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More public resources or pay to play?

The costs of modern mountain biking

“I don’t want taxpayers to foot the bill for my hobby.” A mountain biker blogpost

Some people who ride off-road bikes take to the trails in ways that respect the environment and other users. But larger factors are at play in modern mountain biking. A growing industry and its supporters glorify high-risk, environmentally impactful riding practices in order to sell bikes. Increasingly they seek to obtain public trails for bikers’ exclusive use.

A blurry first person view of mountain biking at high speed.

An extreme sport is defined as one involving a high level of exertion and skill, high risk of injury or death, and an adrenaline rush. Such sports often require specialized skills, expensive gear and exclusive locations. Mountain biking necessitates all of these. For dedicated riders, financial outlays can reach $10,000. An ambitious industry has developed to capitalize on this market.

Mountain biking depends heavily on predictable, free access to trails in parks and other public or private land.

Mountain bikers say they assume the risks of their sport. But we all assume some costs.

Privatizing public resources

Mountain biking depends heavily on predictable, free access to trails in parks and other public or private land. Therein lies a problem. Mountain biking causes environmental damage, is often incompatible with other user groups and leads to continuing pressure for more trails with special features like jumps. But, according to, a mountain biking website, the full-throttle style of biking portrayed in industry videos belongs not on public lands but in private dedicated parks.

Costs to the environment

A 2010 literature review by Miistakis Institute concluded that while all forms of recreational use negatively affect the environment, mountain biking has some unique impacts. The extent of damage depends on trail design and site conditions (e.g., one with a rainy season), is greatest during trail-building and contingent on riding style. Mountain bikes’ fat, knobby tires damage tree roots, widen and erode trails, compact soil, damage vegetation and increase run-off. Beginning bikers do the most damage. Bikers’ speed is likely to startle wildlife and disrupt habitat. Some mountain bikers engage in illegal trail-building.

Kaiser Woods, where Olympia Parks and Recreation Department (OPARD) is proposing a mountain bike park, has bird habitat unique in Olympia, according to local birder Bill Tweit. Birders identified 51 bird species in a few weeks, and expect to spot many more. The park serves as part of a wildlife corridor for elk, deer, bear, mink and other mammals. The site’s wetlands and seasonal streams are especially important for reptiles and amphibians. Wildlife biologists believe an endangered species—the Oregon spotted frog—inhabits the park.

An industry seeking to expand

Manufacturers of mountain bikes and associated gear utilize many strategies to grow their market. In addition to selling products, they sponsor mountain biking groups that seek to convert natural spaces like Kaiser Woods into regional and national draws for races, bike camps and other money-making events.

Bike companies also offer grants and programs to introduce children to the sport—and obtain more trails. The program Riding for Focus, now in 132 US schools, claims that mountain biking improves students’ academic performance. In Hood River, Oregon, three mountain-biking middle school teachers procured a company grant for 30 bikes and helmets, a curriculum and teacher training. A local builder will be paid to design the trail and volunteers will build 1.5 miles of trails, available to the public.

From backcountry to city parks

The federal Wilderness Act prohibits bikes, but in 2015 the Sustainable Trails Coalition was created with the goal of modifying existing legislation and giving land managers more flexibility to manage trails in designated wilderness areas. The 108 million acres of protected lands, including the Pacific Coast Trail, now are targeted for mountain biking. The biking industry also is lobbying Congress for electric bikes to be allowed in national parks. E-bikes move faster, cover more ground and increase trail damage.

Washington’s largest biking advocacy organization, Seattle-based Evergreen Mountain Bike Alliance (EMBA) started in 1989 as the “Backcountry Bicycle Trails Club.” According to its website, EMBA seeks 100 miles of new trails and five new bike parks in Washington by 2020.

An OPARD official asserts that Olympia mountain bikers are tired of driving 10 miles to Capitol Forest, with 166 miles of dedicated trails they helped create. They also have access to trails at all skill levels on 800 acres of Manke Timber lands adjacent to Kaiser Woods.

OPARD has identified three other Olympia parks—Watershed Park, LBA Woods and Karen Fraser Trails—as feasible sites for mountain biking.

Social and financial impacts on society

Society also incurs indirect financial costs that are associated with mountain biking injuries. The International Mountain Biking Association warns the sport is inherently dangerous. A National Institute of Health report states that mountain biking poses a significant risk of life-threatening injury across all skill levels of participation.

A study published in the journal Wilderness and Environmental Medicine recorded approximately 2,000 injuries to 900 riders in a five month season at Whistler, BC. Just over 12% of injuries recorded in the study included broken bones, concussions, internal bleeding, organ damage and quadriplegia. Dr. Annie Gareau, co-author of the study, said a general rule of thumb is that “one in 1,000 skiers is injured, one in 100 snowboarders, and one in 10 downhill cyclists.”

The most frequent injuries are head injuries and brain trauma. Beginning bikers are most likely to be injured; some have been killed. A closely-supervised twelve-year-old at a beginner bike park–wearing a helmet and riding on a gentle, gravel slope–fell and died. Accidental injuries are now the leading cause of death among children, worldwide, according to a recent report by the World Health Organization.

Public land entities gain some immunity from lawsuits by posting enter-at-your-own-risk signs at parks. But lawsuits happen anyway and cost taxpayers money—win or lose. The children of a mountain biker, who fell and died after hitting a pothole on a gravel road, successfully sued the state of New York for $2.2 million.

The high cost of a search and rescue for an injured biker depletes resources of local emergency responders.

Tax-exempt status of some biking advocacy organizations like EMBA also imposes costs. Contributions to the organization are tax-deductible—resulting in lost tax revenues. EMBA charges to build trails and for bike camps, and relies heavily on volunteer labor. They lobby public officials to acquire more trails. Last year, EMBA reported nearly $700,000 in assets, 75% of which they must funnel back into their organization and membership—a threshold it did not reach for 2014-16.

Pay to play

Many extreme athletes—mountain-climbers, windsurfers, skiers—have to drive long distances to enjoy their sport. Some pay fees to use exclusive recreational sites. Some ski resorts now offer mountain biking during their off season, for a day-use fee.

Development of Kaiser Woods as a mountain bike park would provide bikers with a free in-town workout spot and practice area to improve their skills in anticipation of traveling to other larger parks in Tacoma, Issaquah and elsewhere. Such development would mean that residents living adjacent to the park would have their property values lowered and their long-time access to Kaiser Woods as a multi-use park foreclosed to them—and all Olympia citizens.

That some bikers are tired of driving ten miles to practice their sport doesn’t justify turning most of an Olympia park over to them to ride–and to a state-wide organization (EMBA) to design, build and manage. In order to obtain predictable trails, mountain biking organizations may need to persuade their corporate sponsors to procure use of private facilities for bikers, rather than seek near-exclusive use of more city-owned parks.

Like some other extreme athletes, mountain bikers may have to pay to play.

For more details about Kaiser Woods Park planning and a link to a petition, visit

Evonne Hedgepeth is a psychologist and health educator, widow of Andy McMillan, the wetlands biologist who led the fight to defeat developments at Kaiser Woods from 2006-2012.


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