Biked Out

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.

"David Smith, our best spokesman, couldn't show up at the meeting," Murphy explains a bit sheepishly. "We needed him there. We're all non-assertive, passive, non-aggressive people."

Although HAMBRA is mostly made up of professionals in their 30s and 40s, members often say they've felt intimidated by the more staid committee members, with their distinguished environmentalists' credentials. "The people who have the most power in the oversight committee are white women in their sixties or seventies. They literally speak down to us," Murphy says. Some committee members have bluntly said that in the best of all worlds the trail would be sealed off with razor wire; others call HAMBRA members "bikers," which the cyclists think conjures images of leather-capped hoodlums out of The Wild One.

The cyclists' efforts to preserve access to the trail come at a time that the oversight committee -- in the absence of any overarching parks department policy about the area -- is intensifying its efforts to stave off further development and diminishment of the park's wilderness area. "This committee really feels strongly that the time has come to protect this place," says Blackburn. "If we don't, it will be just as bare and terrible as Hermann Park. Already, if you look at the cover of trees, you can see the future of Memorial Park."

But, like the packed-down dirt and treeless expanses of the playing fields, the Ho Chi Minh Trail may already be an ineluctable part of Memorial Park's present. HAMBRA board members are working hard to make it that way. Last week they began drafting a letter to the parks department and Lanier asking for more mediation; in it, board members say they'd be satisfied cutting the trail down by half.

HAMBRA contends that wholly erasing urban Houston's one sylvan bike trail could create headaches that would make the past year's tensions look fleeting. Although public speaking may not be the cyclists' strong point, they are adept at expressing their feelings on wheels. "If they can't work out a more acceptable compromise, it's just going to stir up a lot of bad feelings," says HAMBRA's David Smith. "If mountain biking becomes, in effect, illegal, the parks department will have to get involved in massive policing to keep the trails sealed. Hundreds of people are going to get ticketed. What I'd like to see them do, instead, is to recognize that there are too many people involved in the sport, who value the trails, to ignore."

Blackburn and the oversight committee, which has retained a geologist to perform its own environmental study, maintain that the park's terrain just isn't rugged enough to sustain the continued onslaught of fat-tired bikes -- even if it's closely monitored.

"Mountain biking is a wonderful vigorous sport, but it's the wrong area for that activity," she says. "That's the problem. After all, the sport is called mountain biking. We don't have mountains.

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