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Room for All on the Trail

September 21, 2002

Ah, to stroll the backcountry, accompanied only by bees flitting in the chaparral.

Ah, to canter up a canyon, human and horse moving in primal cooperation.

Ah, to pedal down a dirt path, heart and lungs pumping as knobby tires spit stones.

Argh, to hike into the flailing hoofs of an outraged Appaloosa, whose rider is cramming dirt into the nostrils of the keening mountain biker who careered into her horse.

Forget geopolitical animosities. For real conflict, watch hikers, equestrians and mountain bikers battle over who has the right to use the nation's trails and the fire, mining and logging roads that crisscross public land. Fortunately, the Bureau of Land Management, which oversees 14 million acres in California alone, has just introduced guidelines that should help bring peace to wild America.

The BLM's plan, open for public comment via the bureau's Web site until Sept. 25, will encourage local groups to help determine which trails are best suited for which types of recreation and encourage the sort of self-policing that is imperative given the dearth of rangers patrolling the desert and mountain land the agency oversees.

In recognizing the often maligned sport of mountain biking as a legitimate public land activity, the BLM undercuts those who argue that wild lands can be relished only on foot or horseback. The plan could also help set a reasonable course for other national and local agencies governing forests and parks.

Trail sharing is particularly important in Southern California, where rapidly shrinking open spaces serve as pressure-release valves for increasing numbers of stressed urbanites. Wilderness areas and some fragile trails are not suited for bicycles. But in most places, the sort of cooperation and compromise that the BLM's plan encourages should smooth the way for horses, hikers and nonmotorized bikes to coexist, if not in blissful harmony then at least without eye-gouging conflict.

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