Fantasy Island trail

The rolling desert terrain of the Fantasy Island trails park on Tucson’s southeast side is a haven for mountain bike enthusiasts.

Editor's note: This column has been updated to remove an error about electric bike usage on The Loop. E-bikes are not allowed on any part of the loop, except by users with disabilities. Additionally, the article stated that portions of the Loop within the city of Tucson were administered by the city. Pima County administers the entirety of the Loop. 

There is a battle for Tucson area trails going on and few people hear the shots being fired. This war is for the use of our trails in the city, in our county and state parks, and on desert state and federal land. Who, you ask, would want to fight about trails? There is a hierarchy of interests involved with those at the top claiming the highest moral ground.

When the discussion is about mountain bike trails on single lane dirt trails, the hierarchy is as follows: The purists believe human presence should be banned from natural areas to protect animals and the wilderness.

The next level below is the hiking community, which claims trails should be available only to those on two feet carrying all they need on their backs. Then there are the horse people who think it is okay not to walk or carry your supplies yourself.

Below them are the mountain bikers, who believe anyone using the trails under their own power should be allowed. Near the bottom are those riding electric-assist bicycles, who believe, if you must pedal to move but get some assist, that is fine. Finally at the very bottom are the off-road motorcyclists.

Each group wants to exclude those below them but maintain their privileges. Who wins this war is determined by political power. Studies have shown that the most destruction to dirt trails is by horses. Motorcycles create the most noise and the effect and speed of bikes both electric-assist and non-assist are the same and minimal.

If you believe in good health and exercise, then trails should be open for sure to hikers and all bicyclists. If you want to promote exploring longer distances into nature, then horse riding and bicycle use should be encouraged. What is actually happening is a mishmash of confusing city, state, and federal regulations.

Often laws are passed that highly regulate uses and reflect only the opinion of the purist at the top of the hierarchy.

Some local bicycle regulations make no sense. 

What is the difference between electric assist and non-assist? As much as you may want, an electric-assist bicycle won’t move unless you pedal. What the assist does is similar to a father helping a child up a steep hill by pushing on their shoulder as they pedal. 19 mph is the top speed for assist, which is less than the cruising speed of many racing bikes.

The same groups that push for electric cars to save the planet and for people to get off their butts and exercise argue for restricting electric-assist bicycles. The difference between the city and county regulations comes down to the political power of the county administrator and the purists that support his policy.

How will these battles be resolved? What is happening now reflects what is happening in our society at large. When trail users believe they have a just reason, they ignore the regulations and laws.

Logic and facts should guide our policies allowing our paths and trails to be open to the most uses possible. The pressure of elitist groups on politicians should not be the determining factor.

Ken Smalley is a local outdoor enthusiast and hiker and bicyclist.