Mountain bikers from within or outside this province don’t need the consent of the East Coast Trail Association (ECTA) to use the hundreds of kilometres of coastline trails the group maintains.
ECTA president Randy Murphy found that out recently when a company offered a tour along what has generally been considered a hiking trail.
On Monday, The Telegram broke a story about mountain bike tours being given along portions of the East Coast Trail (ECT) without the ECTA’s consent by Sacred Rides, a company out of Ontario.
Last December, Murphy says, the ECTA was asked by the Department of Tourism, Culture and Recreation how it felt about opening the trail up to mountain bikers in the upcoming summer.
Murphy says the ECTA told the government that the trail was built with hikers in mind and shared use with bikers couldn’t be accommodated.
“They said to us at the time that they would meet with the tour company and make sure it’s not scheduled and that they would not be proceeding without an agreement with the ECTA. We thought it was all settled,” says Murphy.
In February, the ECTA met with Ken Sooley, who owns CapeRace Cultural Adventures and is the franchise owner of Sacred Rides. He’s managing the bikers on tour on the ECT this summer.
When Sooley brought forward his proposal to start bike tours on the ECT for the summer, Murphy declined, but said he would bring his requests to the ECTA board on March 18 for future consideration.
Before that meeting happened, Murphy says, he saw ads on the Sacred Rides website for tours along the ECT during the summer. What he didn’t know at the time was the Department of Tourism had brought Mike Brcic — the owner of Sacred Rides in Ontario — down to discuss mountain bike tours on the ECT.
On June 30 the Department of Tourism informed Murphy that the licence of the ECTA gave the group the right to build a pedestrian trail, but not the right to refuse mountain bike access.
Furthermore, there is no legislation or policy that would allow the government to refuse the bikers use of the trail.
But it does spark the question of whether the ECTA should want to refuse bikers from using the trail, and whether hikers should strike down the possibility of a shared-use trail.
Shared-use trails between mountain bikers and hikers are not only possible, but work remarkably well and are already in existence in this province, says Chris Jerrett, an avid mountain biker and owner of Freeride Mountain Sports.
“We’re cordial trail users. We’re respectful of the environment and the trail, just like any other user,” says Jerrett.
He has a long list of places he’s visited in Canada and the U.S. that prove it’s possible for hikers and bikers to coexist, but he says there’s no need to go that far at all.
“Pippy Park. You want to see shared-use trails, they’re only five kilometres away here,” he says.
Shared-use trails also exist in the jewel of Newfoundland’s west coast.
“Parks Canada three years ago opened up several sections of the Gros Morne trails, which are pristine, beautiful trails, to mountain biking,” Jerrett says. “So when an organization — you could call Parks Canada a conservative organization — sees the need to open up 30 or 40 kilometres of trails to shared use, that’s kind of an eye opener.”
There doesn’t need to be any “us versus them” when it comes to the trail use, he adds.
As far as safety goes, the ECT is very technical for a biker, he says. Non-bikers probably can’t even understand how people could bike them, because they don’t get what type of mountain it is. There’s lots of climbing. As an advanced biker, he says he doesn’t go any faster than 7 or 8 km/h in the quicker parts. so it’s not a situation of barreling toward hikers.
There’s also the right of bikers to use the trails, he says.
“Some of these trails that we use that are currently under the management of the ECTA ... some of the sections are hundreds of years old. We should not be denied any access to that,” says Jerrett.
“We’re not opposed to change,” says Murphy, adding that there’s a lot to consider in the transition even if an agreement to make one was made.
Liability is a big consideration for the ECTA. When the trail was started in the 1990s, the understanding between landowners, towns and other Crown groups was that it was a pedestrian path, says Murphy. Their insurance is based on that understanding.
Jerrett sees the potential, though.
“We can sell our coastline through mountain biking effectively and have a unique product,” he says.
And he also agrees with a transition, with trail modification and maintenance that would make it appropriate for dual use. Bikers are interested in about 50 or 60 kilometres of the coastline trail.
“We’ve lost probably upwards of 50 per cent of our trail access due to development and the ECTA,” he says.
The Department of Tourism has asked the ECTA to meet with officials and the tour company to come to a resolution.
“This is great,” says Jerrett. “This is a big step forward. Hopefully, we can start working together and make things happen in a positive way for everybody. That’s really what we want to do.”
Murphy, meanwhile, is left with concerns about a too-quick a transition of the trail to shared use.
“We created it. We are the custodians of it. We have all the responsibility, but no authority.”