ELIZABETH, NJ - Mountain biking in Watchung Reservation was revisited in the public comment session at the Union County Freeholders meeting on Thursday. The board had voted not to approve building bike trails in May 2017 after a months-long debate.
Jamie Meiselman of Westfield, and co-leader of the Union County Chapter of the Jersey Off Road Bicycling Association (JORBA), raised the subject. He gave a brief history of how his organization was asked by the Union County Parks division to assist in the design and construction of bike trails that had been planned for the reservation in a Trails Master Plan developed by engineering firm CME Associates.
The plan proposed a network of shared biking and hiking trails. But the county determined a series of bike-only trails would be a better solution, Meiselman said, and that plan was put together last winter by the parks division. Feedback from the local mountain biking community and members of JORBA was incorporated.
Before it was able to be implemented, however, bikers clashed with residents, hikers and birders who were against the plan, and the freeholders eventually voted against the trails altogether.
"I truly believe that much of this controversy could have been avoided if all stakeholders in Watchung Reservation were brought to the table in the earlier planning stages to hear each other's concerns," Meiselman said tonight.
"During this vote last May even the freeholders who voted against the bike trails at Watchung suggested that the issue deserved further consideration."
"So it's been about ten months since that day and since bike trails were eliminated from the Watchung Master Plan," Meiselman continued, "and in those ten months, we at JORBA have been working hard to investigate alternative locations for legal bike trails in Union County. However, all of my calls and emails to county parks have been unanswered."
Meiselman concluded, "I'm here tonight to express JORBA's and the mountain biking community's desire to rekindle the discussion of legal bike trails in Union County."
Matthew Schwebel of Cranford also advocated for biking. He said, "Mountain biking is a lifelong sport." He added, "Mixed-use trails work all over the state."
Nancy Piwowar of Plainfield asked the Freeholders to review H.R.1349, a bill in Congress that would amend the Wilderness Act and allow mountain bikes in wilderness areas. One hundred fifteen nature groups are urging Congress to reject the amendment.
Piwowar said she considers Watchung Reservation to be important because "it's urban wilderness." She commended the freeholders for their vote last year because, she said, "you were on the cutting edge of protecting a wilderness area in Union County in a very dense area."
Margaret Southwell of Fanwood said she has worked at both the Great Swamp and Watchung Reservation, and has helped restore forests with the New Jersey Invasive Species Strike Team for eight years. She added that she is involved in the process to create a Union County chapter, and has earned a license from the Department of Environmental Protection to do so.
Southwell provided a map of Watchung Reservation marked with locations of invasive plants. She said the forest of Watchung Reservation is unhealthy, with parts that are so infested they are dead.
"The point I'd like to make here is, a forest that is in such dire, ecological decline cannot withstand the outright destruction of new bike trails through undeveloped forest."
Charles Weltner of Plainfield, who was involved with last year's efforts to stop mountain biking, said, "When I heard that they were interested in revisiting the issue, I thought to myself 'what's changed since May, what's different?' And then I realized something has changed since May."
Weltner went on to cite an accident that took place on June 26, 2017. Kerry Rivera, a firefighter from Paterson, was riding his mountain bike in Mills Reservation, an Essex County park where bikes are not permitted. Rivera lost control of his bike, and fell off a cliff to his death.
"We have cliffs in the reservation, just like they do in Mills Reservation," Weltner said.
In the end, Freeholder Bruce Bergen, who had been the chairman at the time of the 2017 vote, addressed the issue head on.
He said tonight, "Nothing's changed since the last time this board voted. Members of the mountain biking community continue to violate the law and to ride in Watchung Reservation to the detriment of nature, and to the detriment of people who are using that park legally."
Bergen reminded those in attendance that his opinion was placed on the record at the time of the vote last May, when he had said he would be open to biking in other locations in county parks that would be amenable to mountain biking. But so far he has not found one that would be any less damaged by the sport.