Editor's note: Tony Brown's bicycling column appears twice a month in the Outdoors Weekend section.
In Minnetonka, one of the best ways to sour a conversation these days is to mention the phrases “mountain bikes” and “Lone Lake Park” in close succession.
In California, Oregon, Colorado and British Columbia, prosecutors have been arresting hikers who allegedly laid hidden traps and obstacles on forest paths newly opened to people on mountain bikes.
In Congress, the Senate and House are in their third year arguing about the proposed introduction of mountain bikes in paths through federally designated wilderness areas, including some potentially bikeable trails in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area.
What all these instances have in common is: profoundly awkward discourtesies among usually unified outdoorsy people and someone’s fanciful belief that hikers and bikers don’t mind each other’s company in the woods and on the prairies.
These proposals persist because the nation, and especially Minnesota, are wild for off-road cycling, and trails for these bikers are in short supply. Americans, in fact, now buy more mountain bikes than road bikes. The Minnesota High School Cycling League this year alone has more than 1,500 students in seventh through 12th grade whooshing through the woods in mass meets.
So we have the unpleasantness in Minnetonka, the focus of which this month moved from the council chambers to state courts. It is about a city proposal to add 5 miles of mountain biking trails in Lone Lake Park, whose 146 acres include wetlands, forests and a lot of people who watch birds and walk their dogs. The city’s leadership has been saying, after lengthy study, that Lone Lake is the best place to accommodate the clamor for off-road biking; a considerable opposition has been saying, if so, then Lone Lake is just the best of bad options.
The official debate, in the city’s site plan and now in court, has focused on the environmental impact of the bike trails. The city has pledged to create and maintain trails that control erosion and minimize impact on the character of the park; opponents want a deeper environmental review because the proposed trails appear to significantly threaten vegetation and wildlife, notably the endangered rusty patched bumblebee, which has been seen in the park.
These are reasoned views that also miss a larger point. Even on beautiful, erosion-free paths, scores of newly arrived mountain bikers will not exactly tiptoe into the park. And, speaking of environmental impact, ask all the critters in Lone Lake what they think of all the labs, beagles, poodles and terriers they flee from every day.
The larger point is that the mechanical wonder that is the modern mountain bike, no matter how much fun, does not play well with others. Again and again across the country it’s been clear that mountain bikes do not share chunks of the outdoors so much as dominate them. Those are the common fears in the scores of public comments in hearings and on the city’s website.
Picture it: Lone Lake Park is one fifth the size of Theodore Wirth Park, or maybe four times the footprint of U.S. Bank Stadium. Can the city of Minnetonka wedge 5 miles of mountain bike trails within that space and still claim (as it does in its official Lone Lake concept plan) that the trails will “minimally disturb other park users, (and) coexist with the natural environment”?
That said, Minnetonka is only arguing with itself these days because the city recognized an opportunity to serve fun, healthy interests among its constituents and moved aggressively to meet them. Forward-thinking local government in action.
But it does make one wonder if, early in that process, someone would have noticed all the years of conflict and wasted time and money when, in some instances, mountain bikes have been diverted into otherwise occupied trails and parks. And what if, for example, someone had suggested that the proposed $188,000 budget for the Lone Lake project be used to, say, create a partnership with the 27,000-acre Three Rivers Park District, which just completed a lovely 13.25-mile single-track mountain biking trail at nearby Lake Rebecca, and whose Baker Park Reserve (just north of Lake Minnetonka) is working, conveniently, on a new master plan for the next 10 years.
Or some other idea that recognized the essential conflict when people on foot and people on bikes bump into each other. A lot of us are waiting — helmets on — for that better idea to arrive.
After a recent discussion here of potential bike-friendly laws and infrastructure on the horizon, former state legislator and current bicyclist Phyllis Kahn, of Minneapolis, wrote with a remembrance of the last time she proposed the so-called “Idaho law” for Minnesota. Her proposoal would have allowed people on bikes to legally treat stop signs as yield signs. The idea, according to Kahn, was “solidly ridiculed” at the Capitol.
But in her research, Kahn wrote, the Idaho law “works fine. Check it out.”
Checked out: According to an analysis by Jason N. Meggs of the University of California, Berkeley, (“Compounded Public Cobenefits of the Idaho Law Relaxing Stop Requirements for Cycling”) cities in Idaho were 30.4 percent safer than comparable cities in states that lacked the law, and overall in Idaho bicycle injuries declined 14.5 percent in the year after the law was enacted in 1982.
Tony Brown is a freelance writer from Minneapolis. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. See an archive of his columns at startribune.com/bikeguy.