It should come as no surprise that the kerfuffle over mountain bikes on the East Coast Trail is only a microcosm of a much larger debate.
For the past couple of weeks, mountain bikers and hikers have been squaring off over the question of allowing bikes on the East Coast Trail. The association that oversees the trail is dead set against it; a local tour operator decided to arrange some tours anyway.
This week, the provincial Department of Tourism came down firmly on the side of hikers, assuring the East Coast Trail Association that it considers the trail a pedestrian-only zone.
Without clear legislation, however, there’s technically nothing to stop bikers from rolling along the coastal route. And judging from events on the opposite side of North America, the debate is not likely to go away any time soon.
In December 2013, the U.S. Forestry Service issued a letter to a lobby group stating it will not lift its ban on bicycles on the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT). The trail is more than 4,000 miles long, stretching from the Canadian border in Washington to the Mexican border with California. Bikes have been banned since 1988.
The pressure to open trails has been intense, and comes primarily with a recent boom in mountain biking activity. It’s estimated there are as many as 45 million mountain bikers in the U.S. alone, although estimates vary widely. A Corporate Research Associates market profile puts the number in Canada much lower, at about one million.
But the Internet is rife with debate as more and more recreational biking groups try to horn in on designated pedestrian walkways.
The arguments are fairly consistent across the board.
Mountain bikers insist they don’t damage trails any more than hikers.
That they’re all nature lovers and that they’re all respectful. And that no one owns the trails anyway.
Hikers, on the other hand, point to the decidedly different atmosphere that biking brings to a wilderness adventure. Tensions rise when bikers, some of them loudly vocalizing their excitement, come barrelling down a hill or whipping around a corner.
There is a physical danger, of course, though that’s not the main concern. You’re more likely to injure your ankle on a rock than get sideswiped by a rogue handlebar.
But the experiences are different, and in many ways incompatible on a narrow trail that winds across rugged terrain, with numerous pinchpoints along the way.
And that’s exactly why bikes are still banned on the Pacific Crest Trail.
“When you start changing things a little bit, you get a slippery slope of changing the trail experience,” PCT spokeswoman Beth Boyst told Lake Tahoe News last year.
Surprisingly, the PCT does permit equestrian use. But that’s a horse of a different colour.