The auditorium at the trailside center at Watchung Reservation was packed October 20th as mountain bikers and supporters showed up to hear about and comment on the new trail plan put together by consultant CMA Associates.
Some stand-out moments from the 10-20-2016 meeting:
“The bikes aren’t the problem. The county is the problem!” – hiker concerned over poor maintenance of trails and park in general.
“The points I’ve been making and other people have been making have been about transparency and access. I get what you’ve been saying about patience…. But I think we’ve been patient for about six years, or maybe twenty years. I hope that the message after tonight from every mountain biker here to the county is please give us a plan for getting this open, we’ve been waiting for twenty years and it’s only fair to open it up.” – mountain biker from Westfield.
“If you set the precedent that they can charge for access, even indirectly by requiring you to comply with a registration requirement, you risk gaining paid access to a few trails in Union County but losing free access to every trail in the state of New Jersey” – Brian (me), biker, commenting on the suggestion that cyclists pay a fee and register their bike to ride in Watchung on trails they’ve already paid for with massive taxes.
“Why are mountain bikers third class citizens?” – citizen commenting on the fact that mountain biker trails marked on the map displayed at the meeting were the smallest allotted of the three groups of hikers, equestrians, and then bikers.
And the highlight: A young kid who opined that when he first saw the new “no bike” signs when his father took him to the park, he “thought they were a bad joke.” The innocent view of this young rider quite summed up how many people, seeing the issue for what it is, without the politics and nonsense that has become attached to it, would react to the idea of going to such trouble just to prevent people from getting outside and having fun.
There were only two people who spoke out against mountain biking; a runner who said he’s okay with bikers elsewhere, but at Watchung they’ve been rude, and a “trail steward” who said that mountain bikers talk about doing trail work but they haven’t shown up to help at Watchung until recently.
To the first, one can only assume he has had very bad luck to run into a few bad apples. Or perhaps poor people skills?
The second is actually amusing, because it actually helps the case for mountain biking.
Yes, by banning mountain bikers, you remove any incentive for them to help with trail work at a park they can’t officially ride. Why is this a surprise? And why does it make you contemptuous of mountain bikers? Would you volunteer to help at a park where you were banned? Bikers only helped out recently because that was when the no bike signs came down and people thought the county was opening the park; they didn’t before because they had no reason to. At an August trail work session for instance, over half the volunteers were cyclists. However, only days later, new no bike signs went up, a reversal souring any goodwill and discouraging any future trail work efforts by bikers, until they get park access.
But except for those two, the support for mountain biking access was the order of the day. And lastly, the room was full. Many people came from all over and spent the better part of two hours listening speaking up, and being involved. At one point the room was so crowded people were standing in the back. It was estimated there were about a hundred people at one point.
Thanks especially to Burt, Matt, Matt S., Tom, the guys from Hilltop Bicycles, Joe, and all the others I didn’t know who showed up. And thanks especially to Mr. Seebeck of JORBA, the Jersey Offroad Bicycling Association, who came from far away to be there and advocate for cycling access.
Now some questions that emerged:
First, what about the new no bike signs that were posted in places besides for Watchung, that never had them before? It seems CME was designing not just a new trail plan for Watchung but for the whole county, which would imply these new bike prohibitions at other parks are part of the same. This raises a concern: Could the plan result in a net loss of trail access rather than a gain? If we get access to trails at Watchung but lose access at every other place in the county, where there never were no bike signs before, that would not be a good thing.
Second, the contractor CME said they were seriously considering registration to ride in the Reservation, when the subject was brought up. This as I stated at the meeting would set a dangerous precedent and risk free park access at every other park, as governments are always looking for alternative revenue streams. And of course, under such a plan the trails will not truly be open, not in the sense of every other public park. Cyclists have already paid for these trails with their tax dollars despite not being able to use them for years; if anything the county owes cyclists back fees, not the other way around!
And lastly, when asked outright if they have consulted with other county park managers etc. to get information on how to implement mountain biking access, Union County’s Ron Zuber said they have not talked to park managers from other counties, like Morris, where there is mountain biking, in order to get advice. He said that since the next county over is Essex, and they don’t allow mountain biking at South Mountain, there was no point in asking other counties. Does he forget that Union County is surrounded by other counties besides Essex? With almost all the rest of the state allowing mountain biking, why look to the one other county that also has a similar backwards policy? Moreover, if they haven’t been pursuing this, what have they been doing for two years since the February meeting at Galloping Hill Golf Course (where we were promised the plan would be implemented in “a few months”)?
Also, Dan Bernier and some other long-time mountain bike opponents were at the meeting, although they did not speak or make presentations. Their continued involvement – especially since they were instrumental in imposing the ban twenty years ago in a secret backroom meeting of unelected employees – raises serious questions about what the county’s actual approach is to be on mountain biking going forward.
In short, though the public support for bike access was overwhelming, the county and its contractor’s progress is lackluster at best. While they may intend to follow through on promises to open the park, they either appear to be hesitant or stalling. Common sense alone should have prevented many of the above issues, chief among them the failure to ask advice from counties with mountain bike access: if you want to know about mountain biking, you ask counties where it is part of the program!
With this in mind, thanks to all who showed up. There appears to have been a turning point in public opinion regarding bike access, but we still need to get the county itself to get moving.
It’s more important than ever to keep the pressure on the county going forward until the trails are open and we can all ride without looking over our shoulders.