Environmental and use impacts to mountain bike trails in South Australia and Queensland

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In recent years considerable effort has been made here in Australia to adopt building techniques that make recreational trails for walking, mountain biking and horse riding more durable and have less impact on their surrounds than most of the trails built in earlier times. The guidelines for such construction are published by the International Mountain Bicycling Association (IMBA). Trail builders in Australia have been encouraged to adopt the guidelines through the efforts of Mountain Bike Australia (MTBA) and its subsidiary IMBA–Australia (IMBA-Au). How "sustainable" are these mountain bike trails? Several previous studies in Australia, New Zealand, England and the United States have produced results that rely on a single measurement of a trail transect profile and an assumption of where the trail surface lay when the trail was built. This paper reports on three studies over twelve-month periods of three singletracks built to the IMBA guidelines: two are in South Australia and one is in Brisbane. For each of the trails two parameters were recorded once every three months at twenty randomly-placed transect points. The parameters are (1) the transect profile and (2) the used tread width. The great majority of users on all three trails are mountain bikers with the rest being walkers. Additionally, the number of users for each trail was gathered and the rainfall at the nearest Bureau of Meteorology site was recorded. From these data the amount of wear is estimated under the recorded conditions of use and rainfall. The trail in the Brisbane study was subject to use of 31 passes per day and 1,135mm of rain over the study year and the SA trails experienced just under 700mm of rain each and 14 and 45 passes per day. Of the 60 transects in all three studies, 34 showed no change in transect profile, 18 minimal, 4 noticeable and 4 considerable or substantial. All of these last four deviated to some extent from the guidelines but at none was there evidence of gouging, deep wheel ruts or channels caused by erosion or use. Some of the used tread widths at the transects narrowed and some widened but none of the sixty exhibited tread creep to outside the edges of the trails as built.

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Technical Report
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This report describes results from a comprehensive assessment of resource conditions on a large (24%) sample of the trail system within Big South Fork National River and Recreational Area (BSF). Components include research to develop state-of-knowledge trail impact assessment and monitoring methods, application of survey methods to BSF trails, analysis and summary of results, and recommendations for trail management decision making and future monitoring. Findings reveal a trail system with some substantial degradation, particularly soil erosion, which additionally threatens water quality in areas adjacent to streams and rivers. Factors that contribute to or influence these problems are analyzed and described. Principal among these are trail design factors (trail topographic position, soil texture, grade and slope alignment angle), use-related factors (type and amount of use), and maintenance factors (water drainage). Recommendations are offered to assist managers in improving the sustainability of the trails system to accommodate visitation while enhancing natural resource protection.
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This article was originally published in Managing Mountain Biking: IMBA's Guide to Providing Great Riding, a 256-page book produced by IMBA in 2007. The book offers an essential collection of best practices for planning, designing, and managing successful trail networks and parks. Managing Mountain Biking is a companion to IMBA's trailbuilding how-to book Trail Solutions. Both are available at Mountain biking is still a relatively new activity whose environmental impact and contribution to trail degradation is poorly understood. As with all recreational pursuits, it is clear that mountain biking contributes some degree of environmental degradation. In the absence of adequate research, land and trail managers have frequently been cautious, implementing restrictive regulations in some instances (Edger 1997). Surveys of managers have shown that they frequently perceive mountain biking to be a substantial contributor to trail degradation but lack scientific studies or monitoring data to substantiate such concerns (Chavez and others 1993; Schuett 1997). In recent years, however, a small number of studies have been conducted that help clarify the environmental impacts associated with mountain biking. This article describes the general impacts associated with recreational uses of natural surface trails, with a focus on those studies that have examined mountain biking impacts. Trails are generally regarded as essential facilities in parks and forests. They provide access to remote areas, accommodate a diverse array of recreational activities, and protect resources by concentrating visitor trampling on narrow and resistant tread surfaces. Formal or designated trails are generally designed and constructed, which involves vegetation removal and soil excavation. These changes may be considered "unavoidable," in contrast to "avoidable" post-construction degradation from their subsequent use (e.g., trail widening, erosion, muddiness), or from the development and degradation of informal visitor-created trails. Common environmental impacts associated with recreational use of trails include:
The environmental impacts of mountain biking and rider preferences in Southwest Western Australia were analysed to determine appropriate trail design and to ensure that this popular nature-based activity has minimal environmental impact while meeting rider requirements. Environmental impacts such as soil erosion and compaction, trail widening and changes in vegetation cover on a recreational trail and racing track were monitored for 12 months to determine the short- and long-term effects of riding during winter (rainy) and summer (dry) seasons. Rider preferences were determined through a survey of mountain bike riders in the region. The study found that trail erosion, soil compaction, trail widening and vegetation damage can occur but they can be avoided or minimised with appropriate trail siting, design and management. The study also found that rider preferences for downhills, steep slopes, curves and jumps along with water stations and trail markings need to be included in the siting and design of the trails. When multiple-use trails are considered, mountain bikers are willing to share the trail with other users except motorised vehicles.
EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: A rapid increase in mountain biking partici-pation over the past thirty years has led to concerns about ecological impacts to recreation environments, especially trails. It is widely accepted that recreational use of natural areas inevitably results in some degree of change to resource conditions, and managers must consider the social acceptability and ecological significance of such changes in their decision making. The ecological impacts of mountain biking, however, and rela-tionships between impacts and trail features remain poorly understood. This study uses Common Ecological Regions (CERs) as a mapped ecological framework to guide comparative analysis of differences in maximum trail incision and trail width at varying slope levels for mountain bike trails in five CERs in the southwest U.S. A point-measurement trail assessment procedure was utilized to measure maximum incision and width for 163.2 miles of mountain bike trails. Results show a significant effect of CER on trail width and maximum incision and a significant effect of trail slope on maximum trail incision. Maximum trail width and incision were greatest in the Arizona/New Mexico Mountains region, perhaps due to environmental features such as erodable soils and sparse trailside vegetation, higher use, and/or user behavior. Maximum incision increased consistently with slope for three of five CERs. Relative to other trail impact research, the sites assessed in this study were in similar condition to other trails on the specific parameters mea-sured. The findings from this study reinforce results from previous research that certain impacts to mountain bike trails, especially width, are compa-rable or less than hiking or multiple-use trails, and significantly less than impacts to equestrian or off-highway vehicle trails.
Many recent trail degradation problems have been attributed to mountain biking because of its alleged capacity to do more damage than other activities, particularly hiking. This study compared the effects of experimentally applied mountain biking and hiking on the understory vegetation and soil of a deciduous forest. Five different intensities of biking and hiking (i.e., 0, 25, 75, 200 and 500 passes) were applied to 4-m-long x 1-m-wide lanes in Boyne Valley Provincial Park, Ontario, Canada. Measurements of plant stem density, species richness, and soil exposure were made before treatment, two weeks after treatment, and again one year after treatment. Biking and hiking generally had similar effects on vegetation and soil. Two weeks after treatment, stem density and species richness were reduced by up to 100% of pretreatment values. In addition, the amount of soil exposed increased by up to 54%. One year later, these treatment effects were no longer detectable. These results indicate that at a similar intensity of activity, the short-term impacts of mountain biking and hiking may not differ greatly in the undisturbed area of a deciduous forest habitat. The immediate impacts of both activities can be severe but rapid recovery should be expected when the activities are not allowed to continue. Implications of these results for trail recreation are discussed.
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