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Studying recreation attitudes among hikers and bicyclists

Analyzing land-use conflict between hikers and mountain bikers in the Santa Cruz Mountains, California.

By T.P. Osbaldeston, University of Liverpool Department of Geography

Map of California


This project had focused on the topic of user-group conflict between Hikers and Mountain Bikers in the Santa Cruz Mountains, California. It consists mostly of research carried out over a two week period in Santa Cruz California. This work follows directly from the results of a pre-field trip report carried out in Delamere Forest, Cheshire, UK, as a precursor to the Santa Cruz Project and which acted as a 'test-bed' for many of the ideas forming the basis of the Santa Cruz field work.

The notion of user group conflict in outdoor recreation is widely reviewed. Most notably, with regard to this study, Jacob and Schreyer (1980) suggest the concept of conflict between user groups as a form of dissatisfaction in which the person experiencing the dissatisfaction feels that the attainment of his or her goals has been interfered with by another user-group. General factors that may make an individual more likely to make an attribution of conflict are the personal meanings that an individual attaches to an activity, the significance an individual attaches to a specific resource, the individual's normal mode of experiencing the environment, and the level of tolerance that the individual has for other user groups (Jacob and Schreyer, 1980).

Ramthun, (1995), in his Psychological evaluation of user-group conflict between Mountain Bikers and walkers, identifies 'Tolerance for lifestyle diversity', Leisure Activity Identification and Experience, as key 'personality' factors affecting the likelihood of an individual experiencing negative feelings towards another user-group.

This study has attempted to evaluate the quantity, the character and the extent of any user group conflict which may be occurring in the Santa Cruz Mountains, particularly with regard to any conflict occurring between Mountain Bikers and Hikers. It has done so with regard to the evaluation of user-group conflict suggested by Jacob and Schreyer (ibid.) and also those proposed by Ramthun (ibid.). An initial hypothesis was set at the conclusion of the Delamere forest pilot project in order to test the extent and the character of any conflict in the Santa Cruz Mountains

It was felt that the Santa Cruz Mountains would serve as an adequate 'test-bed' for a study based on the above criteria, as it was known that a number of popular recreation areas existed in the area, many maintained by the State Parks Authority. It was also known, through pre-field trip research conducted mostly via the internet, that there was a 'tangible perception' of a user-group conflict issue arising in this area, and that a number of groups had expressed concern over the matter.

Santa Cruz is a city of some fifty thousand residents, whose major industries include a large University (U.C.S.C.) and a burgeoning tourist sector. It's coastal location and nearby mountain ranges lends it an extraordinarily attractive vista: these environments also playing host to a number of sporting and recreational activities. Santa Cruz's status as a 'surf capital' can be seen as primary input into it's tourist economy, but the Santa Cruz Mountains, and the numerous State Parks and Recreation Areas which nestle within them are considerable magnets, if not for out of state tourists, then certainly for many of the area's resident outdoor recreationists.

Wilder Ranch State Park, in which much of the field work was carried out, is an excellent example of an area in which different user groups interact on a daily basis. It is the only State Park in the Santa Cruz area which has a policy of 'Multi-Use': where users from different recreational groups are allowed equal access to Park's trails, etc., (all of the other State Parks in this area have some restrictions governing the use of their trails by different users). Wilder Ranch was chosen as the site upon which most of the field work was carried out largely because of it's policy of 'Multi-Use': it was thus felt that the park would be an ideal venue to examine the issue of conflict, in situ.

This study has indicated that Wilder Ranch's principal user group is Mountain Bikers, outnumbering Hikers and Equestrians (the parks other main user group), by several (between 5 and 10) to one. The controversy surrounding the use of Mountain Bikes on apparently delicate terrain, especially where this occurs in high density, is one of the factors viewed by many as central to the Hiker-Mountain Biker conflict issue. This study does not focus on the specifics of environmental damage caused by Bicycles, Horses, or Hiking Boots. It does, however, consider the validity of those arguments, encountered at numerous points in the study, which maintain that Mountain Biking is a more environmentally damaging recreational form and should thus be restricted. This is attempted, not by detailed physical examination of the land, but via consultation, as part of detailed interviews, with Park Administrators and Rangers.


Our approach to the study of user group conflict between Hikers and Mountain Bikers in the Santa Cruz Mountains has taken two forms. Firstly, a questionnaire was designed which, it was felt, would adequately cater for the data needs of the study, as defined by the hypothesis and objectives outlined above. Secondly, a series of interviews were carried out with 'key figures in the Santa Cruz land-use conflict debate. The questionnaire was expected to reach between 100 and 200 recreational land-users. and was to be conducted by the study-team members at Wilder Ranch during the two weeks allocated for the project research. The interviews were conducted with five people whom, it was felt, would be representative of as many of the parties involved in any conflict issue as possible, these being: Santa Cruz Mayor and environmentalist/Hiker Cecilia Scott, California State Parks and Recreation Service District Superintendent Dave Vincent, Wilder Ranch Rangers Al Blum and Dennis Carriere and Mountain Bikers of Santa Cruz President Keith Kelsen.

The Questionnaires were designed with respect to two essential premises. Firstly, the need to exact as much detailed information from the respondents concerning their perception of the existence of any land-use conflict between Hikers and Mountain Bikers. Secondly, the time expected to fill in the questionnaires had to be short, as it was expected that many, especially Mountain Bikers, may not wish to stop for long participate in a detailed poll.

It was felt that a questionnaire was a necessary tool in conducting this study because, firstly, no such suitable secondary information existed relating the Hiker/Mountain Biker land-use conflict issue in this area (in fact the Park authorities were extremely keen to obtain copies of our data for their own uses). Secondly, in order to gauge the opinions of at least some of the very large numbers people using Wilder Ranch during our stay, a questionnaire seemed the only appropriate tool, given our limited resources. Our study necessitated the quantification of certain data, for example the perception of the existence, the character and the extent of any user-group conflict at Wilder Ranch State Park (the hypothesis, as detailed above, also required a detailed measurement of user-group identification, experience and tolerance for lifestyle diversity (see Ramthun, ibid.)). Evaluation of these elements was required from both Hikers and Mountain Bikers, in as large numbers as possible, in order for any statistical analysis on the resulting data to be carried out with any degree of accuracy.

The questionnaire contained a mixture of simple 'Yes/No', 'Yes/No' questions where the respondents were offered the chance to expand upon their answers if they wished, 'Agree/Disagree' statements (where respondents were asked to indicate the extent to which they agreed, or disagreed on a scale of 1 - 5) and a final 'comments' question, where respondents were invited to add any comments relating to the land-use conflict issue that they felt were important.

The detailed interviews carried out during the fieldwork were each designed to extract as much relevant information from the party in question, whilst being constructed along a similar framework to the field questionnaires. The interviews were planned and structured in this way so as to allow the interviewee the greatest freedom to express their views, within the context of the study: based loosely on the 'now go to' format proposed by Eyles, (1998, a). For example, all of the interviews involved questions relating to the interviewee's perception of both the existence of a land-use conflict at Wilder Ranch, it's extent and it's nature. However, the discussions were also arranged in a way in which would enable information relevant to that person's experience/position to be elicited. Mayor Cecilia Scott was approached for interview because of her position within Santa Cruz's legislature, but also due to her role as a member of the Santa Cruz Sierra Club, an environmental attorney and activist, whom, it was known, had expressed views on the conflict issue. Interviews with Park Rangers, the Park's Superintendent and the President of MBOSC reflect similar 'semi flexible' criteria. Interviews were conducted, in the main, within formal surroundings, (Park Offices, etc.), yet pursued a generally 'conversational' path: interviewees were encouraged to bring forth their own views on the conflict issue.


The questionnaires yielded a total of 191 responses. The distribution of these respondents by user-group is shown in Table A, representing the first stage in our examination of the land use conflict between Hikers and Mountain Bikers in Santa Cruz: Leisure Group identification. Figure A indicates the length of participation in chosen recreational activity (a result of Question 3?) on the questionnaire. It can be seen from this chart that, overall, Hikers report having been participating in their chosen recreational activity longer than the majority of Mountain Bikers had theirs. Fig A indicates that Mountain Bikers are more strongly represented in the categories indicating participation between < 1 year and 10 Years+ than Hikers, whose representation in the category 10 Years + Massively outweighs that of Mountain Bikers. Within the context of this study, Fig A represents 'levels of experience'.

User Groups

Number in study

Percentage of respondents in study

Mountain Bikers






Both a Biker and a Hiker









User Group Anomalies






Table A: User Group Identification

Levels of user-group identification can also be seen in Fig B, which indicates responses to Question 4:, "I am proud to be involved in my chosen sport" Agree/Disagree. Responses to this question were on a scale of one to five. Fig B. suggests that Mountain Bikers exhibited a greater propensity than Hikers to choose levels 1 and 2, although these numbers were still small (19% of Mountain Bikers chose these figures overall; 6% of Hikers). The percentage of those in both groups who chose 'agreement levels' three and four was roughly similar for each group, (21 % and 31% respectively for Mountain Bikers; 20 and 25% respectively for Mountain Bikers). Table C suggests a higher tendency for Hikers to select level 5 than Mountain Bikers (Hikers: 49% level 5, Mountain Bikers: 29% level 5). Due to the difficulties in measuring the strengths of user-group identification of those who described themselves as both Hikers and Mountain Bikers ('Hikerbikers'), this group has been excluded from Fig B.

Perception of the existence of a land use conflict between Hikers and Mountain Bikers is reflected in Tables 7 and 19 (Appendix A) . These tables indicate that 28, (35%) of Mountain Bikers felt that there were problems created by Mountain Bikers and Hikers using the same space, 50 (62.5%), indicated in the negative. Amongst Hikers, 24 (44%) stated that they felt there were problems created by Mountain Bikers and Hikers using the same space; 26 Hikers responded in he negative.

Allocation of blame for any conflict between Hikers and Bikers at Wilder Ranch can be seen (for Mountain Bikers, Hikers and 'Hikerbikers') in tables 8, 20 and 33 respectively. There was a relatively low level of response to Question 9 (many respondents having indicated that they did not feel there was a conflict at Question 8 having gone directly to Question 12, as indicated). Of the 43 (53.75%) of Mountain Bikers who answered the most popular choice was to allocate blame towards both Mountain Bikers and Hikers (17: 39.53% of responses). Of those groups apportioned sole blame for the conflict by Mountain Bikers, Hikers were a fractionaly more popular choice than Mountain Bikers (Hikers: 7 (16.27%) Mountain Bikers: 6, (13.95%) . Amongst Hikers the response to Question 9 was almost 100%, (53/54: 98.14%). The most popular choice for blame amongst Hikers was Mountain Bikers (15: 28.30%). Only one Hiker apportioned overall blame to Hikers alone, 4 (7.5%) blamed Park Authorities, 3 felt that both Hikers and Mountain Bikers were to blame and 2 blamed 'others' not specified here.

Transcriptions of interviews with mayor Cecilia Scott, Rangers Al Blum and Dennis Carriere, Parks and Recreation Service District Superintendent Dave Vincent and MBOSC President Keith Kelsen can all be found in Appendix C. All interviewees expressed a sound knowledge of the land-use conflict debate and held strong opinions as to the extent, cause and nature of the problem as it presented itself at Wilder Ranch. Park Rangers Al Blum and Dennis Carriere suggested that the conflict issue was largely a perception issue, citing Hikers as more response for this perceived conflict. This was echoed by parks Superintendent Dave Vincent who stated: "I only hear it [direct conflict between organised groups] through innuendo.... But when I do speak to Hikers, that are in various environmental organisations , who carry the perception of Mountain Bikers, and they carry what I call a bias."

All three Parks and Recreation personnel interviewed expressed a keen desire to tackle the problem of user-group conflict, often citing user-group co-operation and education as key tools in tackling this problem.

Mayor Cecilia Scott, an environmentalist and keen Hiker cited her perception of environmental damage by Mountain Bikes as a problem: "I am a cyclist. I ride for transport. I don't own a Mountain Bike. When I go out onto natural land I prefer to walk. I don't have any problems with Mountain Biking per se, however, I have seen what I think, and I know others will disagree with me, I've seen what I consider significant environmental damage the land, from Mountain Biking, in areas that are not appropriate, where it is too steep, and where the soils and the land is not being properly maintained and managed. An example of this is at Wilder Ranch State Park. I've also had personal experiences walking in that Park and found it very uncomfortable, because of Bikers, to be a Hiker."

The notion that Mountain Bikes are more environmentally damaging than Hiking Boots was strongly refuted by Parks Superintendent David Vincent: "I don't think that's true. There's very little evidence to support that that I'm Aware of. So, again, I think that's a perception issue... These roads have been here a long time and I dare you to show me where a Mountain Bike has caused excessive environmental problems on the trail. What the issue is, when there is an issue, is poor trail design. We need to go back and address that, not the vehicle as a mode of transportation".

Keith Kelsen, President, MBOSC suggested: "I think perceptions of environmental damage, in terms of erosion damage and so on are irrelevant, but those are tools that they [Hikers] use to try and keep their sanctuary. They don't come out and say "it's you Mountain Bikers causing problems", they never really say what they really want, they just use all these other methods to thwart what we are trying to do".


It is difficult to assess the validity of this study's hypothesis from within the framework presented by it's results. If the hypothesis is to be assessed simply from the results of he Questionnaires Yes/No answers it would be a simple matter to accept it, on the basis of a majority of each user group having accepted the existence of a conflict. However, the detailed nature of many of the responses suggests that the conflict issue at Wilder Ranch is far from being a Yes/No issue. There appears a certain ambiguity concerning not only the extent of the conflict, but also it's nature. One common response, from within many of the detailed interviews to be found in Appendix B is that the conflict issue is a 'perception issue': i.e. that there is more substance to the perception of conflict then to the conflict itself. Dennis Carriere (Wilder Ranch Ranger) suggesting: "The conflict is all perceived. It may not be there in actuality. It is from people's expectation"

The notion of user-group conflict at Wilder Ranch being a perception issue was echoed by several of the questionnaire respondents. Interestingly, two of those which fell most readily into this category were give by Horse Riders. In answer to Question 10:


"The bottom line is people not wanting to share, or resenting other groups for a perceived damage"

Keith Kelsen, President MBOSC accepted that some conflict existed on the trails at Wilder Ranch: "We (MBOSC) recognise that there is going to be ten percent of the people who are going to have problems with it (multi-use).", suggesting that: "I think we ought to realise that all users need to be able to have their own experience"

It may be appropriate, then, to split the analysis of this project in two. Firstly the acceptance of the hypothesis: "There exists a recreational conflict between Mountain Bikers and Hikers using the Santa Cruz mountains." This acceptance is based on statistical evidence conflict within questionnaire returns, of user-group perception of a conflict between Mountain Bikers and Hikers at Wilder Ranch. Similarly the acceptance of the sub-hypothesis4

The 'bias' intrinsic to the sub-hypothesis is attributed to Hikers, as a result of a tendency by this group to apportion blame to Mountain Bikers. These statistical indicators are supported by the content of the interviews carried out with parks Superintendent Dave Vincent and the two Wilder Ranch Park Rangers, Dennis Carierre and Al Blum. The transcription of Mayor Cecilia Scott's interview appears to support the notion that the Hiking Community is bias in it's feelings towards the Mountain Bikers, although it should be noted that Mayor Cecilia Scott was asked to participate as much because of her role as Mayor as her recreational choices. In short, it would be unfair and misleading of this study to suggest that she had voiced the opinions of a consolidated Hiking community.

The extent to which Evaluation of outgroups, levels of experience, identification and frequency support the idea that Hikers are bias in their feelings towards Mountain Bikers and the conflict issue must be mitigated by three key points:

1) Members of the Hiking community interviewed fell largely in the older age-brackets defined by the questionnaire. Their level of experience is, therefore, likely to be greater.

2) Mountain Biking is a relatively new sport. It is not possible to have more than around fifteen years experience in Mountain Biking and the results of this study indicate that most respondents fell into the lesser experience brackets.

3) This study has not included any statistical test which would 'properly' evaluate the legitimacy of the conclusions made here. Also, the questionnaire was not designed with such tests in mind: perhaps a failing of study, but it was felt that this was a topic which was unlikely to be easily quantifiable.

The second part of this analysis is simply a plea to the reader to examine the broad range of data presented within the appendices of this document and to attempt to judge whether the land-use conflict issue at Wilder Ranch, Santa Cruz is really one which can be quantified in terms of a statistical survey, especially as so many of it's protagonists indict a 'perceived conflict'. It could be suggested, perhaps, that the acceptance of the sub-hypothesis almost nullifies the main hypothesis.


This study has attempted, within limited space, to assess the existence, extent and nature of a land-use conflict between Hikers and Mountain Bikers in the Santa Cruz Mountains, California, using Wilder Ranch State Park as a test-case. It has also attempted to test hypothesis based on this issue. It is suggested that a conflict issue exists, but that it may be largely perceptual. It is also argued that there exists a perceptual bias by Hikers towards Mountain Bikers, perhaps influenced by higher levels of experience and user group identification in terms of allocation of blame for any conflict. Also, interviews with Park rangers and Supervisor Dave Vincent.

It could be suggested that this bias itself could be seen as the conflict itself, i.e. that the discourse which results from it may be as close to a real land-use conflict as many of the respondents and interviewees in this study are likely to have come. State Park officials indicate a very low rate of actual physical incidents involving Mountain Bikers and Hikers and all of those interviewed, (with the exception of Mayor Cecilia Scott), suggested that the conflict issue was largely perceptual.

This study has succeeded in accumulating a large field of data relating to the land-use conflict issue. However, there are some reservations as to the validity of the initial approach. For example, the study did not properly allow for the high numbers of equestrians using Wilder Ranch State Park, nor was it designed with a proper knowledge of their input into the conflict issue. This study may also have failed to successfully accommodate those who chose to describe themselves as both Hikers and Mountain Bikers. It is hoped that the reader will examine in full the data responses held in Appendix A and B and the transcriptions of interviews in Appendix C. In so doing, it is suggested that the reader may gain a far broader concept of the extent and nature of the conflict issue at Wilder Ranch than can be expressed here. It is also hoped that this study, with its perhaps implicit acceptance of a conflict at Wilder, has not in some way contributed to the perception of such a conflict.

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