Finding Solutions and Improving Mountain Biking in the Ware Watershed

Friday, October 3, 2014

On September 25th, 2014 Director Jonathan Yeo of the DCR Department of Water Supply Protection and some of his staff met with members of Wachusett Chapter of the New England Mountain Bike Association (NEMBA) and NEMBA staffers, Philip Keyes and Bill Boles, to discuss recreational issues facing the Ware River Watershed.  Also in attendance was Dick O’Brien, chair of the Massachusetts Recreational Trails Advisory Board (MARTAB). Mr. Yeo expressed serious concerns over the presence of mountain bikes on non-designated trails as well as the creation of additional unauthorized trails.

Currently, the Ware River Watershed is home to many singletrack trails adding up to at least 20 total miles. However, only three of those trails (the Midstate Trail and two trails dedicated to horseback riding) are recognized by the DWSP. For the last 30 years, residents have been mountain biking on this trail network without realizing this activity has always been banned. Bicycling is only allowed on roads and rail trails. Hikers, on the other hand, are permitted to walk anywhere they choose throughout the Ware River Watershed regardless of the presence of a trail.

NEMBA offered to provide solutions to curb unauthorized trail building and riding by working with the agency to create a legitimate and sustainable trail system for mountain biking, hiking, trail running and XC skiing, but this offer was firmly declined by Director Yeo. Instead, the Division says that it plans to dismantle all unauthorized trails and increase enforcement of the bicycle ban. NEMBA feels that the best course of action here would be to recognize bicycles as a valid trail user and work with, rather than against, those aligned with the agency's mission of maintaining the highest possible water quality. The presence or absence of bicycles on trails has not impacted water quality in the past 30 years and, with sustainably designed trails, would not do so in the future either.

NEMBA believes that the DCR DWSP should allow trail based recreational opportunities for all non-motorized recreation. Existing trails should be reviewed for environmental sustainability and passive recreation (which includes mountain biking) should be promoted and pro-actively managed in cooperation with dedicated user/service groups such as NEMBA. The 25,000 acre Watershed is critical habitat for the water supply of 2.5 million ratepayers, primarily in Greater Boston, but it is also an important open space that should offer meaningful public benefit to all tax-payers, and especially for the communities in which the watershed is situated.

Mountain biking and hiking have similar environmental impacts and should be managed together. There are numerous studies attesting to the similarity of physical impact between hiking and biking -- and there are no studies which state that hiking has no impact or that the impacts of mountain biking are dramatically different than hiking. The recreational analysis done by DCR in the Resource Management Plan (RMP) for the Middlesex Fells Reservation states that "with respect to these two recreational impacts, these two recreational uses have similar impacts and should be evaluated similarly."

NEMBA believes that providing singletrack opportunities for mountain biking would be beneficial to the local communities who are looking for places to recreate. The current policy unjustly excludes mountain biking on trails as a legitimate activity in the watershed, and the lack of authorized trails for hiking and mountain biking have created a recreational vacuum that is currently being fulfilled by creating unauthorized trails. We feel strongly that by working with NEMBA and our dedicated volunteer base, DWSP can actually improve Ware Watershed water quality further by fixing or closing current unsustainable trails and providing new trails that are properly designed and built away from sensitive areas.

Finally, State Representative Anne Gobi met with NEMBA representatives on October 2, 2014 and offered her full support for NEMBA's efforts. We look forward to working together with our elected officials as we improve the situation we currently face in the Watershed.

NEMBA asks the mountain bike community surrounding the Ware watershed to respect the current regulations and on only ride on trails where bicycling is allowed.