Ten Years Gone: New Jersey's Essex County Mountain Bike Ban

Dirt Rag
October 2005

I saw the best riders of my generation destroyed by madness: college, jobs and trail closures. At its peak, my riding community was hundreds strong, men and women from the suburbs of northern New Jersey who knew no finer pleasure than threading a line down a craggy singletrack. My home turf was South Mountain Reservation, in Essex County, and I knew it more intimately than I yet knew anyone of the opposite sex. I rode in groups and alone. I rode in every kind of weather, if only for the defamiliarization that comes with ice and snow. If there were just one new gouge in a favorite fallen log from someone else's chainring, I'd notice. The way the weeds, ruts and rocks defined the trail just so, it was my self-appointed task to explore and memorize. I noted the seasonal and even diurnal changes in the woods. And I came to love the trail names, which were handed down to me from elder riders, along with the apocryphal tales of previous generations of daredevils who had mastered the trails. And in my memories, the gilding on those teenage years turns red at the point when the county declared mountain biking illegal in South Mountain.

I didn't stop riding for a moment, but fears of a cop confiscating my bike changed the tenor of the experience. The trails, already neglected by the Parks Department, fell into greater disrepair. And eventually, when these conditions combined with the usual upheavals of growing up, I would lose the urge to ride the trails that had been my haven.

Today, ten years after the ban went into effect, signs at the trailheads read: "Mountain Bicycles and Motor Bikes are forbidden on woodland trails because of soil erosion" - one has been helpfully emended here with the word "bullshit" - "Violators are subject to a $100 fine and vehicles are subject to confiscation."

In the spring of 1995, a vituperative hiker reminded officials in Essex County, New Jersey of a nearly forgotten ordinance forbidding cyclists from venturing off paved paths in county parks. The ordinance predated the explosion of mountain biking. Hikers' opinions of mountain bikers ran the gamut from approval to outright hatred; those of the latter persuasion were most vocal. Until the rediscovery of this ban, South Mountain Reservation had been the premier dirt destination in northern New Jersey. Not only did the park boast singletrack nearest to New York City, it was some of the most varied trail for at least fifty miles around, with an emphasis on the gnarly, the technical and the off-camber. Due to neglect, even the deeply rutted and rocky fire roads required the finesse for which east coast riders are known. There were, however, some parts of the 2,047-acre park which resemble west coast riding - patches of conifer forest, with widely spaced trees and rolling trails cut between them on a bed of pine needles. Not all the singletrack was extremely technical: some was quite fast and smooth, but there were also several steeps, such as Stonehenge or Oh Shit, which had body counts heaped upon their revered names.

Essex is one of the smallest counties in New Jersey, but it is distinct for counting among its municipalities Newark, East Orange and Irvington - some of the poorest, roughest urban areas on the east coast - in addition to Short Hills, Essex Fells and North Caldwell - some of the richest towns in New Jersey, with median incomes well over $100,000. Essex County is the setting for Philip Roth's postwar tales of suburbia, and its towns became the new homes of the vanguard of middle-class Jews and Italians who, beginning in the 1950s, fled the cities aided by the opportunities afforded by the GI Bill and low-interest mortgages. Reservations like South Mountain, which borders four of these rich suburbs, were part of the area's appeal: hilly, forested idylls where one could find repose as well as recreation. In fact, Essex's was the first county park commission in the United States, organized in 1895 to safeguard open space in the midst of growth and a booming local economy. Even though the county's official website extols the park system's virtues, the reality is that the parks have less budgetary priority than urban social services and policing, not to mention the infrastructure necessary to keep Newark Airport and Port Newark humming with commerce (and tax revenue rolling in).

Like all other New Jersey counties, Essex is governed by a Board of Chosen Freeholders. This arcane body is responsible for recommending how to divvy up the meager county budget as well as acting as a liaison to various county agencies (the Parks Department among them) and writing ordinances. Additionally, Essex has a County Executive who is not answerable to the Freeholders - rather, he has the power to approve or squash the ordinances they recommend - and who gets budgetary line-item veto power. (And you thought the electoral college was silly.) The County Executive at the time of the mountain biking ban, James Treffinger, was not, as far as I can tell, particularly concerned with the regulatory minutia of the park system. Like most of the Freeholders, he wanted an expedient solution that would appease the most voters. Treffinger had inherited a county on the verge of bankruptcy after his predecessor was sent to prison on charges of corruption. In 2000, Treffinger made headlines himself by telling the cable channel HBO it could not use county property while filming its hit drama about Mafiosi living in Essex County, The Sopranos. He was worried that the program was giving people the wrong idea, that Essex County might seem awash with crooks and thieves. Less than two years later, Treffinger was under a twenty-count indictment for fraud, extortion and obstruction. Furthermore, in the week before the Freeholders voted on the ban, one member of the nine-person board was indicted, while others began a routine of prayer breakfasts before each day's administrative activities. This colorful panorama is the political background of the mountain biking ban.

South Mountain Reservation, in addition to being known for its trails, is famous for its drug dealers, its pick-up spots for the closeted rich of the county, its headless/handless/footless corpses dumped in garbage bags, its grandfatherly public masturbators, its springs which fill jug after jug for local immigrant families despite the "non-potable" sign, its goats sacrificed to Satan in deep fire pits, as well as its awesome views of New York City and the surrounding suburbs, its scout camps, picture-perfect waterfalls (as long as you don't mind a little graffiti in your pictures), equestrian paths, barbecues, reservoirs, diverse trees, egrets, deer, chipmunks and wild turkeys. Like almost all of Essex County's parks, South Mountain was designed by the Olmsted family. The patriarch, Frederick, who designed Newark's Branch Brook Park, in addition to Brooklyn's Prospect Park and Manhattan's Central Park, thought the terrain that would become South Mountain Reservation was beautiful and promising as a public space. Unlike most Olmsted parks, the two reservations in Essex were designed to be left essentially wild. The Olmsteds thought South Mountain, in particular, should contain vistas overlooking the untamed natural terrain of forests, streams and rocks rather than nearby urban developments. Most of the reservation's trails, bridges and shelters were not built until the Civilian Conservation Corps came on the scene in the 1930s. Still, off road cycling as an activity for its own sake was then unthinkable, except, perhaps, as sheer daredevilry.

In 1979, the Essex County Park Commission was disbanded and replaced by the Parks Department. The reasoning for this shift is somewhat opaque, but surely budgetary concerns were at the fore. The effect was wide-ranging neglect of the parks. Maintenance became synonymous with cosmetic upkeep, such as mowing lawns and clearing trash from picnic areas. Trail maintenance, horticulture and forest fire suppression all disappeared from the routine. Perhaps most dangerously, the department ceased programs for removal of non-native, invasive plant species and diseased trees. In 1998, three years after the reaffirmation of the mountain biking ban, the county started a trust fund for the parks as well as an Open Space Advisory Committee.

The Committee produced a 245-page report on the current state of the parks, with recommendations for the future. It called for $125 million for the trust fund to rehabilitate the aging, decrepit park system. Among the report's goals were to "rehabilitate each county park for the full use and enjoyment of all county residents" and to "capitalize on unique features" of the park system. It maintained that there should be no effort made to "gardenize" the reservations, but rather, they should remain in their traditional, wild state. The report acknowledged that South Mountain's trails needed substantial work, but the report was mostly silent on the topic of mountain bikes (outside of a bike-specific path nowhere near South Mountain). The only partial acknowledgement of the issue is in a section detailing policy issues/goals to address in the future. The first was "off-trail use of bicycles," the second "off-trail use of vehicles," the third "trampling." It's notable that the issue to address is actually on-trail use of bicycles, which is banned, not off-trail use, about which the trailhead signs have nothing to say.

The original plan for solving the impasse between bikers and hikers, floated by two Freeholders, was to allow hiking seven days a week, but allow biking only Thursday through Sunday. Before this plan even went into effect, it was overturned in a Freeholder meeting mobbed by over 300 angry citizens, more than had ever attended such a meeting. The hiker responsible for the rediscovery of the ban even went so far as to attempt to get a Superior Court injunction against this plan. It is doubtful, anyway, that the Freeholders' compromise would've withstood judicial scrutiny; it reeked of "separate but equal."

Many bikers are themselves hikers, and a lot of hikers did not support the ban. Nevertheless, a small group of vocal hikers ably shaped public perceptions of the bikers and framed the debate in such a way that the bikers were basically outsmarted. Mountain bikers were portrayed as non-residents of Essex County, too young to pay taxes, and reckless. In some cases, this portrayal was accurate, but no one seemed to care, for example, that one of the leaders of the hikers' cause was a Manhattan resident. Considering that the county was in such a dire financial state in 1995, arguments about users of the parks not being taxpayers - and potentially incurring lawsuits against the county if they were injured - were particularly effective. The simple fact that county parks have never been the exclusive domain of taxpaying county residents was never a factor in the discussions. In the newspapers, quote after quote from the hikers described bikers as outlaws. Even when some acknowledged that only one or two percent fit that description, they were able to hint that this percentage was on the rise. This rhetoric became a trope in similar fights across the country. When one activist biker, who owns a bike shop mere yards from the Switchback, the longest and toughest singletrack climb in the reservation, spoke at a Freeholder meeting while wearing his helmet, he was intending to counter the preconceived notion that bikers were reckless. Instead, he made it seem like the bikers' spokespeople were wingnuts.

Meanwhile, when the mountain biking ban was uncertain, and bikers were trying to appease hikers in the name of compromise, South Mountain became notorious for the meanness of its hikers, some of whom would let their vicious hounds off the leash (the dog leash ordinance apparently was of less importance to them than the mountain biking one); others would run cord or fishing line across trails with the intention of clothes-lining cyclists; and others still (or perhaps they were all the same bunch of jerks) would spread tacks or broken glass on trails. While only a few hikers were likely responsible for these acts, they were a physical manifestation of the selfishness and unwillingness to compromise which characterized the hikers' cause. From the bikers' perspective, these tactics indicated that the arguments about damage to the trails and bikers' recklessness were a smokescreen.

Those on the losing side of a battle played out in the media generally tend to think their side has been misrepresented, but in the case of the South Mountain ban, it's easy to see how anyone reading the papers would not have sided with the bikers. One large article in The Star-Ledger of Newark used subtly manipulative and biased language: "Suddenly angry voices rang out. Two young mountain bikers sporting black stretch shorts and neon-colored jerseys had appeared around a bend." At first glance, it seems the bikers were the angry ones; additionally, the hikers' attire is not mentioned, nor is their age. But the threat of violence and the cyclists' young age were crucial to the hikers' invidious depiction of the bikers.

The articles exhibited the same sort of judiciousness and objectivity when describing the sport of mountain biking itself. Never was biking considered a solitary experience through which one communes with nature, explores, exercises or relaxes. Instead, articles quoted hikers who called bikers "kamikaze people." Star-Ledger reporter David Schwab wrote, "Some bikers have transformed tree trunks that have fallen across trails into jumps by piling large branches beside them to form takeoff ramps." This, I take it, was based on a hiker's description, because any biker would note that these so-called jumps are actually meant to make the trail passable again. Hikers, too, use the ramps to easily cross large logs without having to forge a new trail by circumnavigating the obstacles. No one mentioned that the county might have a responsibility for clearing such detritus from the trails, even if that's not what mountain bikers would desire.

Once the perception of bikers as dangerous was solidified, it was easy for the hikers to use pseudo-science to convince the Freeholders that allowing mountain biking would destroy the trails. South Mountain's hikers commissioned a report on the damage mountain biking does to trails, but it was, as an article on the IMBA website reports, "a shady, biased environmental study performed by a USDA county extension agent who was clearly predisposed against bikes on trails." Not being a soil scientist, I can speak only from my experience: mountain bikes may damage trails, but in many situations, they are no more damaging than hikers. Essential to note is that even within South Mountain, there is quite varied terrain, meaning that it's useless to generalize about bikes' effects. Off-trail detours in the high-altitude desert are destructive; in the leafy deciduous forests of suburban New Jersey, the ecosystem is much more resilient (though no one would condone off-trail riding here either). In South Mountain, for example, the effects of bikes during a drought are completely different from those during a rainstorm. Yet the hikers were happy to generalize about the negative effects and to use words like "barren" and "devastated" as if they were talking about high-altitude deserts. Furthermore, although the Open Space Advisory Committee's report argued that South Mountain should not be "gardenized," it seemed that the hikers did not consider the terrain to be dynamic. They wanted it to remain unchanged, precious and domestic - exactly the opposite of how it was originally envisioned.

In a New York Times article, one hiker said of the bikers, "Better they go to quarries, with their rocky bases." Ironic, considering that one cliff in South Mountain, near which sits its most well-known overlook, was rather obviously mined into existence. The map of the Reservation calls it "The Quarry." Also, if this gentleman were familiar with the Reservation, he might have noticed that the trails do have rocky bases; on many trails, the sharp "trap rock" is the predominant feature of the terrain. If the argument is that bikes endanger the trails, it's because the soil over the rocks is thin in many places due to erosion. Bikes have much less ability to erode trails than rushing water, and trail maintenance could fix this problem. One IMBA official who visited South Mountain in 1995 told locals that the trails themselves were built in the wrong places and poorly at that. To this day, some hikers and bikers work together to fix the trails while the county does almost nothing, and that is the essence of the problem. With ruts, loose stones, exposed roots and fallen trees, the trails are in far worse shape than they were in 1995, when mountain bikes were supposedly rapidly ruining the trails.

At the same time Essex County's ban took effect, a similar one was adopted in neighboring Union County, home to the area's other top mountain biking destination, Watchung Reservation. Essex's neighbor to the west, Morris County, also flirted with a bike ban, especially after one NORBA race in Tourne Park, which sent about a dozen bikers to the emergency room. But through determined activism, largely centered around Marty Epstein, owner of two bike shops in Morris County, Morris officials were convinced to continue to allow bikes in the county parks. Today, Lewis Morris Park, which borders Jockey Hollow National Historic Park, contains some of the most well maintained mountain biking trails in any New Jersey county park. In the decade of Essex's ban, Morris County officials and volunteers have built new trails and even selectively closed some others that were poorly designed and erosion-prone. The quality of the trail conditions, layout and maintenance is a testament to the efficacy of a compromise between responsible bikers and caring hikers enabled by a fair governmental policy.

In the end, it's not the loss of the trails that is the most irksome. Anyone who still wishes to ride in South Mountain may do so at his or her own risk. Still, one is more likely to spot a drug dealer skulking through the woods than a renegade mountain biker. What really upsets me is when I think about the community that disappeared. There were hundreds of mountain bikers, both from within Essex County and from beyond, who loved South Mountain, who cared about its welfare, and who lovingly memorized its contours. Among us were wild teenagers, with dyed hair and facial piercings, as well as staid middle-age executives, who could find some escape from the non-stop hustle of everyday life in such a wealthy and competitive county. High school mountain biking clubs cropped up and rode there weekly. Mountain biking in Essex County broke down class, racial and gender barriers for many. I got to ride with Jamaicans and Colombians, as well as people twice my age or older - friendships the average white suburban kid never has the opportunity to make. Furthermore, the political fight for the trails catalyzed a local political consciousness in many who may have never known about the Board of Chosen Freeholders, for example. At the time, an IMBA executive claimed that if "mountain bikers organize themselves and educate riders," the trails might reopen. The problem was that we had organized and educated each other, but the movement collapsed upon defeat. Today, so few people dare ride in South Mountain that generating the momentum to overturn the ban seems far more difficult than stealing past the trails-closed signs.

Years ago, probably around the time of the ban, I stumbled onto a low, smoldering forest fire on the yellow trail above Stonehenge. There was one truck parked on a nearby fire road, presumably with firefighters monitoring the conflagration. I wondered how it had arrived there without getting stuck in a rut or behind a fallen tree. Today, that section of the reservation is unlike any other: lush with ground cover because the fire opened up the forest's canopy. But I fear future fires, which would have the potential to spread out of control in the 2,047 acres that have never, to my knowledge, seen controlled burns. And yet the bike ban remains in effect.

The forest fire through which I rode in South Mountain was like the ban itself. It scared me, but it also captivated me and energized me. It showed me that the Reservation was dynamic, that I could not take for granted that the next time my tires hit the dirt it would be unchanged, that it would be the same old trails I knew so well. It also showed me the resilience of this oasis of untamed forest in a wasteland of suburban sprawl. That the fire did not spread and rage out of control proved that a small human intervention can be greatly beneficial to the Reservation.

Today, when I return to the trails as a hiker, my ears tingle with remembrance of the laughter, the terrified shrieks, or the perfect silence that accompanied our community of riders. I grew up in South Mountain Reservation, on my mountain bike, always fleet yet always in awe of its challenges. Despite this, the benefit of losing South Mountain was that I began to ride elsewhere, expanding my range, and I was able to return to the Reservation on foot, to appreciate it in a new light. Unlike those who wanted to ban mountain bikers so they could have the public land all to themselves, I am happy that South Mountain is forever changing and that the passage of time will bring with it new opportunities rather than the comfort of repetitive experiences. I want bicycle wheels, not the wilds of the Reservation, to revolve predictably around a static point.

© 2019 Stuart Schrader