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North Country Trail Association affirms hiking-only vision

Group explains policy to exclude bikes and horses from vision for the North Country National Scenic Trail.

By President Werner Veit

Shared "Our vision for the North Country National Scenic Trail is that of a premier footpath of national significance, offering a superb experience for hikers in a permanently protected corridor, traversing and interpreting the richly diverse environmental, cultural, and historic features of the northern United States. "

That is the vision statement for our trail adopted unanimously by our Board of Directors at their Winter meeting in Milwaukee last month. (Notice I wrote "their." Bob Papp, Director Joan Young and I spent much of the weekend fogged in at the Grand Rapids Airport. It was humbling to note that the Directors managed our business just fine without their President or Executive Director and newly elected Secretary).

Please note the statement printed in full on page 10 in the North Star. It was written by a committee composed of Joan Young, chair; Tom Reimers and Derek Blount, both exPresidents of our Associations; Bill Menke served ex-officio. It was not a quickly written and adopted statement. The committee began work last Spring, presented preliminary ideas at our annual conference in August and then offered the final draft at the Winter board meeting.

We expect that at least the first paragraph, quoted above, will be printed in each issue of The North Star so that our vision and goals will remain at the top of our minds.

The words are apt today as we struggle to accommodate as much as we can conflicting opinions regarding the advisability of mountain bike use on our trail. Some of you may have heard that the President of our Harbor Springs (Michigan) chapter felt compelled to resign after I noted that his views expressed in a local newspaper about the splendid opportunities for staying in shape by mountain biking on the NCT conflict with the policy of our association, which officially promotes "foot travel," and not multiple use.

The Association adopted its policy on mountain bike use years ago and has never modified it, despite attempts by avid mountain bikers to get us to change our minds. Perhaps, it may be apt, to reprint the policy here. It reads:

"The policy of the North Country Trail Association is that bicycling is best accommodated as a use on the North Country National Scenic Trail on rail-trail segments and on other short segments of hardened surface
(1) specifically designed for wheeled vehicles, where the bikes would not damage natural or trail resources;
(2) that are previously established multiple use trails that become part of the North Country Trail route;
(3) where bicycles could be physically restricted to the designated section; and
(4) where bicycle use would not adversely affect the recreational experience of hikers. We realize these conditions generally are not found on the typical single-track forested and rural segments of the North Country Trail and we believe bicycle use on such segments is inadvisable at best."

In explaining its position, the Association on a number of occasions, has offered the following:

"The vision that the Association and the National Park Service have is that of a premier hiking trail patterned after the Appalachian Trail. The Trail is meant to provide and protect an experience that more and more is lost in our busy and growing world. Whether exploring wilderness or rural landscapes, for an afternoon or weeks on end, hikers should expect to find peace, solace, insight, and a reconnection with the natural world as they journey along the North Country National Scenic Trail. Many trails offer the opportunity for exercise in a natural environment, but few seek to protect this type of experience that we feel is a crucial and growing need in human nature.

"Part of the reason the Association discourages bike use is that it threatens to displace hikers seeking the type of experience for which the Trail is intended. In addition, heavy use by mountain bikes can quickly lead to trail erosion and degradation. The degree of such damage depends on soil conditions, and the level of responsibility and extent of bike activity. However, the North Country Trail generally has not been constructed to withstand bike traffic. Tire tracks can provide an uninterrupted course for water flow, quickly leading to trail erosion. This has led to poor walking conditions, unsightly views, and an overall degradation of the hiking experience.

"This Policy does not represent a ban on mountain bikes on the trail, as the local managing authority has the final decision over whether or not to permit bike use. It does mean that the Association is on record as opposing mountain bike, use in most situations.

"With its tremendous growth in recent years, mountain biking clearly is in need of the support of related organizations and agencies if opportunities for biking will ever meet demand. The North Country Trail Association remains supportive of expanded bike trails in the vicinity of, but not coinciding with, the North Country National Scenic Trail. By working together, hikers and bikers can ensure that adequate sustainable opportunities exist for both types of use."

Opponents of that policy, including some of our members, sincerely believe multiple use— the stated objective in a number of state forests and some portions of national forests— would be a more reasonable position that would lead to greater cooperation among all levels of users. Our Board and officers respect that position. But at every opportunity, including most recently in December, our directors repeated the vision for a premier foot trail, not multiple use.

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