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Hikers, Cyclists Refuse to Yield in Battle Over Mountain Trails

May 27, 1996|LISA LEFF | TIMES STAFF WRITER

George Michaelis was riding a mountain bike during the crash that killed him. Aside from that, little about his death immediately connected it to the bitter battle hikers and cyclists have waged over the trails of the Santa Monica Mountains.

After all, when the 59-year-old financier collided with another cyclist in a steep ravine March 9, he wasn't pedaling on a narrow dirt path, but on a paved road at the edge of Topanga State Park, near his Pacific Palisades home.

But those facts did not prevent organized hikers from using Michaelis' death in their campaign to keep mountain bikes off the trails. They gathered details from police, paramedics and the coroner's office, then spun their argument for state officials: If a mature cyclist such as Michaelis could be killed in such a location, imagine the carnage that would result if "young gonzos" were permitted on single-track switchbacks.

"It's totally relevant," insists Mary Ann Webster, a member of the Sierra Club's Santa Monica Mountains Task Force. "The accident happened not because there was something wrong with the road, but it happened because of speed."

The attempt to politicize a personal tragedy demonstrates the degree to which the war of words over the Santa Monicas has escalated since the state parks department revised its rules last summer to open more trails to mountain bikes. A decade after mountain bikes nosed their nobby-wheeled way into the wilderness, leaving a windstorm of controversy in their dust, hikers sense they are literally and figuratively losing ground.

Based on anecdotal evidence from park rangers, it appears that mountain bikers now outnumber hikers on weekends. In Point Mugu State Park alone, there were 13 mountain bike accidents last year requiring some form of medical treatment--more than at any other park in the state system. But safety isn't the main issue that divides the two camps. Rather, it is whether they can coexist without sacrificing the serenity that draws people to the mountains in the first place.

Tensions are so severe that some longtime hiking activists have grown weary of the fight and become alienated from their cause of protecting the wilderness. Jo Kitz, a member of the California Native Plant Society, described the atmosphere as "virulent" at many of the public meetings where the factions debate land-use plans.

"I've stopped going to a lot of them because, quite frankly, I can't take the hostility. It's vicious," Kitz said.

Bicyclists are preparing for a protracted conflict, cheered by their increasing access to areas that previously were off-limits.

"From a bicycling perspective, things are a lot better, in that the National Park Service and state parks have reopened trails that were initially closed to us," said Jim Hasenhauer, a Cal State Northridge speech communications professor who is president of the International Mountain Bicycling Assn. "The down side is this intensified the backlash. Many of the anti-bike people see this as their last stand."

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Until last year, state policy seemed to favor hikers. Since 1989, bikes had been permitted only on fire roads in state parks unless a local parks superintendent decreed otherwise. Although cyclists lobbied to have selected trails opened, few were; there are more than 100 miles of state-owned trails in the Santa Monica Mountains, but only a half-dozen trails that have gone "multiuse."

The updated edict turned that equation on its head, however, requiring local superintendents to evaluate all trails and demonstrate why they should not be opened, said Dan Preece, Angeles District superintendent for the state parks system. "I interpreted it to mean I have to have some specific reasons to exclude someone before I will," Preece said.

Preece responded to the revised policy by opening a steep, five-mile section of the Backbone Trail in Will Rogers State Park to bicycles in January. "Part of the decision was based on my assumption that on the steep and narrow trails, people do go slower. On roads, paved roads, which have always been open, is where we have most of our accidents," he said.

The trail opening was a clear victory for Hasenhauer's group and the Van Nuys-based Concerned Off-Road Bicyclists Assn, which made getting bikes on the 70-mile-long Backbone Trail a priority. The cyclists long have argued that taxpayer money should not be used to build trails that are not open to everyone, and they have infuriated equestrian groups by maintaining that horses don't belong on any trails where bikes are not also permitted.

But in addition to making demands, the cycling groups worked hard to improve the image of mountain bikers. CORBA formed a volunteer mountain bike unit to help overworked rangers patrol the parks and dispense water, first aid and directions to visitors. And the group conducts classes in trail etiquette and proper trail-building.

Even hikers concede that those efforts have paid off and helped legitimize the cyclists' goals.

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