Biked Out

Time may be up for the Ho Chi Minh Trail

Dan Murphy seemed stunned.
He and other members of the Houston Area Mountain Bike Riders Association (HAMBRA) had met last week with the board of the Memorial Park Oversight Committee in hopes of resolving a long-standing dispute over the continued existence of the bike trail that wends its way through 20 miles of the park. And the two sides did agree on most points, except for one. By the time the meeting ended, Murphy says, it appeared the bike path, known to cycling enthusiasts as the Ho Chi Minh Trail, was destined to be slashed to two miles -- or about ten minutes' worth of bike time per loop.

Although HAMBRA members opposed the reduction, the full committee, which controls the Memorial Park trust left by philanthropist Ima Hogg, is slated to vote on the plan formally sometime next month.

"We kind of felt bulldozed," says Murphy. "Even though we agreed with the committee members on eight of nine points about the trail, because of the ninth point -- the mileage -- it was like a defeat."

Ten years ago, when off-road biking was novel, a handful of cyclists first began carving out the meandering trail between Buffalo Bayou and Memorial Drive from a decades-old horse path. Today, about 1,000 riders pedal the leafy trail's dips and curves every weekend. Although the route has been a de facto park facility for years, the oversight committee argues that its continued use is eroding the park's soil and killing its trees.

The conflict peaked in a standoff a year ago -- when the committee announced the trails would be closed, and hundreds of area mountain bikers unleashed an immense letter-writing campaign in protest.

After the deluge of letters -- reportedly the highest volume of mail on one issue ever sent to City Hall -- Mayor Bob Lanier turned to both groups and asked that they try to reach a compromise. So the Ho Chi Minh Trail, which includes threadlike, barely discernible paths, worn clay gullies and a few sections as wide as six feet, remained open. HAMBRA members, in return, set to work policing and educating riders. Cyclists wheeling toward Memorial Park's woods now find signs at the trailhead listing safety and maintenance rules and warning them away when the forest floor is wet and thus at its most fragile. Murphy, whose West End Cycles shop is located a few blocks from the trail, walks his dogs on the path early each morning and contributes trail reports to the hot line HAMBRA maintains.

But all these attentions, no matter how well-intended, just aren't enough, says oversight committee chairman Sadie Gwynn Blackburn. "After speaking to the members of HAMBRA, it's clear that this is a very responsible group," acknowledges Blackburn, who used to work closely with Ima Hogg. "But this is an inappropriate area for that kind of activity. It's the only large area of pristine forest in Houston, the only place where anyone can go and see what this area looked like before the skyscrapers were built. This land was a donated gift by the Hogg family for the city of Houston for that express purpose. I must tell you that there were a great many projects proposed for Memorial Park that Miss Ima turned down."

Numerous projects did make it, though -- notably volleyball, softball and rugby fields not far from the Ho Chi Minh Trail. The presence of the fields, and the trees unearthed to build these recreational spots, seem particularly ironic to HAMBRA.

Murphy doesn't speak up much in the meetings over the path because he worries that people will think he is motivated only by business concerns. But in person, he'll argue that mountain bikers are sincere environmentalists. "We're not condemning other use groups, but when they build sports fields they have to bulldoze hundreds of trees," he says. "I don't think we've ever killed a tree in Memorial Park."

Jim Edwards, a geologist and HAMBRA board member who voluntarily performed a study of the area, rejects outright the notion that bikers are eroding Memorial Park's soil. "Buffalo Bayou used to be clogged up. At the turn of the century, it was cleared in order to make it drain better. This may be why it is running faster and been cutting down into its bed," he says. "In any case, organic material is getting eroded naturally on such a huge scale there that any human impact is dwarfed."

The nine-point proposal unveiled at last week's meeting was crafted by the city's Parks and Recreation Department in the hopes of appeasing both sides. After the uproar last year, HAMBRA, the parks department and the oversight committee all quietly retreated to their respective corners, seeking out possible solutions to the dispute on their own. On April 7, HAMBRA board members received word on the parks department's proposal: a series of safety and maintenance measures -- and the reduction of the Ho Chi Minh Trail network to two miles.

HAMBRA members say they didn't have time to prepare a response prior to last week's meeting to discuss the proposal with the oversight committee. And, they say, a peculiar cultural trait of HAMBRA members also put them at a disadvantage.

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