Often blamed for tearing up trails, frightening horses and running down hikers, mountain bikers at Patapsco State Valley Park are trying to shed their bully image by taking up the cause of trail maintenance.
Under a campaign launched by Assistant Park Manager Gary Burnett last year, the mountain bikers are trying to put back into the trails a little of what their rough-and-ready sport takes out.
"I ride about 70 miles a week here, I figure I owe it," David McSpade, 20, said of his decision to dedicate a recent hot Saturday afternoon to moving logs and digging trenches.
On sunny weekends, about 800 people bike on the park's trails. The damage and unplanned trails they create were too much for Ranger Burnett.
So, with 15 years of experience in trail planning, he developed an education and maintenance program that relies on bike riders to help keep Patapsco's trails in shape.
Trail maintenance sessions are held about every two weeks at the park, with bikers among many of the volunteers. "I ask each mountain biker to donate half a day a year. If they do that, then the trails will be fine," Ranger Burnett said.
At least 55 to 60 miles of mapped trails wind through Patapsco, but the number of "bootleg trails" -- as Ranger Burnett calls trails created by park users -- is extensive and a constant source of problems.
The unplanned trails are created when trail users -- particularly those on bikes -- veer off a marked path because of fallen trees or extensive mud patches.
The resulting trails cause serious environmental disruption and degradation.
"It doesn't take long for a down tree to sprout new trails," Ranger Burnett said. "As soon as there's a problem, people will go around it."
Because the trails lack a drainage system, large mud patches develop. Riding through these patches enlarges them and damages the trail.
But riding around the mud loosens packed dirt and widens the muddy areas, while a wider circuit cuts bootleg trails.
Responsible mountain bikers try to avoid the wet areas entirely. But Julie Larson, a 26-year-old Baltimore City resident who helped at the recent trail maintenance session, points out that this is not so easy.
"Technically, you're not supposed to ride when it's muddy," she said. "That's when all the damage is done. But half the park is always muddy."
During the trail maintenance sessions, Ranger Burnett hopes to attack mud spots and dig drainage trenches before bootleg trails are cut by bikers.
The volunteer trail repair crews try to fix the problems on the main trails and then block off the bootleg trails. Besides tools brought with them, the crews use natural materials in the woods for their work.
Downed trees are used as main trail borders and to block bootleg trails. Italian grape hoes -- larger hoes used in vineyards -- are used to dig trenches to draw water off the trails, a longtime problem at the park.
The trail maintenance program is only part of Ranger Burnett's five-year program to improve the trails.
This year's theme is education. Orange mountain biking leaflets
with park rules for bikers are left on bikes and given to trail users. Billboards are being installed around the park urging trail courtesy, and riders are encouraged to report trail damage and correct the uninformed behavior of other riders.
"Most people don't know that they're doing the damage they're doing," said Ms. Larson who runs, hikes and bikes regularly at Patapsco. "Those who know should educate those who don't know."
Jason Kerpelman, a 36-year-old environmental engineer from Baltimore, who is training to become a volunteer ranger by helping with trail maintenance, said that the wild image of mountain bikers can be a reality. "They're riding like madmen, but they aren't aware of all the issues. . . ."
But Mr. Kerpelman believes that the efforts of the volunteers will help end irresponsible riding: "When people ride, they're going to see that 'Whoa, somebody's maintaining these trails,' and I think they'll decide to get involved."
Part of Ranger Burnett's program also includes getting mountain biking clubs, such as Baltimore's Light Street Cycle Club, to adopt parts of Patapsco's trails and be responsible for maintenance and user education in that area.
Ranger Burnett also recently received $17,000 from the Maryland State Forest and Park Service's Park Enhancement program to fund two full-time trail maintenance employees for six months.
This will be the first time in at least five years that the park has had a trail maintenance crew, said Ranger Burnett.
"I just want to make sure that everyone has a better idea of what we expect and what their duties are," said Ranger Burnett about his trail goals. "It just can't be a free-for-all."