For more than a decade, Hoosier mountain bikers have been transforming parks across the state, building and maintaining dozens of acclaimed new trails, free of charge to taxpayers.
Bikers have now set their sights on Eagle Creek Park, the city's largest, hoping to turn a mishmash of poorly constructed walking paths on the park's far west side into a new six-mile multi-use trail system.
Supporters argue the new trails could bring in hundreds, if not thousands of new users to the park, and bring in much needed additional revenue to the cash-strapped Indy Parks.
But many longtime users of the park balk at the idea of pedal pushers invading their trails and potentially disturbing the wildlife they love to observe.
"If you bring in hundreds of people (to that section of the park), it changes the character, serenity and quaintness of it forever," Susan Blair, head of the Pike Township Residents Association, said. "That has to be heavily considered."
Indy Parks officials are now faced with multiple questions: Should areas of the park be preserved for passive activity and quiet study of nature? Is mountain biking an appropriate use of space so close to a nature preserve? Can bikers, hikers and other trail users co-exist on the same trails?
Officials have long been opposed to mountain biking at Eagle Creek, but a recent change of leadership at the parks department and Mayor Greg Ballard's support of bicycling in the city have thrown open the possibility. Hundreds of remonstrators from both sides of the issue packed the Pike Performing Arts Center recently to give their thoughts during an Indy Parks-sponsored session.
There's currently no timetable for a decision to be made, but everyone seems to agree mountain biking is years away from becoming a reality at the park. Trail designs would have to be approved and then brought to life by Hoosier Mountain Biking Association's army of volunteers.
Jen Pittman, assistant director for Indy Parks, didn't return multiple phone calls seeking comment.
According to information supplied by trail opponent Mary Bookwalter, the west side of the park is home to several bird species that are rare or imperiled in the state, including the black-crowned night heron, Henslow's sparrow and the blue-winged warbler. Birdwatchers consider that section of the park to be a buffer zone between the abutting Eagle's Crest Nature Preserve and the more heavily trafficked east side of the park.
A similar situation unfolded in Fort Harrison State Park several years ago.
Birdwatchers squawked at proposed plans for multi-use trails, claiming birds would be affected. A comprehensive Purdue naturalist study led to shortened trails that were plotted around much of the nesting area. Studies are ongoing, but there has been no evidence so far the trails have had a negative impact on the bird species at the park.
In fact, Paul Arlinghaus, Hoosier Mountain Bike Association president and one of the loudest proponents of the trails, believes building better, sustainable trails that can be used by both hikers and bikers would be a better for the birds in the long run.
"The current fall-line trails cause erosion and are ultimately damaging the environment," Arlinghaus said. "We want to build trails that will keep people on them, and not traipsing through the woods disturbing the wildlife."
Birds do nest on the west side of the park, but it's far from pristine, virgin forest. Much of the property is reclaimed farmland and filled with barbed wire and garbage. Because that area of the park is so infrequently visited, scofflaws will often dump trash or commit other illegal acts there. Adding trails and mountain bikers to the mix would keep the area safer and cleaner, claims trail advocate Jonathan Juillerat.
Bookwalter was sympathetic to the bikers, but scoffed at the notion they could observe nature the same way she does.
"When you're riding at 8 or 10 mph, you're not seeing the snake on the trail," Bookwalter said. "You're running it over."
Arlinghaus said many of the trail opponents have outdated and false notions about mountain bikers that have led to their consternation. The knobby-tired set aren't a bunch of adrenaline junkies who speed down the trail with little regard for other users, he said.
"People are resistant to change," Arlinghaus said. "Few (of the opponents) have taken the time to see what we've done at Brown County State Park and other areas of the city and state. It's hard to get them to see the benefit of any outdoor activities other than the ones they engage in."
Many opponents are open to bike trails, but only on the more heavily trafficked east side of the park where they say birds wouldn't be disturbed. They also insist on a one-to-two-year trial run before the trails become permanent. But Arlinghaus claims allowing mountain bikes on the east side would spark battles with other, much larger user groups, namely hikers and trail runners.
Mountain bikers seem amicable to a compromise but are reluctant to spend months or years building trails for a mere trial period. Arlinghaus said his group has more than proven itself over the years, referring to its close relationship with the Indiana Department of Natural Resources, which gave HMBA its Trail Organization of the Year award in 2009.
Mountain biking is currently permitted in three parks in Indianapolis, the aforementioned Fort Harrison on the Eastside, Town Run Trail Park on the Northside, and Southwestway Park on the Southside. At each park, HMBA volunteers not only build and maintain trails, they often clean up trash, fight invasive species and other tasks.
Although the mountain bikers built the trails, other groups use them, as well, and are given right-of-way. At Fort Harrison, signs line the trail telling bikers to yield to walkers.
When city officials do decide on the trails, at least one group is likely to be left angry.
"Nature is at a premium here (in Indianapolis)," said Jeff Stant, a new trail opponent. "It's a shame two groups with overlapping interests have to go to war over it."
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