In limiting Loch Raven biking trails, city has broad regional support

For years, as the debate over mountain bikers' access to miles of unsanctioned trails in the city-owned forest buffer around Loch Raven Reservoir has raged on, biking groups have largely focused their criticisms on city officials, calling them stubborn and unreasonable.

They have also repeatedly said the city is targeting them unfairly, while allowing other recreational users of Loch Raven to move about freely.

The surrounding jurisdictions that also receive water from the city's reservoirs — including Baltimore County, where Loch Raven's watershed is mostly located — have largely stayed out of the public fray.

But they haven't remained silent. Namely, through a group called the Reservoir Technical Group, officials from five counties — Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Carroll, Harford and Howard — have all chimed in.

By and large, they agree with the city's stance.

On Oct. 19, the Reservoir Technical Group — a collective of watershed experts from governments around the Baltimore region — met in the Locust Park offices of the Baltimore Metropolitan Council to catch up on business.

The group, charged with coordinating a multi-jurisdictional effort to safeguard the Loch Raven, Liberty and Prettyboy reservoirs, and the water they supply to about 1.8 million people in the region, is meant to meet every two months. But its members, who represent five counties and various state agencies, came together for the first time in more than a year, following the long illness and death this past summer of the group's former administrator.

Because of the hiatus, there were a lot of matters to attend to and updates to share.

One of those updates, given by Clark Howells, a member and acting watershed manager of Baltimore City's Department of Public Works, concerned the controversy over the city's decision to restrict mountain bikers' access to miles of unsanctioned biking trails in the forest buffer around Loch Raven Reservoir.

The week prior, Howells had taken a series of heated questions about trail restrictions from angry bikers during a tour that included politicians and journalists. He now faced a collective of experts in watershed maintenance who say they are unafraid to challenge their counterparts on reservoir issues in order to protect their jurisdictional interests.

"There's no one in the room that's a pushover," said Jim Slater, the metropolitan council's new water resources program manager, who oversees the group after the death of Gould Charshee on June 11.

"There are times when people have to say, 'Well, from our perspective, we agree or don't agree,' " said Don Outen, a Baltimore County natural resource manager and another member of the group.

But, when Howells finished his briefing on city actions to limit biking, the experts made no objections and raised no eyebrows, members said.

For the group, biking restrictions aren't controversial. They are a point of consensus.

"Without a doubt, my recollection is I don't think anyone took issue," Outen said.

Celeste Amato, a city DPW spokeswoman, said the city's jurisdictional partners are all in agreement on the trail restrictions.

"Our jurisdictional partners are not in favor of increasing recreational activity around the reservoir," Amato said.

Picking targets

According to Lindsay DeMarzo, an environmental planner for Howard County and a group member, Charshee sent a letter with the group's approval to the city on Dec. 16, 2010, that outlined the group's stance on mountain biking at Loch Raven.

The letter to DPW Director Alfred Foxx, which DeMarzo provided a copy of, calls mountain bikers noncompliant with a 1998 agreement on trails, saying bikers routinely cut new trails in sensitive areas without approval, only to turn around and argue with the city that those trails should be considered official and permanent.

While the letter recommends the city continue to work with the biking community to improve existing, sanctioned trails, it also offers specific recommendations:

"While the majority of the members of the Reservoir Technical Group have no legal jurisdiction over the City-owned watershed land, we encourage the Baltimore City DPW to take a very strong stand and to require the off-road cyclists to abandon the use of the unauthorized trails that have been — and are continuing to be — created by cyclists in clear violation of the 1998 Mountain Biking Plan for Loch Raven Watershed," said Charshee in the letter.

"The recreational use of City lands for off-road bicycling should not result in sediment erosion and should not intrude into sensitive stream-buffer areas," he wrote.

"Furthermore, we believe that any offer by DPW to allow the creation of new single-track trails (even as a means of "compensation") in the Loch Raven Watershed could result in added negative effects on the reservoir caused by the existence of such trails.

"Agreeing to any new single-track trails at this time will inevitably result in additional impacts on the forest buffer, and will make enforcement of the city's existing watershed regulations more difficult," Charshee said in the letter. "Accordingly, we encourage the DPW to prohibit the creation of additional, new off-road trails anywhere within the Loch Raven Watershed property."

In essence, the letter and its arguments, which members of the group said they still agree with, call for restrictions that go beyond those recently enforced by the city.

Representatives from Baltimore, Carroll, Harford and Howard counties, while not suggesting an outright ban on recreational activity in Loch Raven's forest buffer, all said they agree with restricting recreational access at the reservoir.

"We've come to the joint conclusion that limited access is the prudent thing to do," said Vince Gardina, Baltimore County's director of environmental protection and sustainability and a former county councilman.

"What people need to understand, including the bikers, is that the purpose of the watershed and the buffer around the reservoir is to provide drinking water to millions of people."

Back and forth

Mountain bikers have long said they have offered compromises and are, in fact, stewards of the land. They have also argued that there is no scientific data showing their activities cause sediment erosion.

When asked about the technical group's support for city restrictions on biking, Bob Compton, the Loch Raven liaison for the biking group Mid-Atlantic Offroad Enthusiasts, questioned the technical group's motives, saying the group would be better off worrying about golfing at Pine Ridge and hunters and fishermen.

"It's hypocritical to say you have a reservoir technical committee from surrounding counties that says, 'Yes, the city is doing the right thing by restricting mountain biking, but you can continue to go out there and golf,' " Compton said.

Compton said it is unfair that negotiations the city has agreed to have with mountain bikers have involved Howells and Outen, each members of the technical group that Compton said has been outwardly opposed to mountain biking.

"It's much easier to tell someone 'no' than to come up with a constructive solution," Compton said.

Amato said the city has been willing to work with the mountain bikers, but has not been able to reach common ground with them because the bikers aren't willing to relinquish favorite trails — which the city just can't accept.

Amato said bikers are lucky the city hasn't reached the position of some of those jurisdictions, which is to fence off the entire property.

"In the end, we are the last line of defense for the reservoir," Amato said. "The other jurisdictions trust us with the care of that land."

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