Bears, bears, bears have jammed up plans for new mountain bike trails in Anchorage’s Far North Bicentennial Park despite widespread public acceptance.
Single Track Advocates, a cycle-trail building group, was doing well promoting the idea with its two-legged neighbors. Community councils around the park signed off on the development of more trails. The Parks and Recreation Department in Alaska’s largest city thought the plan fine.
The local newspaper jumped on board, proclaiming that “if all goes well and the weather cooperates, trail construction should start by July and be finished in the fall….The new Hillside trails are expected to offer more-challenging terrain for Alaska cyclists.’
And then some state wildlife biologists raised a difficult question:
What about our furry, four-legged, sometimes friends; the friends who aren’t always so friendly; the friends who have been known to turn downright ugly if they happen to collide with a mountain bike or a mountain biker happens to collide with them?
Alaska Department of Fish and Game Anchorage-area biologist Dave Battle and research biologist Sean Farley sent the municipality’s Urban Design Committee a letter warning Hillside bears might not like the news trails.
“Constructing additional trails in the area now selected by STA would lead to increased risk to users,” they wrote. And they attached Board of Review Recommendations from a panel of scientists who studied the death of 38-year-old, U.S. Forest Service law-enforcement officer Brad Treat near Glacier Bay National Park last June.
“The unfortunate death of Mr. Brad Treat from a grizzly bear attack that was precipitated by a high-speed mountain bike collision between Mr. Treat and a bear necessitates increased attention to the dangers associated with mountain biking in black bear and grizzly bear habitat,” the first line of the review said. “There is a long record of human-bear conflicts associated with mountain biking in bear habitat including the serious injuries and deaths suffered by bike riders.”
Anchorage was the site of one of such serious injury. Then 15-year-old Petra Davis nearly died after being attacked by a bear in Bicentennial Park in 2008. She was 13 hours into a 24-hour bike race when she met the bear in the dim lite of night beneath the midnight sun.
Some believe, given the damage done to her in a quick but ferocious attack, that she – like Treat – might well have collided with a grizzly bear. Her injuries were consistent with those suffered by others attacked by grizzlies acting in what the bears believe to be defense of cubs or themselves.
The bear broke eight of Davis’s ribs, punctured her lung, tore up her right leg and nicked her carotid artery in a matter of minutes before Peter Basinger, another rider and her former ski coach, arrived on the scene.
After the attack, there was some debate about whether a 24-hour bike race should have been staged in the park. The views of Alaskans were mixed. Some live in fear of bears. Others consider the animals – dangerous though they might be – one of the normal risks of living on the edge of the America’s last great wilderness.
Anchorage is unique among U.S. cities. Home to 300,000 people, freeways, traffic jams, well-known American retail outlets, and all the other amenties of modern life, it perches on the edge of a half-million-acre Chugach State Park with healthy populations of grizzly bears, black bears, wolves, wolverines, lynx, moose, Dall sheep and returning salmon that attract bears.
The bears and the moose regularly move back and forth between the city and the park. The rest of the animals less so. A cautious sort sometimes called into service to help in cleaning up the mess after bear attacks, Farley has been warning about the bear dangers for years.
“ADFG conducted a brown bear habitat, diet, and population study from 2005-2008 that focused on military lands adjoining Anchorage as well as habitat including Far North Bicentennial Park,” he wrote the city. “We identified a minimum of at least 20 different brown (grizzly) bears that used Far North Bicentennial Park during the study period.
“There are several productive salmon streams in the Park which are attractive to the bears, and some have closely aligned official trails. Brown bears use these areas for feeding, resting, and traveling. In particular, if trails are constructed in bear habitat, they will utilize them. There is no question that Far North Bicentennial Park is prime brown bear habitat.
“The Department has responded to several brown bear maulings in the Park over the years.”
Attached to the letter along with the review of Treat’s death were four pages of maps from Farley’s radio-tracking of grizzlies that showed the tracks of the animals roaming all over Bicentennial Park.
And his letter ended with a blunt conclusion:
“The Department of Fish and Game strongly recommends that the proposed STA trails for Far North Bicentennial Park not be constructed. The area chosen has seasonal high bear densities, and the style of riding for STA and the preferred type of trail layout will increase the probability of trail users getting mauled. Safety will clearly be compromised.”
As word of the May 15 letter spread through the mountain-bike community, there was a rumor that Fish and Game had imposed a “stop work” order on trail construction some expected to begin this month. But Ken Marsh, a spokesman for the Department’s Division of Wildlife Conservation, said the state agency lacks the authority to stop anything.
All it can do is make recommendations, he said, which is what it did.
This recommendation landed with a thud in the offices of the Anchorage Planning Department, which is charged with issuing a permit for trail construction.
Senior planner Sarah Ferguson said the department isn’t exactly sure of what its next step.
“We’re just trying to gather information and go for some decision later on,” she said. “I don’t know if we’re going to come up with an answer. I don’t know if there is an answer.”
At this point, she said, “these are all just internal discussions. We’re trying to figure out a way forward. How you make the decision here?”
Given the seriousness of the issues raised by Fish and Game – Farley and Battle basically paint this is a life and death matter – Ferguson said it is possible the Planning Department might just have to take the question to Anchorage residents with a public hearing or several.
That would almost guarantee a construction delay of at least a year for the STA trails but Ferguson confessed she does recognize an edge-of-Anchorage, wildland reality:
If STA doesn’t build trails, she said, “people will just go out and build illegal trails.”
The bikers at the gate
If STA builds trails, it is certain mountain bikers will come. And if STA doesn’t build trails, it is almost certain bandit trails will get built and mountain bikers will come.
Over the past decade, the 4,000-acre park and the adjacent 720-acre Campbell Tract managed by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management have been crisscrossed by bandit trails. There are dozens of them, possibly hundreds.
Back in the forests in places, it’s not unusual to stumble into signs warning against cutting new trails. Some people appear unable to read them.
Signs have clearly not stopped the proliferation of trails. There’s little indication they have even slowed it.
STA started almost a decade ago in part as an effort to offer an alternative to the bandit trails in the belief that better planned and built trails would trump renegade trail building.
“We try to do everything right,” said Lee Bolling, the organization’s current president, and there is no doubt STA’s smoother, firmer, sometimes banked trails are better than any bandit trail.
In the marketplace of riding attractions, they are a better deal, and now attract the majority of riders. They are also busier and faster, which state biologists fear increases the odds of getting inside a bear’s confrontation zone. The data to support that conclusion is, however, limited.
The one thing is clear is that trails in the park aren’t going away.
“It’s really easy for anyone to building a renegade trail through the woods,” Bolling said, and many do.
Most of the trails attract cyclists, hikers and dog walkers. Most of the trails also attract bears. The most amazing thing might not be the few maulings over the past several year mentioned by Farley but the fact there haven’t been more.