Austin riders challenge city’s closure of motorcycle trail at Emma Long

The riders call it Itch Mountain. At least in polite company.

It is the steep side of a limestone gulch, about 20 feet from base to lip, studded with a few cedars and an array of boulders. That rugged terrain is what draws a small group of Austin motorcycle riders: They seek out obstacles to navigate, adding challenges as they compete to see who can pull off the most difficult trick.

Up until last fall, that is what they had been doing. But environmental concerns led the city of Austin to close down sections of the unusual motorcycle park that sits within Emma Long Park. The motorcycle park-within-a-park sits within the vast Balcones Canyonlands Preserve, on the western edge of Austin. City officials say federal rules obligate them to close a stretch of the motorcycle trails to protect a creekbed from harm. The riders insist they are not harming anything.

“If this is about seeing tracks, yes, you can see some tracks,” said Tomás Pantin, one of the trial riders, pointing to a track rising up the side of Itch Mountain. “If this is about the landscape, the landscape is unaffected by what we’re doing.”

That disagreement, which will be aired next month before the quasi-governmental committee that oversees the preserve, is the latest in the long-running dispute about what people should be allowed to do within that 23,000-acre nature preserve.

Balcones was created in the mid-1990s to ease tensions between the rapid development happening in picturesque western Travis County and the concerns about harming the environment — particularly the habitat of endangered insects, salamanders and songbirds.

Federal and local officials struck a grand compromise. The city and county governments agreed to set aside significant amounts of land for preservation, and development proceeded on a smaller scale. Protracted development disputes that would have enveloped much of western Travis County were averted.

But another conflict emerged: Who gets to use the preserve?

A few years ago, bicyclists and runners were denied access to a portion of the preserve amid concerns that their presence could harm the endangered golden-cheeked warblers and black-capped vireos. Later, some residents grew frustrated because preserve rules barred them from hunting feral hogs to thin a population that was at times escaping into neighborhoods. The Leander school district has also been trying, thus far unsuccessfully, to run a road through preserve land, to help with what students and parents say is a harrowing drive some of them must make to get to Vandegrift High School.

The riders who seek out Itch Mountain are a subset of Austin’s off-road motorcycle community, to which the city granted full access in 1970 to 238 of Emma Long Park’s 1,150 acres. The riders secured government grants, gathered up volunteers and built a gravel parking lot, trail head, pavilion and pathways.

The motorcycle park was added to the Balcones preserve at the preserve’s mid-1990s creation. Under the complex set of agreements, no more trails can be added under most circumstances. But motorcyclists could continue using the existing trails, as long as the trails did not suffer environmental degradation. That set of rules was put in place to protect valuable and sensitive environmental features, such as creek beds.

Willy Conrad, who manages the preserve for the city, said the motorcycles were causing significant erosion along Connors Creek. Thus the city declared about a quarter-mile of the Connors Creek trail “closed for restoration” in September. Other trails were removed from the city’s map of permissible routes. (Motorcyclists say the official closure also limits access to other trails.)

City officials said there are broader legal implications if they are lax about enforcing preserve rules. For example, if the federal government determines the city is not holding up its end, the streamlined permitting process could be revoked, forcing developers to instead navigate endangered species-related rules that could hold up a project for years.

“Even if that trail is grandfathered, we still have an over-arching responsibility to protect the environmental features,” Conrad said. “It is part of the broad and complex authorization” that made the preserve possible.

The city did leave open the 5-mile main motorcycle trail, which runs along the perimeter of the motorcycle park. But the main trail does not provide the challenge sought by some of the motorcyclists, who are known as “trial riders.”

Trial riders practice a sport that is like a mechanized mix of off-road biking, obstacle-course navigation and skateboard tricks. Riders stand. (The bikes have no seats.) The point is to keep their feet from touching the ground or stalling the motor.

“We trial riders go slowly. It’s a very difficult skill,” Pantin said. “It’s more balance and control than, ‘we’ve got the balls to go really fast’.”

The trial riders said they were upset about losing the Connors Creek trail because it provided access to many of the best rocky “sections,” or challenging places such as Itch Mountain.

Pantin, a professional photographer, and Kent Browning, an engineer, say the riders are being unfairly blamed for erosion that is caused by nature.

As the two hiked recently along nearby Goose Creek, where motorcycles and bicycles are not allowed, Browning pointed out a tree that is “pyramiding” at the base as the soil around its roots washes away over time. There are places where the pathway is all but gone.

Conrad acknowledged there are areas with natural erosion — but he said that doesn’t prove the riders aren’t also damaging the area along Connors Creek.

The dispute will be aired more fully when the committee that oversees the preserve holds its August meeting. Travis County Commissioner Gerald Daugherty, who sits on the committee, asked earlier this month for a full presentation from the city staff that addresses the riders’ allegations.

The other voting member of the committee, Austin City Council Member Leslie Pool, has walked the Connors Creek trail and told the American-Statesman she is satisfied with the city staff’s reasons for closing it.

Pool said the city has offered to work with the motorcyclists to find an alternate trail, as part of a larger master-planning process. Pantin and Browning say they distrust that offer, partly on the advice of Richard Viktorin, a runner and trails advocate who has been trying for years to persuade the city to open more trails in the preserve. Viktorin said the city is simply trying to stretch out discussions until the motorcyclists give up.

Pool said that accusation is untrue, adding she thinks the motorcycle riders should adhere to a core tenant of the International Mountain Bicycling Association: “Leave no trace.”

“The problem is that the Hill Country is an area with so little soil,” Pool said, a phenomenon caused when cattle farmers overgrazed the once-grassy hillsides and flash floods washed away much of the dirt. What remains along creeks, she said, “can be beaten up fairly easily.”

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