One thing I’ve learned about cyclists in general is that they’re a passionate bunch and very protective of their hobby. So when there’s a direct threat against some element within the cycling community, some resource, or as it turns out in this case, access to a Park trail; however implausible or imagined the threat might be, they’re quick to take up arms and defend their turf.

At least that’s my rationale and explanation for what has happened over the past couple of days.

For quite some time now I’ve been a user of the Park trail systems around my home here in Wisconsin. On days when I feel like mixing it up and taking a longer drive to a trail I’ll load the bike and drive up to Newport State Park in Ellison Bay. Occasionally I’ll head south and take the bike down to Potawatomi State Park in Sturgeon Bay. But mostly, I’ll head for Peninsula State Park in Fish Creek. It’s the best of the three local trails and as it happens it’s only a 10 minute drive by car.

american folklore theatrePeninsula State Park is a pretty spectacular place to ride, walk, hike or ski. Nestled on the Bay of Green Bay it follows the winding shoreline from the tip of Fish Creek to the southern most point of Ephraim. It is home to such renowned landmarks as the American Folklore Theater - a delightful amphitheater fashioned from the surrounding woods and stage to many a Summer play, poetry reading and community gathering.

There are many amenities in the Park including a sheltered beach with on-site concessions and boat rentals (in the Summer), campgrounds, a Nature Center, several Park office locations and Ranger stations and a number of diverse and multi purpose park trails.

In the Summer, the 9.8 mile ‘Sunset Trail’ loops from the #1 Parking Lot adjacent the Ranger station, takes a scenic shoreline path along the Bay, meanders up to the edge of the golf course in Ephraim, then back through the woods to the Park entrance in Fish Creek. The trail is shared by walkers, cyclists, runners, hikers and anyone able to motion along primarily under their own steam. Yes, there are the usual problems during the summer months when something is ‘shared’ and requires some user-discretion. Yes it gets a little busy at times, particularly on the weekends when the Park becomes a magnet for tourists; but in the winter months, the trail becomes a source of immense pleasure for the handful of locals who remain in town for the off-season, and the tourists who venture here to take advantage of our (often) pristine snow.

Of course the Sunset Trail isn’t the only trail at Peninsula State Park, in fact there are many. Picking up a map at the Park Office will reveal all of the designated trails with the usual simplified dots-dashes system for indicating the different uses for the different trails. In the summer, this is all pretty clear, but for winter trail access, less so. We see trails marked for walking, XC skiing, snowmobiling and cycling, but we do not necessarily see much information on multiple use. For example, can a cyclist use a trail designated for snowmobiling, and if so, under what conditions? Is the Sunset Trail still a bike path in the winter, or does it become something else? This information cannot be gleaned easily from the maps and pamphlets that I have seen, nor from information posted on the Park notice boards, at the time of writing.

And so the problem/confusion begins.

fat bikes in state parksSince taking ownership of a new Fat Tire bike in early Fall 2014, I’ve been a regular user of the Peninsula State Park Trail System. During the transition from late Fall to winter, I’ve seen little in the way of any transition in Park signage. The same signs are used to control traffic and access during the summer and winter months. Walking trails are clearly marked as are biking trails and snowmobile trails. But if the status of any of these trails changes during winter, it isn’t clearly evident from the signage.

I consider myself a fairly responsible person so I’ve tried wherever possible to exercise common sense and respect for others’. But at times it has been difficult to know what to do. For example, the ‘Middle Road’ is an asphalt road which is used by motorized vehicles during the non-snow months. On one ride in early January I found myself having to use this road as an emergency detour to get back to the parking lot on my bike, and I quickly realized that sections of the road had been groomed for skiing. I found it rather odd that the entire width of the road, over 20′, had been groomed. This would suggest heavy skiing traffic, whereas in all the time I’ve been out there I’ve only ever seen three people skiing, in total. Now I know that there are many more than three people who ski the park trails, I can see their tracks in the snow, but it isn’t a heavy traffic trail by any means, so why groom the full width of the road?

Other trails are accessible to cyclist in the summer but are designated XC skiing in the winter, and that’s fine. But where a trail can be made multi-use year round, why not do so?

So I’ve continued to ride and I’ve tried to do what’s best for the trails and for other users of the trails. But on January 20th I encountered some new signage around the park, essentially prohibiting the use of Fat Bikes on ALL winter trails.

Peninsula State Park Fat Bike access restrictionsThe first new sign was spotted kitty-corner from the Park Office, across the parking lot at the base of a small XC ski trail. ‘No Fat Tire Bikes Allowed’. My heart dropped when I saw the sign because I knew there was more to come. I rode down Shoreline to the intersection of the first service road and to the point where I generally access the Sunset Trail loop. Sure enough another large sign prohibiting Fat Bike use. This sign prevented access to the Sunset Trail, a designated cycling trail.

This seemed bizarre and my first reaction was that these were not official Park signs. They sure didn’t look very official. Then I recalled the first sign I’d seen opposite the Rangers’ Station and clearly visible from the Park office. Had it not been official it would have been seen and removed.

The consequence of this new restriction sank home very quickly. My first reaction was a sense of outrage as it seemed unfair and nonsensical. The Sunset Trail is a very rough and choppy trail that’s used mostly by people walking and hiking in the winter. sunset park trail fish creekIt’s where people walk their dogs, jog etc and it certainly isn’t the type of snow surface which needs to be protected from cyclists. And, it’s the main bike trail for crying out loud! You can see surface typical of the Sunset Trail in the image to the right. [click to expand].

I decided to turn around and ride back to the Park office to consult whomever was in attendance to try to get to the bottom of this. Fortunately the office had just closed for the day. I probably wasn’t of the right mind to hold a constructive conversation at this point, better to let the dust settle and to sleep on it.

I then thought about the other access points to Sunset along the road, and wondered if perhaps I could access the trail farther north of this point. So I cycled the road and saw the same restrictive signage at each of the access points. I then rode up to Lot #5 and saw more signage.

Whomever had taken this decision had pretty much sewn up the whole park trail system.

The Power of Social Media

Later that evening I was still fuming and decided, rather foolishly, to vent my frustration of Facebook. I’m a member of the group aptly titled ‘Fat Bikes‘, an online community with over 6200 members, and one which I have turned to numerous times to both gather and share information.

I basically posted a report of my findings along with the images you see on this post, and invited comments. Over 100 people participated in the discussion and there were many constructive viewpoints. Clearly, the community feels the same passion as I do and the same sense of injustice when it seems, on the surface, that a resource is being taken away from us. The sense of injustice included the feeling that Fat Bikers were being singled out for unfair attention, clearly the signage could have one feeling no other way.

The following morning I called the Park office and introduced myself to Kelli Bruns, the Park Superintendent. Ms. Bruns was extremely polite and helpful and extremely receptive to my requests for clarification on the new signage and the status of Fat Tire bikes at Peninsula State Park.

The following is a summary of the telephone conversation which took place:

  1. Yes, the signs were erected by the Park Ranger in reaction to ‘one or two’ complaints by skiers. Ms. Bruns suggested the issue may have arisen from people renting Fat Bikes on the weekend, from the local bike shop.
  2. We talked about the need for rental shops to ensure that people are given clear instruction on where they can ride and also instructions on trail etiquette. [In fairness to the rental shop owners, specifically Nor-Door Sports and ‘Edge of Park Rentals’, clarity is somewhat missing. I’m a regular trail user and it certainly isn’t clear to me, even now, where I can ride and where I cannot ride, so how can winter trail information be communicated clearly to a casual renter?].
  3. Ms. Bruns made it clear that the decision to post signage may have been hasty [‘hasty’ was not the word she used but it was the sentiment she offered in her tone], in the sense that signs may have been erected at trail access points where access shouldn’t be restricted.
  4. Ms. Bruns is going to review the signs and their location over the course of the day, and hopefully clarify what is restricted and what isn’t.
  5. Regarding the established bike path (Sunset Trail), Ms. Bruns confirmed that the trail is open, even though most of the restrictions are clearly placed at access points on to that trail. (they will resolve this later today)

state park access restricted to snow bikersMs. Bruns went on to reiterate some of the basic access restrictions, which in fact, up to this point, have not been clearly posted at the location. [when I checked yesterday the only signage I could find relating to ‘Winter Cycling’ was posted at lot#5 in Ephraim, which is a restricted access point and an area where very few bikers would head for anyway].

For clarity - biking is allowed on all paved roadways and designated snowmobile trails, so long as the trails are open. [The problem here is that the trails are hardly ever open to snowmobiles due to the short supply of snow this season, so it looks like Fat Bikers would be unfairly restricted based on conditions that don’t really apply to them].

Winter cycling is not allowed on any hiking/snowshoes/xc ski trails - and thus lies part of the issue, since sections of the Sunset Bike trail have been groomed for XC Skiing. According to Ms. Bruns, a local club or organization may have groomed one or more sections of the Sunset Trail for ski use. Though she did not specifically say this, it would make sense that it would have been someone involved in the grooming process who would have objected to the groomed trail section being used by cyclists.

The Park office appear to have reacted to the complaint(s) by making the entire 10 mile loop restricted access for fat bikes. It seems, again reading between the lines, that this decision was made rather hastily without assessing the full implications. Clearly this will be the area that the Park Super focuses on today when she assesses the signage and what is and what is not restricted.

There shouldn’t be any groomed sections on the Sunset Trail, period. There are miles and miles of off-trail possibilities for XC grooming which do not impinge on the bike trail. Also, Fat Bikes should not be restricted from snowmobile trails when the trails are closed to snowmobiles. We are not snowmobiles and our needs are different.

In the next few days I’ll be watching carefully the changes (if any) made to the exclusion signage and I’ll update this blog as changes occur. I’ll also be offering to help, in whatever capacity I can. Perhaps there’s some requirement for liaison between the Park and the local biking community, or perhaps some way of helping rental shops instruct their customers on trail access and etiquette. I’ll offer my time and resources to the Park office and see if it leads anywhere.

peninsula state park restricted to snow bikersI believe that we’re going to be seeing more of these issues arise as Fat Biking continues to gain in popularity. I think it’s important to stand our ground and see to it that we’re integrated into the winter outdoor recreation community and not ostracized and essentially banned from it.

It’s important not to let negative actions become a precedent against which other decisions are viewed and made. This will take some effort. Clearly the easy thing to do is to block access to the minority to protect the rights of the majority, who can and will shout loudest. But we all know where that leads us in the longer term.

I want to round off by saying that I think the Park Office do a fantastic job at Peninsula State Park. I can’t begin to imagine the scope of their responsibility and the diversity of issues they must deal with on a daily basis.

I’ve heard various people over the years comment negatively when discussing the Park system both at State and National levels. Oftentimes the negativity relates to restricted access and/or the cost of entry/permits. It’s not unusual to hear comments like: “If we can’t have access to it, what are we paying for and what’s the point of it being there?”. Obviously this is a selfish and ignorant stance to take, but I do think when one asks the question: “why can’t we access it”, then there needs to be a satisfactory answer.

FMB

Jan 21 2015

 

Resources: (If you know of additional resources pertinent to the issue, please post them in the comments sections and I’ll update this post as needed).

Peninsula State Park - From Green Bay, take State Highway 57 north toward Sturgeon Bay. From Manitowoc, Take State Highway 42 north toward Sturgeon Bay. Before you get to Sturgeon Bay, Highways 57 and 42 join. Stay on State Highway 42 north to Fish Creek, where the highway turns east (right). Go 0.5 mile farther on Highway 42; the park entrance is on the north (left).

Peninsula State Park
9462 Shore Rd.
Fish Creek, WI 54212
Phone: 920-868-3258

^ Why not contact them and show your support for the Fat Bike community.

IMBA (International Mountain Biking Association) - Join them, your money helps

A Guideline on Fat Biking ‘best practices’, issued by the IMBA. This may be a useful seed document for State Parks and other land managers. View Here