Mountain bikers seek more trails

Want Folsom Lake SRA trails re-designated to keep up with needs of users
By: Sena Christian, The Press Tribune
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Craig Wilson leans over a map of Folsom Lake State Recreation Area to point out colored lines representing where mountain bikers may legally ride.

A blue line indicates the mountain bike/pedestrian trail and a red line shows the multi-use trail. Horseback riders may also use this multi-use trail, along with a much longer green line representing an equestrian trail.

Mountain bikers aren’t allowed on around half of the 94 miles worth of trails in Folsom Lake SRA. Horses aren’t allowed on 12 miles.

And no new bike trails have been built since 1992.

“We’ve been trying for years to get equity,” Wilson says.

To Wilson, president of Folsom Auburn Trail Riders Action Coalition, this inequity poses a problem: Despite bicyclists likely outnumbering equestrians, they have far less trail access.

“My contention is equestrians are a very small group,” Wilson says. “And my guess is there are fewer and fewer (of them).”

State Parks may re-designate trails

In 1955, Folsom Dam was built, the lake was created and the surrounding land became a recreation area. People who lived in the area witnessed their wilderness surroundings become suburban.

“Some of the same people that grew up riding horses on these trails still live there and see their trails as being encroached upon,” Wilson says. “It frightens them.”

In the late 1970s, road bike companies started manufacturing mountain bikes and by the late 1990s, the sport had become mainstream.

In 1988, Folsom Auburn Trail Riders Action Coalition formed to work with California State Parks to develop and construct a system of bike trails within the Folsom Lake and Auburn state recreation areas.

Four years later, this group completed the 9-mile-long Darrington Trail, exclusively for mountain bikers and pedestrians. A few months later, they began work on the 2-mile multi-use Sweetwater Creek Trail.

Wilson says thousands of bicyclists converge on these trails each weekend during nice weather. Students in mountain bike clubs at local schools such as Woodcreek High School and Folsom High School use these trails, as does Total Body Fitness, a company that regularly hosts races.

Folsom Sector Superintendent Ted Jackson says State Parks does not specifically track the number and type of trail users at Folsom Lake SRA, but tracks overall attendance and estimates about 2 million visitors annually.

Jackson refused to wager a guess as to whether more mountain bikers or horseback riders use the trails.

A 2005 Outdoor Industry Foundation study found that 8.7 million people in the United States partake in mountain or non-paved surface bicycling. During that same year, an American Horse Council study found that two million people own horses. That study concludes that 3.9 million horses — out of 9.2 million — are used for recreation.

Wilson says his coalition has been in a constant battle with California State Parks for more trails. The response typically has been that the department’s shrinking budget keeps its hands tied, he says. The department needs to make $14.2 million in cuts this fiscal year.

State Parks may eventually re-designate trails to keep up with the modern needs of trail users.

“We are embarking on a road and trail management plan for Folsom Lake SRA to follow up with the general plan completed about a year ago,” Jackson says. “Part of that effort is to look at the trail system and talk to stakeholders and determine whether or not changes should be made.”

The department expects to provide more information about the planning process, including public involvement, in the coming months, says senior park and recreation specialist Jim Micheaels.

Kathy Dombrowski, of the Loomis Basin Horsemen’s Association, says there’s some validity to mountain bikers’ requests for more trails.

“I really feel, yes, they do need more trails,” she says. “(But) it depends where they are. The Pioneer Express Trail is narrow and there are heavy drop offs. On some of the areas there probably could be bike trails but they have to be careful where they start so they don’t come down into a trail that’s not a bike trail. That’s a safety issue.”

‘Vigilante mindset’

Over the past couple years, some rouge mountain bicyclists and BMX riders have taken to illegally constructing their own trails and jumps on unclassified trails and the Western States Pioneer Express Trail — an activity Wilson does not condone and one that angers equestrians.

Wilson’s group performs 1,000 hours of volunteer work every year to maintain and protect the trails. A couple years ago, volunteers built a drainage lens that allows water to pass under a multi-use trail. They also educate fellow riders about being good stewards of the recreation area.

But some equestrians think bicyclists do more harm than good — primarily because of the illegal trail building and jumps, which might harm their horses, damage the environment or hurt the Valley Elderberry Longhorn Beetle, a threatened species listed under the federal Endangered Species Act.

Previous surveys identified the presence of elderberry shrubs in Folsom Lake SRA, which are potential habitat for the beetle and therefore protected.

The Pacific Legal Foundation in Sacramento intends to file a lawsuit April 8 — on behalf of several flood control and irrigation districts, and landowners — against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to de-list this beetle, says attorney Brandon Middleton, in a press release.

The government agency concluded in a 2006 study that the beetle had recovered since being listed in 1980 and no longer warrants federal protection, Middleton says.

“A few (mountain bikers) don’t follow the rules,” Dombrowski says. “As long as they follow the rules, we’re fine. Most equestrians get along with mountain bikers. I’m not saying horse people are perfect either. Some of them don’t follow the rules.”

Until changes are made to the road and trail management plan, mountain bikers and equestrians must find a way to peacefully share the trails, Wilson says. He worries that this won’t be easy, as a segment of equestrians with a “vigilante mindset” have taken it upon themselves to police the recreation area.

This group may be the minority, but they’re a vocal one, he says.

“I understand their fears,” Wilson says, “But (mountain bikers) staying off the trails brings no solution. This problem is not going to go away.”

Sena Christian can be reached at