Loch Raven Reservoir bike trail dispute

Mountain biker David Wassel points to a bridge on a DPW fire road that bikers said has caused erosion. (Photo by Brendan Cavanaugh / October 14, 2011)

As rain poured through the canopy above and puddled in divots of mud underneath his brown, laced-up boots, State Sen. Jim Brochin paused on an unsanctioned mountain bike trail in the woods surrounding Loch Raven Reservoir on Friday, Oct. 14, and raised his voice.

"I don't think 'working together' is ticketing my constituents and the constituents of Baltimore City," said Brochin, a Democrat who represents Towson.

The barb seemed aimed indirectly at Clark Howells, acting watershed manager of the city's Department of Public Works, who stood nearby, and directly at the department's force of watershed rangers, who have recently been ticketing mountain bikers for knowingly riding on the network of unofficial trails that crisscrosses the area.

The exchange was one of many contentious moments during a hour-and-a-half walk through the reservoir's forest buffer.

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The walk was organized by mountain bikers — namely those associated with the group, Mid-Atlantic Offroad Enthusiasts — who have butted heads with the city department over access to dozens of miles of unsanctioned trails in the area.

A total of 31 people — mountain bikers, DPW officials, city and county politicians and aides, local business owners and journalists — went along for the walk, including City Council President Jack Young and Councilman Carl Stokes, as well as Baltimore County Councilmen David Marks andTodd Huff.

The city, which owns the reservoir and the forest buffer around it, has limited bikers' access in recent years in an attempt to cut down on soil erosion, which causes sediment to enter the reservoir, city officials said.

The reservoir is the main water supply for 1.8 million people in the Baltimore region, and officials note the buffer zone — despite having long been accessible for recreation — is not a park, but a filtration system.

"We're not in the business of running a park. That's not what we do. A reservoir is not a park," said Celeste Amato, a DPW spokeswoman.

She said the department is facing increased scrutiny on water quality and security from the Maryland Department of the Environment, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and even theU.S.Department of Homeland Security.

The department's job — first and foremost — is to protecting the water supply, Amato said, and it simply can't allow the almost unfettered access that bikers have enjoyed in the past.

"I can never win this battle with the biking community, because they want to debate the science of sediment and erosion," she said.

"But we don't get to debate with the Maryland Department of the Environment or the federal Environmental Protection Agency about what causes damage or doesn't cause damage. It's protecting the water supply, and that's about restricting activity."

Mountain bikers said they feel the city has unfairly targeted them — and not hikers, hunters or other recreational users of the land — in a misguided attempt to address erosion problems.

In fact, they contend the public works department largely causes the problems on its own through mismanagement of fire roads through the buffer zone, a claim they hoped to demonstrate during the walk.

They also said the city is hiding behind a Baltimore County ordinance that prohibits biking trails within a hundred feet of the reservoir, an area that many of the single-track biking trails in their unsanctioned network fall within. It's an ordinance they want to change, they said.

"The ordinance is being used just to discriminate against mountain bikers," said David Wassel, one of the bikers affiliated with MORE. "What's the big significance of a guy on a bike, as opposed to a guy in hiker shoes?"

Rain and rancor

Friday's wet walk through the muddy woods caught many off-guard. So did the arguments sparked during it.

Young and Stokes, dressed in full suits, seemed out of place on the trail, but they were also among the calmest.