Eagle Creek bike trail brouhaha

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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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