Mountain Bikers Care About Wild Places

I'm lucky. I can ride out my garage and be on the dirt in five minutes. I can be in a park in 20, and then have trail and fireroad choices that can keep me out longer than I can ride. The Santa Monica mountain range in Los Angeles cuts 60 miles or so east-west from the Hollywood sign to the Pacific Ocean. Twenty miles offshore, the Channel Islands are mountaintops from the same range.

When I first started riding, we called this place "the park." I didn't know who managed it, what their mandate was, who fought to create it or what threatened its expansion or sustainability. That kind of knowledge comes with time. For IMBA advocates, that's time in the saddle, riding time; and it's time in meetings and at the computer, advocacy time.

I've been riding here for 18 years and I can barely remember how and when I learned some of the natural resource knowledge about the Santa Monicas. I do know that my riding created a thirst for local knowledge-history, geology, plant and animal life. The more I knew, the more I loved these mountains, the more I needed to protect them. Every ride is a field trip. We experience the natural world and as we do, we re-make our understanding of both immediate and remote environments. Local rides create depth; riding in new areas, breadth.

My park, the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, is managed jointly by the National Park Service, California State Parks, the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, and a handful of local agencies. Each has a slightly different mission. A lot of the land in these mountains is undeveloped private land and the greatest threat to the Santa Monicas is development.

That's often the first conservation issue that really touches mountain bikers. One day you return to an area where you used to ride and you discover it's been bulldozed-terraced into building sites, gone forever. Once that happens, you're never the same; you become vigilant. "Development monitoring" and land acquisition become critical conservation efforts. When riding, you become attuned to new fences or signs or truck tracks. Newspaper articles on zoning changes or public hearings catch your attention. You recognize the importance of partnering with land trusts, environmental groups, neighborhood associations and the rare politicians who value open space over real estate development.

Those connections often lead to conversations about priorities. Land costs money and public land acquisition requires political influence. Neighborhood groups usually want their over-the-fence open space protected; environmental groups are more likely to be concerned with habitat protection, animal migration and water sources. These are important dialogues and they require a willingness to be open to the big picture and set aside biases. These conversations are advanced study of both natural and human communities. They blend technical knowledge and sensual experience, competition and cooperation, issues of use and restraint and self-interest and the common good. Good environmental planning requires both hearts and minds.

It's easy to take a place at face value, but there's often more to learn. The Santa Monicas are an example of the Mediterranean biome, one of the smallest and most threatened landforms on the planet. It's not only that the land stays undeveloped; it needs to retain its character and its biological diversity. Certain species mark its health, others its fragility.

Anyone who's ridden for a while has an animal story. These chance encounters with our Earth cousins transform us. They remind us that we share our niche. It's easy to appreciate the big critters. We identify. But, in some ways their greatest gift to us is that they're the access point to understanding the smaller life forms and the way things all fit together. Plant and animal life are bound in dynamic systems pitting change against stability. Throw in fire, flood, earthquake, weather events and human intervention and this dance becomes dramatic, one of life or death.

That's where our role becomes clearer. There are things we can control and things we cannot. I want to be mindful, to never take this or other wild places for granted. These plants and animals, this special mountain geology, they are survivors and I can abet their survival or their demise.

So I ride, but I also read and talk to people. I want to know how the indigenous people lived on this landscape. What happened after colonization and settlement? What economic forces changed the land? What does this land or this species need to maintain or recover its wildness? What can I do? Where can I learn these things?

The payoff for trail riders is that the exact qualities that sustain biological health - wildness, scope, connectivity and the presence of natural processes - also make the trail experience so satisfying. Mountain bicyclists are a natural conservation constituency.

Thanks to IMBA, I've been able to ride with many mountain bike advocates over the years. I've ridden in some stunning places and I'm always taken with the familiarity that locals provide on these rides; the way they automatically point things out, explain subtleties, provide background. We're loving the ride, but it's clear that they're also loving the place and they want newcomers to appreciate it, too.

This is the heart of what we do. To advocate means to speak on behalf of. We speak on behalf of mountain bikes and bicyclists, but central to that is to speak on behalf of the wildness we treasure.

Printed originally in IMBA Trail News; Spring, 2002