Panic in Memorial Park

Mountain bike enthusiast Jason Horan steered his small pickup truck, with his bicycle in the bed, into the parking lot of the southern half of Memorial Park near the entrance to what area cyclists refer to as the Ho Chi Minh trails -- 15 miles of cycling trails through the thick woods. He and a couple of friends had converged on the park at the same time and were debating the ramifications of a sign on the bulletin board near the trail entrance that says the trail has been closed because of erosion resulting from misuse by mountain bikers. It was the first Horan and his friends had heard of the decision, and they were none too pleased.

"They spend money to maintain the rest of the park," observed Horan. "Why not spend some on the trails? It should be up to the city to maintain it."

Why not, indeed, was the question being asked by scores of other cyclists last week. At his nearby bicycle shop, Dan Murphy was trying to do some business, but the telephone just kept ringing. The people on the other end were in a panic about the problem in Memorial Park.

"Just bring your positive suggestions to the meeting," suggested Murphy for the hundredth time in the past three hours. Almost all the calls concerned the closing of the Ho Chi Minh trails, terra firma for hundreds of avid mountain bike riders in Houston. But the problem is, city park officials no longer consider that terra quite so firma.

The Ho Chi Minh trails are a maze of mostly narrow passages through the 250 acres of the park situated between Memorial Drive and Buffalo Bayou. Look up, and trees and vines obscure the sky. But look down, and you're likely to see deep ruts that have been cut by the wide, knobby tires of mountain bikes. It's a situation that many local environmentalists, such as Audubon Society president Gary Woods, find alarming.

According to Woods, during the last two years erosion in the park has escalated dramatically. He also says bikers have strayed from the main cycling course, cutting new trails. The result, he says, is the destruction of habitats.

"Memorial Park is one of the very few somewhat pristine areas in Houston," says Woods. "That's being attacked principally by the mountain bikers. As they wear down the trail they attract all the water and the runoff to the trail. That increases erosion by twenty- or fifty-fold. So we're actually losing areas of land. Tree roots are exposed. There are some places where trees are in danger of falling into the bayou because the erosion is so great."

Concerns such as those led to the decision to close the Ho Chi Minh trails, a decision reached in the last few weeks by Parks and Recreation director William Smith. Two weeks ago, members of the Houston Area Mountain Bike Riders Association (HAMBRA) were summoned to a meeting at the Houston Arboretum with Smith and members of various environmental groups. In past meetings, says bike shop owner Dan Murphy, there had been an open exchange of dialogue and ideas. This time, however, the plan to close the park was already a done deal.

"The purpose of the meeting was to let us know that mountain bikes were going to be excluded from the park," says Murphy, who adds that he and his cohorts feel like they were ambushed.

"I think that's probably true," says Glenda Barrett, who attended the meeting and, as executive director of the Park People, an environmental group, supports closing the bike trails. "I can understand they would have felt that way. It was a very uncomfortable feeling, because they were shocked."

However, in Barrett's opinion, while many mountain bikers have acted responsibly, as a group they haven't lived up to an agreement they signed off on a year ago. In that agreement, according to a City of Houston news release dated March 11, 1993, HAMBRA said it would manage the Memorial Park mountain bike trails on trial basis.

"HAMBRA has agreed to provide volunteer labor and materials to assist in the renovation and maintenance of the designated trails, as well as to be responsible for keeping riders informed and educated as to their responsibilities as trail users," reads the release.

HAMBRA, which estimates that 1,000 riders use the trails weekly, doesn't deny that there is erosion in the woods. Nor does the group deny that it hasn't lived up to many of the promises made last March. However, the cyclists claim that their hands have been tied because they have no authority to prevent outlaw bikers from cutting new trails. Nor, they say, were they ever given approval to fulfill the renovation and maintenance part of their bargain. And, they contend, whatever failings there have been, there should still be room for compromise between mountain bikers, the city and environmental groups. One such compromise that HAMBRA has proposed is a trail-user fee that would fund erosion control -- to the degree, that is, that there's been erosion at all, a situation some bikers believe has been exaggerated.

"There has been some erosion," Murphy says, "but what's never compared is the little bit we've caused versus building a baseball diamond or a golf course -- all the facilities they have in the park. I'm guessing that to bulldoze a baseball diamond kills a thousand trees. And in the ten years that I've ridden on those trails, I've seen maybe two saplings that have accidentally been killed. Plus, the fire roads that the city has bulldozed are actually the ones that hold the water and get chewed up the most. Those are the worst spots on the trail."

Of course, statements such as that, which seem to dismiss any culpability on the part of mountain bikers, may be one reason that compromise has been so hard to come by. Since the announcement about the trail closing, Murphy and other HAMBRA members have been passing out fliers that urge riders to call and complain to city officials. But if HAMBRA members are hopping mad, so is parks director Smith, who sounds like he has tire tracks all across his back. He compares the bikers to children who have broken a promise with their parents and are now being punished.

"An agreement was reached with HAMBRA a little over a year ago, and that agreement has been breached," says a steamed Smith, who adds that he has seen some areas where exposed tree roots have been hacked with axes for easier passage.

Smith seems almost as upset by HAMBRA's response to the situation as he is by the erosion itself. The director points to HAMBRA's fliers, which state that "in face of ever increasing erosion and overuse, complete closure of all mountain bike trails seems to be [the city's] solution." Smith maintains that the bikers are ignoring his plans to construct an alternative path.

"We have proposed moving them from one set of trails to another set of trails in a less environmentally fragile area," says the director. In hopes of alleviating bikers' fears that such trails would not be as geographically stimulating as the gullies and hairpin turns that punctuate the existing course, the parks department has acquired the services of an architect to design what Smith describes as a "new and more interesting" bike path. But the cyclists say the dearth of bike routes in Houston gives them little reason for confidence in the alternative plan.

Smith says the decision to close the Ho Chi Minh trails -- which ironically came during a week set aside to promote biking to work -- is no longer open to debate. Nevertheless, hardcore riders continue to insist the issue is far from being resolved.

"It's not going to be a problem," maintains David Smith, a local energy company executive and HAMBRA member. "I'm not overconfident. I just think that there are so many people in the community that enjoy using the trails. And this isn't, in general, a group of just 18-year-old high school kids and bike messengers. This is a very significant, responsible part of the community that likes to ride over there."

Mayor Bob Lanier has given a slight indication that there is still a chance for compromise. Audubon Society president Gary Woods agrees. "Maybe in the future we can figure out a way to allow the mountain bikers to keep using the area without degrading and destroying the habitat," he says.

But in the meantime, it's happy trails to the Ho Chi Minh trails.


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