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Environmental Impacts of Mountain Biking: Science Review and Best Practices

By Jeff Marion and Jeremy Wimpey


This article was originally published in Managing Mountain Biking: IMBA's Guide to Providing Great Riding, a 256-page book produced by IMBA in 2007. The book offers an essential collection of best practices for planning, designing, and managing successful trail networks and parks. Managing Mountain Biking is a companion to IMBA's trailbuilding how-to book Trail Solutions.


Mountain biking is still a relatively new activity whose environmental impact and contribution to trail degradation is poorly understood. As with all recreational pursuits, it is clear that mountain biking contributes some degree of environmental degradation. In the absence of adequate research, land and trail managers have frequently been cautious, implementing restrictive regulations in some instances (Edger 1997). Surveys of managers have shown that they frequently perceive mountain biking to be a substantial contributor to trail degradation but lack scientific studies or monitoring data to substantiate such concerns (Chavez and others 1993; Schuett 1997). In recent years, however, a small number of studies have been conducted that help clarify the environmental impacts associated with mountain biking. This article describes the general impacts associated with recreational uses of natural surface trails, with a focus on those studies that have examined mountain biking impacts.

Trails are generally regarded as essential facilities in parks and forests. They provide access to remote areas, accommodate a diverse array of recreational activities, and protect resources by concentrating visitor trampling on narrow and resistant tread surfaces. Formal or designated trails are generally designed and constructed, which involves vegetation removal and soil excavation. These changes may be considered "unavoidable," in contrast to "avoidable" post-construction degradation from their subsequent use (e.g., trail widening, erosion, muddiness), or from the development and degradation of informal visitor-created trails.

Common environmental impacts associated with recreational use of trails include:

  • Vegetation loss and compositional changes
  • Soil compaction
  • Erosion
  • Muddiness
  • Degraded water quality
  • Disruption of wildlife

This article is organized into four broad categories: impacts to vegetation, soil, water, and wildlife.

Impacts to Vegetation: General Research

On formal trails, most vegetation is typically removed by construction, maintenance, and visitor use. This impact is necessary and "unavoidable" in order to provide a clear route for trail users. One goal of trail construction and maintenance is to provide a trail only wide enough to accommodate the intended use. Trails made wider than this through visitor use or erosion represent a form of "avoidable" impact. For example, a doubling of trail width represents a doubling of the area of intensive trampling disturbance. Wider trails also expose substantially greater amounts of soil to erosion by wind or water.

The creation and maintenance of trail corridors also removes shrubs and trees, allowing greater sunlight exposure that favors a different set of groundcover plants within trail corridors. Occasional trailside trampling within trail corridors also favors the replacement of fragile plants with those more resistant to trampling traffic. For example, shade-tolerant but fragile broadleaved herbs are frequently replaced by grasses and sedges that are trampling-resistant and require more sunlight to survive. Trail construction, use, and maintenance can also be harmful when trails divide sensitive or rare plant communities.

Trampling - the action of crushing or treading upon vegetation, either by foot, hoof, or tire - contributes to a wide range of vegetation impacts, including damage to plant leaves, stems, and roots, reduction in vegetation height, change in the composition of species, and loss of plants and vegetative cover (Leung & Marion, 1996; Thurston & Reader, 2001). Trampling associated with "avoidable" off-trail traffic can quickly break down vegetation cover and create a visible route that attracts additional use. Complete loss of vegetation cover occurs quickly in shady forested areas, less quickly in open areas with resistant grassy vegetation. Regardless, studies have consistently revealed that most impact occurs with initial or low use, with a diminishing increase in impact associated with increasing levels of traffic (Hammit & Cole, 1998; Leung & Marion, 1996). Furthermore, once trampling occurs, vegetative recovery is a very slow process.

Compositional changes in the vegetation along trail corridors can have both beneficial and adverse effects. Trampling-resistant plants provide a durable groundcover that reduces soil loss by wind and water runoff, and root systems that stabilize soils against displacement by heavy traffic. The ecological impacts of such compositional changes are not fully known, except when non-native vegetation is introduced to and spreads along trail corridors. Many of these species are disturbance-associated and are naturally limited to areas where the vegetation is routinely trampled or cut back. However, a few non-native species, once introduced to trail corridors, are able to out-compete native plants and spread away from the trail corridor in undisturbed habitats. Some of these species form dense cover that crowd out or displace native plants. These "invasive" species are particularly undesirable and land managers actively seek to prevent their introduction and spread. Unfortunately their removal is difficult and expensive.

Impacts to Vegetation: Mountain Biking-Specific Research

Only one study found specifically addresses the vegetation impacts associated with mountain biking. Thurston and Reader (2001) conducted an experimental trampling study involving mountain bikers and hikers in Boyne Valley Provincial Park of Ontario, Canada. The researchers measured plant density (number of stems/area), diversity (number of species present), and soil exposure (area of mineral soil exposed) before and after 500 one-way passes by bikers and hikers.

Data analysis and statistical testing revealed that the impacts of hiking and biking were not significantly different for the three indicators measured. They also concluded that impacts from both hikers and bikers were spatially confined to the centerline of the lane (trail).

Impacts to Vegetation: Management Implications

Trail managers can either avoid or minimize impacts to vegetation through careful trail design, construction, maintenance, and management of visitor use. Here are some recommendations to reduce vegetation impacts:

  • Design trails that provide the experience that trail users seek to reduce their desire to venture off-trail.
  • Locate trails away from rare plants and animals and from sensitive or critical habitats of other species. Involve resource professionals in designing and approving new trail alignments.
  • Keep trails narrow to reduce the total area of intensive tread disturbance, slow trail users, and minimize vegetation and soil impacts.
  • Limit vegetation disturbance outside the corridor when constructing trails. Hand construction is least disruptive; mechanized construction with small equipment is less disruptive than full-sized equipment; skilled operators do less damage than those with limited experience.
  • Locate trails on side-hills where possible. Constructing a side-hill trail requires greater initial vegetation and soil disturbance but sloping topography above and below the trail bench will clearly define the tread and concentrate traffic on it. Trails in flatter terrain or along the fall line may involve less initial disturbance but allow excessive future tread widening and off-tread trampling, which favor non-native plants.
  • Use construction techniques that save and redistribute topsoil and excavated plants.

There are also important considerations for maintaining and managing trails to avoid unnecessary ongoing impacts to vegetation:

  • While it is necessary to keep the trail corridor free of obstructing vegetation, such work should seek to avoid "day-lighting" the trail corridor when possible. Excessive opening of the overstory allows greater sunlight penetration that permits greater vegetation compositional change and colonization by non-native plants.
  • An active maintenance program that removes tree falls and maintains a stable and predictable tread also encourages visitors to remain on the intended narrow tread. A variety of maintenance actions can discourage trail widening, such as only cutting a narrow section out of trees that fall across the trail, limiting the width of vegetation trimming, and defining trail borders with logs, rocks, or other objects that won't impede drainage.
  • Use education to discourage off-trail travel, which can quickly lead to the establishment of informal visitor-created trails that unnecessarily remove vegetation cover and spread non-native plants. Such routes often degrade rapidly and are abandoned in favor of adjacent new routes, which unnecessarily magnify the extent and severity of trampling damage.
  • Educate visitors to be aware of their ability to carry non-native plant seeds on their bikes or clothing, and encourage them to remove seeds by washing mud from bikes, tires, shoes, and clothing. Preventing the introduction of non-natives is key, as their subsequent removal is difficult and costly.
  • Educate visitors about low impact riding practices, such as those contained in the IMBA-approved Leave No Trace Skills & Ethics: Mountain Biking booklet (www.LNT.org).

For further reading see: Cessford 1995; Gruttz and Hollingshead 1995; Thurston and Reader 200l.

Impacts to Soils: General Research

The creation and use of trails also results in soil disturbance. Some loss of soil may be considered an acceptable and unavoidable form of impact on trails. As with vegetation loss, much soil disturbance occurs in the initial construction and use of the trail. During trail construction, surface organic materials (e.g., twigs, leaves, and needles) and organic soils are removed from treads; trails built on sidehill locations require even more extensive excavation. In addition, the underlying mineral soils are compacted during construction and initial use to form a durable tread substrate that supports trail traffic.

In contrast, post-construction soil displacement, erosion, and muddiness represent core forms of avoidable trail impact that require sustained management attention to avoid long-lasting resource degradation. This degradation can reduce the utility of trails as recreation facilities and diminish the quality of visitor experiences. For example, soil erosion exposes rocks and plant roots, creating a rutted and uneven tread surface. Erosion can also be self-perpetuating when treads erode below the surrounding soil level, hindering efforts to divert water from the trail and causing accelerated erosion and muddiness. Similarly, excessive muddiness renders trails less usable and aggravates tread widening and associated vegetation loss as visitors seek to circumvent mud holes and wet soils (Marion, 2006).

Research has shown that visitors notice obvious forms of trail impact, such as excessive muddiness and eroded ruts and tree roots, and that such impacts can degrade the quality of visitor experiences (Roggenbuck and others., 1993; Vaske and others., 1993). Such conditions also increase the difficulty of travel and may threaten visitor safety. Remedying these soil impacts can also require substantial rehabilitation costs. Clearly, one primary trail management objective should be the prevention of excessive soil impacts. Let's examine four common forms of soil impact in greater detail:

The Four Common Forms of Soil Degradation on Trails:

  • Compaction
  • Muddiness
  • Displacement
  • Erosion

Compaction: Soil compaction is caused by the weight of trail users and their equipment, which passes through feet, hooves, or tires to the tread surface.

Compacted soils are denser and less permeable to water, which increases water runoff. However, compacted soils also resist erosion and soil displacement and provide durable treads that support traffic. From this perspective, soil compaction is considered beneficial, and it is an unavoidable form of trail impact. Furthermore, a primary resource protection goal is to limit trailside impacts by concentrating traffic on a narrow tread. Success in achieving this objective will necessarily result in higher levels of soil compaction.

The process of compacting the soil can present a difficult challenge, especially on new trails. Unless soils are mechanically compacted during tread construction, initial use compacts the portions of the tread that receive the greatest traffic, generally the center. The associated lowering of the tread surface creates a cupped cross-section that intercepts and collects surface water. In flat terrain this water can pool or form muddy sections; in sloping terrain the water is channeled down the trail, gaining in volume, speed, and erosive potential.

Displacement: Trail users can also push soil laterally, causing displacement and development of ruts, berms, or cupped treads. Soil displacement is particularly evident when soils are damp or loose and when users are moving at higher rates of speed, turning, braking, or other movements that create more lateral force. Soil can also be caught in hooves, footwear, or tire treads, flicked to the side or carried some distance and dropped. Regardless of the mechanism, soil is generally displaced from the tread center to the sides, elevating inslopes or berms, and compounding drainage problems.

Muddiness: When trails are located in areas of poor drainage or across highly organic soils that hold moisture, tread muddiness can become a persistent problem. Muddiness is most commonly associated with locations where water flows across or becomes trapped within flat or low-lying areas. Soil compaction, displacement, and erosion can exacerbate or create problems with muddiness by causing cupped treads that collect water during rainfall or snowmelt. Thus, muddiness can occur even along trails where there is sufficient natural drainage. Subsequent traffic skirts these problem spots, compacting soils along the edges, widening mud holes and tread width, and sometimes creating braided trails that circumvent muddy sections.

Erosion: Soil erosion is an indirect and largely avoidable impact of trails and trail use. Soil can be eroded by wind, but generally, erosion is caused by flowing water. To avoid erosion, sustainable trails are generally constructed with a slightly crowned (flat terrain) or outsloped (sloping terrain) tread. However, subsequent use compacts and/or displaces soils over time to create a cupped or insloped tread surface that intercepts and carries water. The concentrated run-off picks up and carries soil particles downhill, eroding the tread surface.

Loose, uncompacted soil particles are most prone to soil erosion, so trail uses that loosen or detach soils contribute to higher erosion rates. Erosion potential is closely related to trail grade because water becomes substantially more erosive with increasing slope. The size of the watershed draining to a section of trail is also influential - larger volumes of water are substantially more erosive.

Water and the sediment it carries will continue down the trail until a natural or constructed feature diverts it off the tread. Such features include a natural or constructed reversal in grade, an outsloped tread, rocks or tree roots, or a constructed drainage dip or water bar. Once the water slows, it drops its sediment load, filling in tread drainage features and causing them to fail if not periodically maintained. Sediment can also be carried directly into watercourses, creating secondary impacts to aquatic systems. Properly designed drainage features are designed to divert water from the trail at a speed sufficient to carry the sediment load well below the tread, where vegetation and organic litter can filter out sediments. A well-designed trail should have little to no cumulative soil loss, for example, less than an average of one-quarter inch (6.3 mm) per year.

Impacts to Soils: Mountain Biking-Specific Research

Several studies have evaluated the soil impacts of mountain biking.

Wilson and Seney (1994) evaluated tread erosion from horses, hikers, mountain bikes, and motorcycles on two trails in the Gallatin National Forest, Montana. They applied one hundred passes of each use-type on four sets of 12 trail segments, followed by simulated rainfalls and collection of water runoff to assess sediment yield at the base of each segment. Control sites that received no passes were also assessed for comparison. Results indicated that horses made significantly more sediment available for erosion than the other uses, which did not significantly vary from the control sites. Traffic on pre-wetted soils generated significantly greater amounts of soil runoff than on dry soils for all uses.

Marion (2006) studied 78 miles (125 km) of trail (47 segments) in the Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area, Tennessee and Kentucky, measuring soil loss along transects across the trail to evaluate the influence of use-related, environmental, and management factors. Sidehill-aligned trails were significantly less eroded than trails in valley bottom positions, in part due to the influence of periodic floods. Trail grade and trail alignment angle were also significant predictors of tread erosion. Erosion rates on trails with 0-6 percent and 7-15 percent grades were similar, while erosion on trails with grades greater than 16 percent were significantly higher. And there was significantly greater erosion on fall line trails (alignment angles of 0-22 degrees) than those with alignments closer to the contour.

This study also provided an opportunity to examine the relative contribution of different use types, including horse, hiking, mountain biking, and ATV. Trails predominantly used for mountain biking had the least erosion of the use types investigated. Computed estimates of soil loss per mile of trail also revealed the mountain biking trails to have the lowest soil loss.

White and others (2006) also examined trails predominantly used for mountain biking in five ecological regions of the Southwest along 163 miles (262 km) of trail. Two trail condition indicators, tread width and maximum incision, were assessed at each sample point. Results show that erosion and tread width on these trails differed little in comparison to other shared-use trails that receive little or no mountain biking.

Goeft and Alder (2001) evaluated the resource impacts of mountain biking on a recreational trail and racing track in Australia over a 12-month period. A variety of trail condition indicators were assessed on new and older trail segments with uphill, downhill, and flat trail sections. Results found that trail slope, age, and time were significant erosion factors, and that downhill slopes and curves were the most susceptible to erosion. New trails experienced greater amounts of soil compaction but all trails exhibited both compaction and loosening of soils over time. The width of the recreational trail varied over time, with no consistent trend, while the width of the racing trail grew following events but exhibited net recovery over time. Impacts were confined to the trail tread, with minimal disturbance of trailside vegetation.

Bjorkman (1996) evaluated two new mountain biking trails in Wisconsin before and for several years after they were opened to use. Vegetation cover within the tread that survived trail construction work declined with increasing use to negligible levels while trailside vegetation remained constant or increased in areas damaged by construction work. Similarly, soil compaction within the tread rose steadily while compaction of trailside soils remained constant. Vegetation and soil impacts occurred predominantly during the first year of use with minor changes thereafter.

Wohrstein (1998) evaluated the impacts from a World Championship mountain biking race with 870 participants and 80,000 spectators. Erosion was found only on intensively used racing trails in steep terrain where alignments allowed higher water runoff. The mountain biking routes exhibited higher levels of compaction but to a shallower depth in comparison to the spectator areas, where compaction was lower but deeper.

Cessford (1995) provides a comprehensive, though dated, summary of trail impacts with a focus on mountain biking. Of particular interest is his summary of the two types of forces exerted by bike tires on soil surfaces: The downward compaction force from the weight of the rider and bike, and the rotational shearing force from the turning rear wheel. Mountain bikers generate the greatest torque, with potential tread abrasion due to slippage, during uphill travel. However, the torque possible from muscle power is far less than that from a motorcycle, so wheel slippage and abrasion occur only on wet or loose surfaces. Tread impact associated with downhill travel is generally minimal due to the lack of torque and lower ground pressures. Exceptions include when riders brake hard enough to cause skidding, which displaces soil downslope, or bank at higher speeds around turns, which displaces soil to the outside of the turn. Impacts in flatter terrain are also generally minimal, except when soils are wet or uncompacted and rutting occurs.

Impacts to Soils: Management Implications

Soil loss is among the most enduring forms of trail impact, and minimizing erosion and muddiness are the most important objectives for achieving a sustainable trail. Soil cannot easily be replaced on trails, and where soil disappears, it leaves ruts that make travel and water drainage more difficult, prompting further impacts, such as trail widening.

Existing studies indicate that mountain biking differs little from hiking in its contribution to soil impacts. Other factors, particularly trail grade, trail/slope alignment angle, soil type/wetness, and trail maintenance, are more influential determinants of tread erosion or wetness.

There are a number of tactics for avoiding the worst soil-related impacts to trails:

  • Discourage or prohibit off-trail travel. Informal trails created by off-trail travel frequently have steep grades and fall-line alignments that quickly erode, particularly in the absence of tread maintenance. Exceptions include areas of solid rock or non-vegetated cobble.
  • Design trails with sustainable grades and avoid fall-line alignments. (See p. 112 for more)
  • When possible, build trails in dry, cohesive soils that easily compact and contain a larger percentage of coarse material or rocks. These soils better resist erosion by wind and water or displacement by feet, hooves and tires.
  • Minimize tread muddiness by avoiding flat terrain, wet soils, and drainage-bottom locations.
  • Use grade reversals to remove water from trail treads. Grade reversals are permanent and sustainable - when designed into a trail's alignment they remain 100 percent effective and rarely require maintenance.

Other strategies are more temporary in nature and will require periodic maintenance to keep them effective:

  • While the use of a substantial outslope (e.g., 5 percent) helps remove water from treads, it is rarely a long-term solution. Tread cupping and berm development will generally occur within a few years after tread construction. If it is not possible to install additional grade reversals, reshape the tread to reestablish an outsloped tread surface periodically, and install wheel-friendly drainage dips or other drainage structures to help water flow off the trail.
  • If it is not possible to install proper drainage on a trail, consider rerouting trail sections that are most problematic, or possibly hardening the tread.
  • In flatter areas, elevate and crown treads to prevent muddiness, or add a gravel/soil mixture in low spots.

Finally, it is important to realize that visitor use of any type on trails when soils are wet contributes substantially greater soil impact than the same activities when soils are dry. Thus, discouraging or prohibiting the use of trails that are prone to muddiness during rainy seasons or snowmelt is another effective measure. Generally such use can be redirected to trails that have design or environmental attributes that allow them to better sustain wet season uses.

For additional information about minimizing soil impacts through trail design, construction, maintenance, and tread hardening, see Trail Solutions.

Impacts to Water Resources: General Research

Trails and their use can also affect water quality. Trail-related impacts to water resources can include the introduction of soils, nutrients, and pathogenic organisms (e.g., Giardia), and alter the patterns of surface water drainage. However, in practice, these impacts are avoidable, and properly designed and maintained trails should not degrade water quality. Unfortunately there is very little research to draw from on these topics, and none that is specific to mountain biking.

Poorly sited and/or maintained trails can be eroded by water, with tread sediments carried off by runoff. Generally, if water control features such as grade reversals and outsloped treads are used to divert runoff from trails, the water drops its sediment close to trails, where it is trapped and held by organic litter and vegetation. Soils eroded from trails rarely enter water bodies, unless trails cross streams or run close to stream or lake shorelines and lack adequate tread drainage features. Since many recreational activities, such as fishing, swimming, boating, and viewing scenery (e.g., waterfalls) draw visitors and trails to the vicinity of water resources, it is often necessary to route trails to water resources or visitors will simply create their own informal trails.

Trails that are close to water resources require special consideration in their design and management to prevent the introduction of suspended sediments into bodies of water. Eroded soil that enters water bodies increase water turbidity and cause sedimentation that can affect aquatic organisms (Fritz and others 1993). Trout and other fish lay their eggs in gravels on the bottom of streams and lakes, and sediments can smother those eggs, reducing reproductive success. Sedimentation can also hurt invertebrate organisms, which serve as food for fish and other creatures. In addition, some sediment may contain nutrients that can contribute to algal blooms that deplete the dissolved oxygen in water bodies when they die off.

Poorly designed trails can also alter hydrologic functions - for instance, trails can intercept and divert water from seeps or springs, which serve important ecological functions. In those situations, water can sometimes flow along the tread, leading to muddiness or erosion and, in the case of cupped and eroded treads, the water may flow some distance before it is diverted off the trail, changing the ecology of small wetland or riparian areas.

Trail users may also pollute water with pathogenic organisms, particularly those related to improperly disposed human waste. Potential pathogenic organisms found through surveys of backcountry water sources include Cryptosporidium spp., Giardia spp., and Campylobacter jejuni (LeChevallier and others, 1999; Suk and others, 1987; Taylor and others, 1983). This is rarely a significant concern where trail use is predominantly day-oriented, and waste issues can be avoided by installing toilet facilities or following Leave No Trace practices (i.e., digging cat-holes for waste away from water resources).

Impacts to Water Resources: Management Implications

The same trail design, construction, and maintenance measures that help minimize vegetation and soil impacts also apply to water. But there are also some additional efforts needed to protect water resources:

  • Trails should avoid close proximity to water resources. For example, it is better to build a trail on a sidehill along a lower valley wall than to align it through flat terrain along a stream edge, where trail runoff will drain directly into the stream.
  • It is best to minimize the number of stream crossings. Where crossings are necessary, scout the stream carefully to select the most resistant location for the crossing. Look for rocky banks and soils that provide durable surfaces.
  • Design water crossings so the trail descends into and climbs out of the steam crossing, preventing stream water from flowing down the trail.
  • Armor trails at stream crossings with rock, geotextiles, or gravel to prevent erosion.
  • Include grade reversals, regularly maintained outsloped treads, and/or drainage features to divert water off the trail near stream crossings. This prevents large volumes of water and sediment from flowing down the trail into the stream, and allows trailside organic litter, vegetation, and soils to slow and filter water.
  • On some heavily used trails, a bridge may be needed to provide a sustainable crossing.
  • Where permanent or intermittent stream channels cross trails, use wheel-friendly open rock culverts or properly sized buried drainage culverts to allow water to cross properly, without flowing down the trail.

Impacts to Wildlife: General Research

Trails and trail uses can also affect wildlife. Trails may degrade or fragment wildlife habitat, and can also alter the activities of nearby animals, causing avoidance behavior in some and food-related attraction behavior in others (Hellmund, 1998; Knight & Cole, 1991). While most forms of trail impact are limited to a narrow trail corridor, disturbance of wildlife can extend considerably further into natural landscapes (Kasworm & Monley, 1990; Tyser & Worley, 1992). Even very localized disturbance can harm rare or endangered species.

Different animals respond differently to the presence of trail users. Most wildlife species readily adapt or become "habituated" to consistent and non-threatening recreational activities. For example, animals may notice but not move away from humans on a frequently used trail. This is fortunate, as it can allow high quality wildlife viewing experiences for visitors and cause little or no impact to wildlife.

Other forms of habituation, however, are less desirable. Visitors who feed wildlife, intentionally or from dropped food, can contribute to the development of food-related attraction behavior that can turn wild animals and birds into beggars. In places where visitors stop to eat snacks or lunches, wildlife quickly learn to associate people with food, losing their innate fear of humans and returning frequently to beg, search for food scraps, or even raid unprotected packs containing food. Feeding wild creatures also endangers their health and well-being. For instance, after food-attracted deer in Grand Canyon National Park became sickly and dangerously aggressive, researchers found up to six pounds of plastic and foil wrappers obstructing intestinal passages of some individuals.

The opposite conduct in wildlife - avoidance behavior - can be equally problematic. Avoidance behavior is generally an innate response that is magnified by visitor behaviors perceived as threatening, such as loud sounds, off-trail travel, travel in the direction of wildlife, and sudden movements. When animals flee from disturbance by trail users, they often expend precious energy, which is particularly dangerous for them in winter months when food is scarce. When animals move away from a disturbance, they leave preferred or prime habitat and move, either permanently or temporarily, to secondary habitat that may not meet their needs for food, water, or cover. Visitors and land managers, however, are often unaware of such impacts, because animals often flee before humans are aware of the presence of wildlife.

Impacts to Wildlife: Mountain Biking-Specific Research

The impacts of mountain biking on wildlife are similar to those of hikers and other non motorized trail users.

Taylor and Knight (2003) investigated the interactions of wildlife and trail users (hikers and mountain bikers) at Antelope Island State Park in Utah. A hidden observer using an optical rangefinder recorded bison, mule deer, and pronghorn antelope response to an assistant who hiked or biked a section of trail. The observer then measured wildlife reactions, including alert distance, flight response, flight distance, distance fled, and distance from trail. Observations revealed that 70 percent of animals located within 330 feet (100 m) of a trail were likely to flee when a trail user passed, and that wildlife exhibited statistically similar responses to mountain biking and hiking. Wildlife reacted more strongly to off-trail recreationists, suggesting that visitors should stay on trails to reduce wildlife disturbance. While Taylor and Knight found no biological justification for managing mountain biking any differently than hiking, they note that bikers cover more ground in a given time period than hikers and thus can potentially disturb more wildlife per unit time.

This study also surveyed 640 hikers, mountain bikers, and horseback riders on the island to assess their perceptions of the effects of recreation on wildlife. Most respondents felt they could approach animals far closer than the flight distance suggested by the research, and 50 percent felt that recreational uses did not have a negative effect on wildlife.

Another study evaluated the behavioral responses of desert bighorn sheep to disturbance by hikers, mountain bikers, and vehicles in low- and high-use areas of Canyonlands National Park (Papouchis and others., 2001). Following observations of 1,029 bighorn sheep/human interactions, the authors reported that sheep fled 61 percent of the time from hikers, 17 percent of the time from vehicles, and 6 percent of the time from mountain bikers. The stronger reaction to hikers, particularly in the high-use area, was attributed to more off-trail hiking and direct approaches to the sheep. The researchers recommended that park officials restrict recreational uses to trails, particularly during the lambing and rut seasons, in order to minimize disturbance.

An experimental study in Switzerland evaluated the disturbance associated with hiking, jogging, and mountain biking on high elevation chamois, which are goat-like mammals found in the European mountains (Gander & Ingold 1997). The authors assessed alert distance, flight distance, and distance fled, and found that approximately 20 percent of the animals fled from trailside pastures in response to visitor intrusions. The authors found no statistically significant differences, however, between the behavioral responses of animals to the three different types of user, and authors concluded that restrictions on mountain biking above timberline would not be justified from the perspective of chamois disturbance.

A study of the Boise River in Idaho examined flushing distances of bald eagles when exposed to actual and simulated walkers, joggers, fishermen, bicyclists, and vehicles (Spahr 1990). The highest frequency of eagle flushing was associated with walkers (46 percent), followed by fishermen (34 percent), bicyclists (15 percent), joggers (13 percent), and vehicles (6 percent). However, bicyclists caused eagles to flush at the greatest distances (mean = 148 meters), followed by vehicles (107m), walkers (87m), fishermen (64m), and joggers (50m). Eagles were most likely to flush when recreationists approached slowly or stopped to observe them, and were less alarmed when bicyclists or vehicles passed quickly at constant speeds. Similar findings have been reported by other authors, who attribute the difference in flushing frequency between walkers and bikers/vehicles either to the shorter time of disturbance and/or the additional time an eagle has to "decide" to fly (Van der Zande and others. 1984).

Safety issues related to grizzly bear attacks on trail users in Banff National Park prompted Herrero and Herrero (2000) to study the Morraine Lake Highline Trail. Park staff noted that hikers were far more numerous than mountain bikers on the trail, but that the number of encounters between bikers and bears was disproportionately high. For example, three of the four human-grizzly bear encounters that occurred along the trail during 1997-98 involved mountain bikers. Previous research had shown that grizzly bears are more likely to attack when they first become aware of a human presence at distances of less than 50 meters. Herrero and Herrero concluded that mountain bikers travel faster, more quietly, and with closer attention to the tread than hikers, all attributes that limit reaction time for bears and bikers, and increases the likelihood of sub-fifty meter encounters. In addition, most of the bear-cyclist encounters took place on a fast section of trail that went through high-quality bear habitat with abundant berries. To reduce such incidents, they recommended education, seasonal closures of the trail to bikes and/or hikers, construction of an alternate trail, and regulations requiring a minimum group size for bikers.

Impacts to Wildlife: Management Implications

Many potential impacts to wildlife can be avoided by ensuring that trails avoid the most sensitive or critical wildlife habitats, including those of rare and non-rare species. There are a number of tactics for doing this:

  • Route trails to avoid riparian or wetland areas, particularly in environments where they are uncommon. Consult with fish and wildlife specialists early in the trail planning phase.
  • For existing trails, consider discouraging or restricting access during sensitive times/seasons (e.g., mating or birthing seasons) to protect wildlife from undue stress.

The education of trail users is also an important and potentially highly effective management option for protecting wildlife. Organizations should encourage Leave No Trace practices and teach appropriate behaviors in areas where wildlife are found:

  • Store food safely and leave no crumbs behind - fed animals too often become dead animals.
  • It's OK for wildlife to notice you but you are "too close" or "too loud" if an animal stops what its doing and/or moves away from you.
  • It's best to view wildlife through binoculars, spotting scopes, and telephoto lenses.
  • All wildlife can be dangerous - be aware of the possible presence of animals and keep your distance to ensure your safety and theirs.

Conclusion

While land managers have long been concerned about the environmental impacts of mountain biking, there are still very few good studies published in peer-reviewed journals. White and others (2006) and Hendricks (1997) note that the majority of mountain biking research has focused on social issues, such as conflicts between trail users. As a consequence, the ecological effects of mountain biking on trails and natural resources remain poorly understood.

Still, an emerging body of knowledge on the environmental impact of mountain biking can help guide current management decisions. All of the existing scientific studies indicate that while mountain biking, like all forms of recreational activity, can result in measurable impacts to vegetation, soil, water resources, and wildlife, the environmental effects of well-managed mountain biking are minimal.

Furthermore, while the impact mechanics and forces may be different from foot traffic, mountain biking impacts are little different from hiking, the most common and traditional form of trail-based recreational activity.

Key observations about the environmental impacts of mountain biking:

  1. Environmental degradation can be substantially avoided or minimized when trail users are restricted to designated formal trails. Many studies have shown that the most damage to plants and soils occur with initial traffic and that the per capita increase in further impact diminishes rapidly with increasing subsequent traffic. Many environmental impacts can be avoided and the rest are substantially minimized when traffic is restricted to a well-designed and managed trail. The best trail alignments avoid the habitats of rare flora and fauna and greatly minimize soil erosion, muddiness, and tread widening by focusing traffic on side-hill trail alignments with limited grades and frequent grade reversals. Even wildlife impacts are greatly minimized when visitors stay on trails; wildlife have a well-documented capacity to habituate to non-threatening recreational uses that occur in consistent places.
  2. Trail design and management are much larger factors in environmental degradation than the type or amount of use. Many studies have demonstrated that poorly designed or located trails are the biggest cause of trail impacts. As evidence, consider that use factors (type, amount, and behavior of trail visitors) are generally the same along the length of any given trail, yet there is often substantial variation in tread erosion, width, and muddiness. These impacts are primarily attributable to differences in grade and slope alignment angle, soil type and soil moisture, and type of tread construction, surfacing, and drainage. This suggests that a sustainable trail that is properly designed, constructed, and maintained can support lower-impact uses such as hiking and mountain biking with minimal maintenance or degradation.
  3. The environmental degradation caused by mountain biking is generally equivalent or less than that caused by hiking, and both are substantially less impacting than horse or motorized activities. In the small number of studies that included direct comparisons of the environmental effects of different recreational activities, mountain biking was found to have an impact that is less than or comparable to hiking. For example, Marion and Olive (2006) reported less soil loss on mountain bike trails than on hiking trails, which in turn exhibited substantially less soil loss than did horse and ATV trails. Similarly, two wildlife studies reported no difference in wildlife disturbance between hikers and mountain bikers (Taylor & Knight 2003, Gander & Ingold 1997), while two other studies found that mountain bikers caused less disturbance (Papouchis and others. 2001, Spahr 1990). Wilson and Seney (1994) found that horses made significantly more sediment available for erosion than hikers or mountain bikers, which were statistically similar to the undisturbed control. One final point to consider, however, is that mountain bikers, like horse and vehicle users, travel further than hikers due to their higher speed of travel. This means that their use on a per-unit time basis can affect more miles of trail or wildlife than hikers. However, an evaluation of aggregate impact would need to consider the total number of trail users, and hikers are far more numerous than mountain bikers.

Mountain Bike Management Implications

So what does this mean for mountain biking? The existing body of research does not support the prohibition or restriction of mountain biking from a resource or environmental protection perspective. Existing impacts, which may be in evidence on many trails used by mountain bikers, are likely associated for the most part with poor trail designs or insufficient maintenance.

Managers should look first to correcting design-related deficiencies before considering restrictions on low-impact users. By enlisting the aid of all trail users through permanent volunteer trail maintenance efforts, they can improve trail conditions and allow for sustainable recreation.

Dr. Jeff Marion is a scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey who studies visitor impacts and management in protected natural areas. Jeremy Wimpey is a doctoral candidate in the Park and Recreation Resource Management program at Virginia Tech. Contact them at Virginia Tech, Forestry (0324), Blacksburg, VA 24060, jmarion [at] vt [dot] edu, wimpeyjf [at] vt [dot] edu.

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