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The trails that wind through the North Saskatchewan River Valley in Edmonton, Alberta, are ideal for mountain biking.Getty Images/iStockphoto

Michael Enders is a member of the Edmonton Mountain Bike Alliance.

Growing up in Edmonton, I was never good at sports such as hockey, soccer, skateboarding or riding a scooter. But I found my love of physical activity and the outdoors when I got my first mountain bike at the age of 10.

Getting on a bike allowed me to have wonderful adventures and at times provided the best therapy. And living in Edmonton, I have been so thankful for the city’s amazing trail system, especially the trails that wind through the North Saskatchewan River Valley, which have facilitated the sport.

Dubbed the Ribbon of Green 30 years ago, the river valley, along with adjacent parks and open spaces in southwest and northeast Edmonton, makes up Canada’s largest contiguous parkland area. It has long existed as an ecological corridor, as well as a recreational and cultural destination; being on Treaty 6 territory, it is a place of great significance for the region’s Indigenous communities. The local government has worked to make the river valley a welcoming place for everyone to enjoy, both locals and visitors.

But some recreational uses are now coming under threat. In an effort to keep the river valley as natural as possible, the City of Edmonton has introduced a strategic plan also called the Ribbon of Green. The plan includes prohibiting activities in the river valley such as the development of major facilities and the extraction of natural resources, as well as protecting areas through conservation or preservation.

The city also plans to ban mountain biking in certain parts of the river valley known as “preservation areas.” These designated areas would allow for only foot-based traffic, such as joggers and hikers on single-track trails. (Single-track trails are normally a little wider than your shoulders and are the most common mountain biking trails, as they usually wind through amazing terrain and landscapes.)

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The Ribbon of Green proposal unfairly targets mountain bikers. More than 90 per cent of the 150 kilometres of single-track trails in Edmonton enjoyed by mountain bikers and other recreational users are in the river valley.

These single-track trails have been built and maintained mostly by the Edmonton Mountain Bike Alliance (EMBA), a not-for-profit society dedicated to advocating for and improving mountain biking in the Greater Edmonton Area. Though they are shared with many users, including runners, dog-walkers, horseback riders and hikers, mountain bikers are about to lose access to the trails that they have advocated for and worked to protect.

Since 2010, the EMBA has had an agreement with the City of Edmonton to maintain sanctioned single-track trails through an Adopt-a-Trail program. The EMBA hosts trail days where leaders and volunteers repair and improve adopted trails, as well as provide training, expertise and resources such as tools and signs.

The EMBA has been working hard to provide leadership and advocate for responsible trail use. The organization ensures the construction of legal trails, promotes environmental stewardship and encourages partnership and volunteering. All of this work is now in jeopardy.

Banning mountain biking on single-track trails in the river valley will only restrict the ability of volunteers to properly maintain existing trails and increase unapproved construction of single-track trails.

Edmonton’s Ribbon of Green was meant to bring all users together. Instead, it is driving a rift between groups and organizations in Edmonton that use the river valley. Conservation groups argue that mountain biking should be restricted in ecologically sensitive areas where hiking and running are still allowed because of the damage to the environment caused by cyclists.

Yet studies show that mountain bikers or cyclists using single-track trails cause no more damage to trails than foot traffic. For example, the International Mountain Bicycling Association of Canada has found “no evidence that mountain bikers cause greater environmental impact than other trail users. The current research suggests that mountain biking impacts are similar to hiking, and less damaging than equestrian and motorized users.”

Additionally, routine trail care and maintenance by volunteers within the mountain biking community can do more to ensure trail preservation and erosion mitigation than limiting access to certain groups. In preservation areas and other similar regions, trails have fallen into disrepair because there is no one maintaining them.

Affectionately known as the City of Champions, Edmonton is a festival city that enjoys celebrating both time-honoured sporting traditions such as hockey and football, and recognizing new ones such as mountain biking (through, for example, EMBFest in September).

As a mountain biker living in Edmonton, I support the broad goals of the Ribbon of Green strategy to protect our natural environment. Most mountain bikers, if not all, support that as well.

But I believe that as a city, we should focus on how we can support the unique ways we all choose to enjoy our open spaces. Let’s make sure those who want to enjoy the city’s river valley can do so in any capacity, by creating connections rather than division.

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