson Toll Road and raced down the mountain, amid the crush of a weekend traffic of hikers, bikers and equestrians.

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