Open Letter: Oppose Mountain Bike Trails In Thornton Creek

An open letter from Ruth Williams, President of the Thornton Creek Alliance:

Dear Victory Heights Community Council:
We would like to be sure you are aware that Seattle Parks and Recreation is drafting trail standards for mountain biking in some of Seattle’s natural areas.  This is in response to the request of some of the forest stewards at Cheasty/Mountain View Greenspace on Beacon Hill.  They view it as a way to reduce crime in the natural area and to pick up the pace of restoration, since there is a great deal of support from the mountain biking community.  Their conceptual trail plan is here.  Additionally, now that the news is out in the community, BMX cyclists have also expressed an interest in asking for courses.
This change would require amending existing city policy with regard to allowed uses of our natural areas.  In Seattle Parks’ Best Management Practices guidelines here it now states in Paragraph 5.1, “Natural areas are characterized as being largely undeveloped landscapes, thickly vegetated with native plant communities, and used primarily for passive recreation. Natural areas are considered to have limited or minimal human disturbance and provide habitat for plants, mammals, reptiles, birds, insects, amphibians and sometimes fish in an urban setting.
In Paragraph 5.5, Goals, the document further states, “Our goal is to develop a sustainable resource that protects, optimizes, enhances, and increases our natural environments. These environments will provide opportunities for observing and enjoying urban wildlife, engaging in environmental education, and participating in restoration and stewardship activities.”  As you see, the goals also would have to be changed, and one wonders, to what?
We would like to ask for your support in asking the Seattle City Council not to allow this change in use of our natural areas.
As you noted in the paragraph above, currently bicycles are not allowed in natural areas.  However, at the Seattle Parks Board meeting on Thursday evening, November 14th, 2013, Acting Superintendent Christopher Williams stated that as community interests evolve, so too must regulations and allowed park uses. When one of the commissioners cited the code and pointed out that mountain bike trials would be in conflict, Acting Supt. Williams said Parks will seek to amend the policy for Seattle’s natural areas in order to allow active uses such as mountain biking.  Generally, this would open the door to a much more anthropocentric treatment of our natural areas going forward.
Presumably Seattle’s mountain bike trails would be similar to Portland, Oregon’s standards, which are here, on page 31.  This would mean ripping out plantings, removing natural vegetation, regrading the soil, and providing drainage to prevent erosion, in order to create a minimum 40’ line of sight and trail widths of six to twelve feet when you factor in the one foot margin on either side.
Wildlife that was absent for decades is starting to return to many of our natural areas as the impacts of logging and invasive plants are mitigated.  We are aware that there is research supporting the idea that mountain biking does not harm wildlife, but that research was all carried out in mature forests in multi-square-mile national or state parks, not in the smaller, fragile and developing ecosystems of our urban forests.
In Seattle’s quest for urban density, forested land is at a premium and valued for increasing habitat and the tree canopy.  Natural areas should not be degraded with additional compressed and dead soils.  Forest restoration should be the priority.  Mountain biking does not require a forest, and adding this new use to the natural areas does not make them available to a new group of users (since bicyclists are able-bodied) as the newly required ADA standard trails will do.  As yet there has been NO discussion about how to have these two user groups work together.
Last month Dr Steven Handel, director of the Center for Urban Restoration Ecology at Rutgers University, spoke here in Seattle.  He was asked about this conflict.  He said one of the main issues is the increase in compressed, dead soils that results when you add and widen trails.  He also said that the only way to keep everybody on the trails and out of the plantings is to use fencing.
We at Thornton Creek Alliance have asked that the code remain unchanged.  If that cannot be done, we requested that at a minimum clear and specific parameters should be set, so that mountain biking will be allowed only at a couple of the largest natural areas with considerable space, limited habitat potential, and not considered Environmentally Critical Areas.  Additionally, since the vast majority of the area in the Thornton Creek natural areas is listed as Environmentally Critical, we requested that these natural areas be exempt in their entirety from active uses.
The Seattle Parks Board will be issuing their recommendation at the January 7th, 2014 meeting.
A couple of other resources are here:
Opinion piece by Denise Dahn in the Seattle Times (November 23, 2013),
Article by Lee Springgate (former Bellevue Parks director) for the Project for Public Places,
Communications should go to:
City Council Parks Committee –;;;
Parks Board –
Urban Forestry Commission –
Parks Trails Planner –
We would appreciate your support in this matter  If we can be of any assistance as you look into it please let us know.
Ruth Williams, President
Thornton Creek Alliance

[Ruth Williams is the former editor of “A Place of the Towering Firs,” the precursor to the Victory Heights Blog.]

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