A lesson for mountain bike advocates

Several years ago, I was the president of a mountain bike advocacy group called ROMP, Responsible Organized Mountain Pedalers. ROMP exists for two purposes, to organize fun rides and to convince land owners and park managers to allow or expand bike access to public lands. They do other things like organize trail work groups to help out the land managers but really their efforts are geared towards convincing people that mountain bikers are not adrenaline-crazed jerks who tear up trails, scare hikers, abuse horsemen and eat little children.

The main group that ROMP works with is Mid-Peninsula Regional Open Space District but they also work with State Parks, County Parks, County Supervisors and other groups. They have all the land on the San Francisco Bay peninsula and they’re only responsible to their own Board of Directors. Our method was to show up at public meetings and try to convince them to let us ride our bikes on their land. And in the course of attending dozens of meetings of various boards I learned a very important lesson and also learned that most people will never learn this lesson. So this post is my attempt to pass along my great insight.

What I learned is that the one thing you cannot ask of a parks board, and the thing that most people ask most often, is for the board to do nothing. Here’s what I mean. (I’ll explain this in terms of a park board but the same thing holds true for your county board of supervisors, city council or any governing body, as far as I can tell)

Typically a park board will be considering who should be allowed to use a particular piece of land. They’ll have their staff (rangers and planners) make recommendations and the staff will recommend whatever is easiest for them to implement. That makes sense because the staff have limited resources and they’re pretty busy already so they try to constrain any new work. Since hikers rarely venture more than a mile from the trailhead the staff will recommend a one-mile loop trail be built next to the parking lot and that the rest of the park be off-limits to all users except horsemen (who are very low in numbers in CA and whom rarely travel far from home because they have to load their horses in a trailer and drive to the trailhead, which is a pain). The staff will do an environmental impact report and spend a bunch of money studying the proposals that they will make to the board. When they’ve got everything all neat and tidy and ready to present, the board will call a public meeting and the staff will present their recommendations.

Now at this point the Board already knows what the staff will recommend since they were part of the planning process and they know that the staff have spent a bucketload of money preparing their recommendations. And now the public comes in and there will be two groups of people: those that are getting what they want and those who are not. The folks who are getting what they want will say that the plan is a great idea and recommend adoption of the staff plan. The folks who are not getting what they want will say that the staff plan is horrible and will ask the board to throw it away and start over or do exactly what the staff recommended against. And here’s the lesson: THEY CAN’T DO THAT.

The one thing that a board cannot do is to go against the recommendations of the “experts” that they hired to make recommendations and to throw away the plans that they just paid a bucketload of money for. They can’t do that. They’d look stupid, they would have nothing to show for the money that they’ve already spent, their staff would quit, and they’d probably be liable for any problems that cropped up later since they didn’t listen to their own experts. And yet dozens (or hundreds) of people will get up and spend countless hours asking for exactly what the board can’t do. This is futile. Don’t do it. Here’s the only thing you can do.

Pick one point in the staff recommendations that you REALLY hate and suggest an alternative. Don’t waste time saying that the whole rest of the plan is junk. The board loves when you do that. They know that you’re eating up the 2 minutes you’ve been granted to speak and they will be free to ignore you. But if you concentrate on one specific point in the plan AND suggest a viable alternative that is more palatable to you there’s a small chance that you might get what you want. And if you get 5 or 6 other people to do the same thing and suggest the same alternative, they might pay attention. At the very least there might be one board member who will suggest that the staff spend time re-examining their recommendations in the light of your alternative. Maybe. If you’re lucky. And the moon is in the right phase.

Now I know what you’re thinking. This is a loaded deck and the advocate can’t win. And, you say, I’m suggesting that you go along with that. You’re right. Deal with it. You’re going to get screwed. Accept that and move on. But try to find the one or two things that you just can’t put up wth and suggest an alternative. And you might get something. If nothing else the board won’t be able to ignore the whole public comment period because every person is eating up their two minutes asking that they do nothing, the one thing they cannot do. Heck, our parks boards might even pay attention to the public commentary for a change.

Oh, and BTW, don’t bother pointing out that in the recent case of staff recommendations for a single isolated bike trail in Huddart Park the board listened to the “throw out the plan crowd” and did exactly what I said they couldn’t do. That’s an unusual case in that the opposition had titles like “CEO”, “Founder and President”, “Academy Award-winnging Actor”, etc in front of their names while the pro-bike crowd had titles like “jerk on a hardtail”. That effort was screwed from the get-go.

Explore posts in the same categories: mountain biking, Uncategorized

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