Bikes, bears, and biologists: can mountain biking coexist with nature?

The growth of mountain biking on the South Island is raising fundamental questions about the nature of parks

By Kathryn Helmore
June 7, 2021

Bikes, bears, and biologists: can mountain biking coexist with nature?

The growth of mountain biking on the South Island is raising fundamental questions about the nature of parks

The degree to which mountain biking erodes trails and disturbs wildlife is still being debated. Photo: James MacDonald / Capital Daily
The degree to which mountain biking erodes trails and disturbs wildlife is still being debated. Photo: James MacDonald / Capital Daily

Bikes, bears, and biologists: can mountain biking coexist with nature?

The growth of mountain biking on the South Island is raising fundamental questions about the nature of parks

By Kathryn Helmore
June 7, 2021
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Bikes, bears, and biologists: can mountain biking coexist with nature?
The degree to which mountain biking erodes trails and disturbs wildlife is still being debated. Photo: James MacDonald / Capital Daily

Jesse Jubinville was busy building a bike trail at Mount Work one late afternoon in November when he sensed he was being watched. He looked up and saw a black bear, silently studying him and his shovel. Jubinville hollered and waved his hands. The bear exhaled, shrugged, and moved along. 

A few days later, Jubinville heard about a black bear rummaging through bins and terrorizing local urban dwellers in a nearby subdivision. He suspects it was the same bear, perhaps curious about our other human activities. Or perhaps just a little lost in a tame and unfamiliar place far from home. 

Mount Work is not a normal habitat for bears given the cities, highways and humans that populate the area. However, it is a familiar habitat for South Island mountain bikers. And one that is only becoming more popular as they carve out their niche in the landscape. 

Jesse Jubinville plays an important role carving out this niche. In February, he finished Organ Donor—the region’s newest double-black diamond (experts only) bike trail. Featuring slick rock rolls and 20-feet jumps, the trail took Jubinville and a team of volunteers 1200 hours to build. And this is just the beginning. 

“This is part of a plan to build a network of trails that will provide opportunities to advanced riders,” said Jubinville. “There’s just not enough trails for advanced riders, for those who really want the opportunity to progress.” 

There are more and more riders like that on the South Island. In part due to the pandemic and the associated drive toward outdoor activity, the membership for the South Island Mountain Biking Society has tripled from 250 members 3 years ago to 900 members today. But the habitat is limited: currently only Mount Work and Sea to Sea regional parks contain trails of any kind, and of the 315 km within these parks, just one in five are maintained and designated mountain bike trails. As a result, some mountain bikers are going rogue and building unsafe, unsanctioned, and unsustainable trails. 

The CRD released mountain biking guidelines on May 12 in an attempt to address the problem of rogue trails, by providing a blueprint for how mountain biking can expand in regional parks. However, to some conservationists, the proliferation of these trails invades territory preserved for wild animals, meaning more unfamiliar and unwild spaces for species like the bear who watched Jubinville as he altered its habitat. Conservationists also argue that more trails violates the principles of the park, which should be to conserve first and foremost and to provide recreation only when it does not violate this first principle. But this ethic of conservation above recreation is contrary to the history, culture, and expectations of British Columbia’s parks. 

In the 1950s, amid the booming urbanization and industrialization that followed the Second World War, parks flourished. More than 70 provincial and regional parks were established between 1951 and 1961 to provide an escape from the loud, dense, and sprawling city life. These parks were small, easily accessible, close to major travel routes, and populated by picnic stops and campsites. 

Thetis Lake Regional Park was established during this period. In 1957, the public rallied around a petition to save precious flora and fauna from a housing development. The petition gathered 800 signatures—some of which were the names of dogs, cats, and children—and the park officially opened in 1958 as Canada’s first nature sanctuary. But even from the start the “sanctuary” was far from its Platonic ideal. It featured a jukebox, dance pavilion, swimming lake, and picnic spots. A large game reserve surrounded the park until 1961 when the skins and chopped-off heads of deserted deer carcasses began to concern picnikers. 

Today, Thetis Lake remains a popular spot for recreation. Its lakes are stocked with Rainbow Trout and its forests contain a series of hiking trails. Hidden within these forests is also a network of unsanctioned mountain biking trails. 

These trails aren’t new. In the 1990s, the CRD parks asked geographer Rick Searle to survey the ecological effects of these rogue mountain biking trails. He found that these rogue trails were damaging the soil and that bikers jumping off rocks were destroying mosses and lichens. He also saw trees cut down and used as stunt obstacles. 

“Within Thetis Lake at that time, and still today, you can find lots of places that are severely damaged by the presence of mountain bikers,” said Searle, who is also director of the Victoria Natural History Society and author of Phantom Parks: the Struggle to Save Canada’s National Parks. 

To Searle these hidden trails aren’t a problem unique to Thetis Lake, they are indicative of a parks system that, due to its history and conception, consistently prioritizes recreation over conservation. This is born from something dubbed the “dual mandate.” 

“The dual mandate says that parks should be left unimpaired for future generations and that they should be for the enjoyment and use of the Canadian public,” said Searle. “And even though there has been increasing emphasis on the protection and preservation side, it still comes down to use and enjoyment taking precedence over the preservation.” 

Of the 6 different types of designated protected areas in BC, none prohibit human activity. And only one type—an ecological reserve—tries to discourage recreation. Across BC parks there are 340 campgrounds, 6000km of hiking trails, and 118 boat launches. 

To conservationists, this dual mandate is a problem because human recreation—either by wheel or foot—is damaging ecosystems. 

A growing body of scientific literature demonstrates the negative ecological effects of outdoor recreation activities. These negative impacts include species endangerment, declines in wildlife abundance, increased psychological stress on wildlife, and reduced reproductive success. 

The CRD guidelines, which were drawn up with the intention of expanding mountain biking into regional parks, therefore threatens the sensitive ecosystems within the parks. 

Other recreational activities, however, such as hiking, are already ongoing in regional parks. And mountain bikers argue that activities like hiking are just as damaging—and in some cases might be more damaging, because sanctioned biking trails today are built according to specific guidelines that emphasize sustainability.

“At one time mountain bikers were widely reviled and looked down upon,” said Alon Soraya, president of the South Island Mountain Biking Association (SIMBS). “But attitudes have shifted, and for good reason.”

Soraya says organizations like his have evolved to make their trails less harmful. 

The International Mountain Biking Association is the cornerstone in this movement toward sustainable trail development. It claims that when trails are well built, there is no evidence mountain biking is more inherently harmful than other recreational activities like hiking. The association points to numerous studies all assessing the impact of tires versus boots versus hooves. Sometimes there was no evidence that mountain biking was more harmful to ecosystems. Other studies suggest that tires eroded trails less than hiking, provided trails were well constructed and maintained. 

A study into the ecological effects of mountain biking in Banff in 2000 found bikers are more likely to have sudden confrontations with grizzly bears than other users because they move more quickly and more quietly.  But a biker’s impact on other species—such as bison, elk and pronghorn antelope—was the same as that of hikers, and there was no difference between the effects of biking and hiking on bear habitat

New research from UBC, however, questions these conclusions. An October 2020 study analyzed the impact of outdoor recreation on wildlife in the South Chilcotin Provincial Park in southwestern BC. It found that wildlife avoided mountain bikers significantly more than hikers or horseback riders. 

Trail builders with the South Island Mountain Biking Society work on a trail in the fall of 2020. Photo: Max McCulloch / SIMBS (Submitted)

“Mountain biking had a stronger effect than we thought in our results because it was comparable and potentially even stronger than vehicle recreation,” said Cole Burton, a professor of forestry at UBC who coauthored the study.

Burton did say that these findings are preliminary results and the study itself will take years. Burton also said that the study does not demonstrate that displacement had a negative effect on wildlife; for example, they don’t know if animals were being stressed, and pushed from important habitats, or if they were just getting out of the way.

Despite the incomplete study, Burton said it suggests we should pause to reconsider what we think we know about mountain biking in parks.

“In my mind, this suggests that we can’t just assume mountain biking is low impact,” said Burton, adding that for the most part, there’s little follow-up. “We very rarely set up a monitoring study to look at the effect of changes in our policy. We often just make an assumption about what effect that will or won’t have; we don’t often test that assumption.” 

Academics and land managers have been calling for more research into the impacts of recreational activities on park ecosystems for decades. However, regional park budgets consistently allocate more money to recreation than conservation. 

The 2019 CRD regional park budget was $12,888,470. Of that sum, only $224,360 went to “Resource Management”, which breaks down into environmental conservation policy, conservation and restoration planning, and environmental impact assessments. Meanwhile, planning and facility development received $916,450 and regional trails received $691,210. The Environmental Interpretive Program—an initiative whereby visitors learn about regional parks and trails—received $427,760. 

According to a source who works in the CRD, there is only one biologist in the entire parks department.

Currently there are operations staff to focus on keeping facilities functioning, and there are two park planners that help plan where facilities should be, but the biologist is the only voice for the environment across all 31 regional parks. CRD Regional Parks department also does not have a conservation plan.

They don’t have enough staff, of the right kind, to properly plan and maintain these spaces,” said Rick Searle. “So quite frankly, I question whether or not the CRD board is even aware of whether there is capacity to handle greater mountain biking presence within the parks.”

Rebecca Merserau,  Saanich Councillor, CRD director and vice chair, said she shares concerns about the CRD’s capacity to manage the rapidly-growing parks system.

“We need to match our ambition for acquiring new parks with a corresponding commitment to ensure we have enough capacity to manage them to protect their ecological values and provide recreational amenities for a growing population,” said Mersereau.  

However, Mersereau did say that measures have been taken to increase funding for parks. For example, in 2019 the annual parks budget increased to $925,000. Earlier this year a revenue-generation strategy developed for regional parks was approved and last month staff proposed (and the board approved) a new approach to ensure the CRD has sufficient operational funding for newly-purchased park land. 

In November 2019, parks also established a $40,000 Mountain Biking Advisory Committee. The committee was composed of a number of people within the community, from president of SIMBS Alon Soraya to Torrey Archer, biologist and land manager from The Land Conservancy of BC.

However, Searle does not think that increased budgets or an advisory committee change how we see parks. He believes that what drives the decisions we make about parks is politics, not preservation. 

“CRD parks have been pushed to make ecological integrity first and foremost, but there just isn’t the will to follow through,” said Searle. “Because that would mean saying no to a group of people who would potentially create a political problem. So sure, it would be wonderful if the CRD would … make ecological integrity, maintaining ecological values the first priority. But that would require some planning, some momentum. And I wish I saw enough fire in the belly of the CRD park board to go that route. And right now I just don’t see it.”  

Another reason recreation might be prioritized: it brings in money, especially from mountain bikers, who are typically affluent and willing to travel for their sport. 

A 2006 Destination BC report found that mountain biking is a “travel motivator” and that bikers visiting North Vancouver, Squamish and Whistler spent $10.3 million from June through to September. A 2011 report from Destination BC also found that visiting mountain bikers spent $589,000 in Rossland and $930,000 in Golden. In those communities, the report found, mountain biking revenue led to $161,000 in commodity taxes and $66,000 in taxes paid by supplier industries. 

South Island mountain bikers say the CRD’s failure to build trails has meant the region is lagging behind other BC destinations, and therefore missing out on valuable tourism dollars. 

“The CRD has historically not put any kind of emphasis on mountain biking in the South Island,” said Bailey Avenno, sales manager at Goldstream bike shop. “Especially in comparison to Squamish and North Vancouver. They just haven’t tried to realize the potential of trails and the effects that could have on the economy. The loss of interest of people coming here is significant. The locals will spend elsewhere and we’re missing out on revenue from destination travellers.”  

Mersereau said economic benefits did not factor into their reasons for expanding the sport in the region—but she did say that it was raised by bikers in the consultation process. 

“It was not articulated by the CRD as one of the rationales for looking at mountain biking opportunities in our parks,” said Mersereau. “But I know the mountain biking community has raised this as a significant and perhaps under-appreciated benefit.”

Patrick Lucas’s voice crackles when he picks up the phone, and after a brief hello the line goes dead. Lucas is on a ferry from Bella Bella to Port Hardy, and there are very few cell towers in a vast landscape dominated by ecological reserves and protected areas. 

Lucas was in Bella Bella to meet with the Heiltsuk Nation. As founder and lead community planner at Indigenous Youth Mountain Biking Program, Lucas wants to help the nation build a network of trails. He believes these trails are tools of reconnection: they bring people back to the land, and develop valuable skills. In fact, he believes that the idea of conservation and recreation as separate entities is rooted in an outdated mindset. 

“Our understanding of parks comes from a very eurocentric, colonial understanding of the land,” said Lucas. “That is, ‘we found it empty, and now we have to keep it pristine in this particular shape.’ Whereas I think a broader, newer way of looking at it is that people are part of the land and what we need to do is foster healthy, sustainable relationships with those places.” 

Lucas’s favourite phrase is “relations before rides.” He believes that only through getting people out in nature will they learn to care about nature. 

“I’m not just trying to get people out on the land, I’m trying to get them to build their relationship with the land,” said Lucas. “If all you do is you go to the store, you buy a bike, you jump on it and just go ride, that is a very consumer-oriented way of going out on the land. You’re just extracting value. And sometimes we must say no. We don’t need to be there.”  

Working in the mountain biking community for decades, Lucas believes he has seen that shift from rides to relations. 

He said it all started in the mid-2000s at a pub in North Vancouver where the key players in the mountain biking scene met up. The trails in the area were a mess and the ongoing War of the Woods had brought conservation to the forefront, so mountain bikers were being pushed out of the forests. 

“They had to get organized,” said Lucas. “They had to evolve from a bunch of bros out, building illegal trails with their friends. They had to form clubs, form a community, and then develop standards for building trails. And they had to show that they could be responsible stewards of the land.” 

The bikers formed the North Shore Mountain Biking Association, which enforced strict standards for building sustainable trails.

Lucas believes that there is a parallel between the mid-2000s and today. Both now and then conservation was a leading issue, thrust to the forefront by War of the Woods in the 2000s and Fairy Creek today. Where the forests of the North Shore were scarred by messy, unsanctioned trails 20 years ago, some mountain bikers are inflicting the same wounds on regional parks right now. In both periods, the actions and attitudes of a few mountain bikers, married with the pressure to conserve, means that the sport is unwelcome in the forest. 

Trail builders work on a new trail in October 2020. Photo: Max McCulloch / SIMBS (Submitted)

Back on Mount Work, Jesse Jubinville is still shovelling dirt. 

He’s working on an upper part for Organ Donor, hoping to extend the popular trail a few hundred metres further into the forest. 

He’s spent weeks analyzing the slope of the hill, the International Mountain Biking Guidelines imprinted in his memory. 

While the trigonometry of this trail might be Jubinville’s creation, the name isn’t. Organ Donor is the name of a trail built in the 1990s by Victoria’s first mountain bikers. The original, unsanctioned trail is located 20 metres away and was built back when the sport was in its hazy infancy when bikers charged down the mountain on steel frames and single suspension. These days Organ Donor is semi-retired, mostly used by those pushing up the mountain, not descending it. 

Jubinville is hoping new trails will finally lead to the complete retirement of Organ Donor. And he’s looking forward to building these new trails in more regional parks. According to an interview with Mersereau on the Capital Daily podcast, the next park eyed up for mountain biking development is Canada’s first nature sanctuary: Thetis Lake. 

That said, Jubinville agrees that a balance between recreation and conservation must come first. 

“Nowadays it definitely feels like there’s a segment of people that feel parks are nature conservancies rather than recreation spaces,” said Jubinville. “I personally hope there can be a balance between the two. For me that’s sustainable access to areas. Areas that are off limits are off limits. But I hope we can find a balanced approach to allowing people to go out and enjoy nature, working within a framework on conservancy.” 

As he digs his shovel into the ground, he looks forward to seeing another bear—and hopes his presence, today with his tools and in the future on his bike, isn’t unwelcome in that foggy green space between city and wilderness.

Correction on June 7 at 1:30 pm: An earlier version of this article said Organ Donor was being extended a few kilometres. The trail will actually be extended by less than a kilometre.

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