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Bridging the Knowledge Gap on the Watchung Reservation Mountain Bike Plan

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To whom it may concern:

My name is Jamie Meiselman. I am co-leader of the Union County Chapter of the Jersey Off Road Bicycle Association (JORBA.org) along with fellow Union County residents Andrew Stillufsen and Chris Brawley. Our organization currently assists county, state and local park managers in the construction and maintenance of safe, sustainable mountain biking and mixed use (bike/hike/horse) trails in 21 Parks in New Jersey. These parks include state parks, state forests, reservations (such as Watchung), county parks and wildlife reserves.

We have been closely involved in the efforts of the county to safely and responsibly integrate bike-legal trails into the Watchung Reservation. Many of our members and fellow Union County resident mountain bike riders attended the open forum for comment on the Watchung Reservation Trails Master Plan on March 7. We witnessed dozens of speakers express opposition to the addition of bike trails. We believe much of this opposition was due to a lack of accurate or detailed information regarding the plan, and would like to bridge this knowledge gap by providing fact-based responses to these objections:

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How come we haven’t heard much about this bike trail plan?

It may not have been front page news, but information regarding the Trails Master Plan and the integration of biking in the Watchung Reservation was always publicly available via published minutes from public freeholder meetings. The trail plan has been in development with county-hired planning/engineering firm CME Associates since 2014, was adopted in February 2016 and has been available publicly online since then. Passionate stakeholders in Watchung Reservation (including MTB Riders and Hikers and Equestrians) HAVE accessed this information and expressed their opinions on the Trails Master Plan throughout this process. Bikers, hikers, trail runners, equestrians and other park advocates have all been present at freeholder meetings and public input meetings regarding the Trails Master Plan. This input process has resulted in continual evolution and improvement of the Trails Master Plan.

Who is building these trails? What about liability/safety issues?

The trails will be routed and built by IMBA-trained county maintenance staff with support from the JORBA volunteer base and ultimate approval by CME engineers. All trails are routed and built according to IMBA standards, which are best-practice trail building specifications utilized by the US Forest Service, NY/NJ Trail Conference, and virtually all trail-building organizations in the country. These standards are utilized for their proven result in sustainability, safety, and minimal environmental impact. County maintenance staff and JORBA trail-building leads are trained in IMBA standards adhere to these standards during trail building and maintenance. All JORBA volunteers are insured via JORBA’s liability insurance program. JORBA’s insurance company will defend any lawsuit brought against JORBA member-volunteers.

The area around Seeley’s Pond is a National Heritage Priority Site with fragile ecosystem and several endangered species. Should you have a trail there?

This approximately 45 acre area was identified in the Trails Master Plan (page 8-9). Such a designation does not preclude responsible trail building or use (hiking trails currently exist in this area and are also a part of proposed hiking route in the Trails Master Plan). In any case, the current iteration of the bike trail has avoided this area entirely, as we found it impractical to create two independent trails in the  same area due to terrain limitations and bottlenecks. It is important to note that the most up-to-date contemplated bike route is evolving constantly as county staff and consultants evaluate the terrain recommended for the bike trail. This is a painstaking, inch-by-inch process. We hope the County will release an updated map more accurately reflecting the current status of the proposed route.

Are you cutting down trees or endangering tree root systems?

Meagan from CME stated that no trees will be cut down in making the bike trail. We confirm there will be no need to cut living trees to make an IMBA-conforming trail. We are only cutting fallen/dead trees that pose a hazard or block the route. With respect to root systems, trails that pass close to trees on any slope are always routed up-hill of a tree which minimizes erosion/exposure of the tree’s root system. Trails with any overly-exposed roots due to storm erosion can be re-routed. This is one key goal of ongoing trail maintenance sessions.

What is the impact of the bike trails on wildlife and the ecosystem?

Numerous peer-reviewed, third party studies have concluded properly designed trails for both hiking and biking have negligible impact on wildlife or the surrounding ecosystem. In fact, these trails typically offer easier transport of deer and other animals through otherwise overgrown woods filled with fallen, dead trees. Regular maintenance of these trails also provides the opportunity to spot and remove invasive species, of which there are several currently plaguing the Watchung Reservation.

What is the trail-building/maintenance cost?

A figure of $780,000 was mentioned by an audience member as the cost to build the bike trail. This was identified as false by the county and attributed to the estimate to build a special needs sensory trail near the Trailside Nature Center. The cost to build the bike trail is absorbed by existing county parks budgets, as it is built by county maintenance staff and JORBA volunteers. This staff/volunteer base will also handle regular trail maintenance. JORBA holds regularly scheduled trail maintenance sessions at all of its affiliated parks to insure trail integrity and safety is maintained.

The existing trails are in poor condition. How can we expect to maintain additional bike trails?

There were several complaints that the condition of the existing trail network is poor, and adding additional trails would make the maintenance burden even more difficult. The Trails Master Plan also identifies this issue, and concludes the current 45 miles of marked/unmarked trails in the Reservation are unsustainable with the current volunteer/maintenance base.

The Master Plan identifies many trail sections for closure as they are in sensitive (wetlands) areas or built on non-sustainable grades. Eliminating these trails and consolidating the trail network to a smaller collection of well-built trails will ensure the quality and sustainability of the network can be maintained. This includes the addition of bike trails, which will have a dedicated volunteer base (over 70 people signed up for the first volunteer day) easily capable of handling the 13-14 mile proposed bike trail.

What about the proximity of the proposed trails to homes?

Representatives of several neighborhoods bordering the reservation expressed concern about privacy, home values and security of having a trail running close to their property. Although owning property bordering the Reservation gives no legal rights regarding proximity of trails to their property, we are sensitive to the concerns of these residents and can take whatever steps possible to route the trail as far away from property lines as practical. In terms of noise, security, or property values, there is no evidence that proximity of public trails to private property has any negative impact these on these issues. In fact, there are multiple studies that show property values and safety increase in homes proximate to quality trail systems.

Enforcement: How do you keep bikers off the hiking trails?

The issue of bikers wandering off designated bike trails was raised. With the addition of bike trails, the incentive to ride on non-bike trails will be eliminated. Proper signage on the trail and on trail maps will eliminate the chance of this happening accidentally. Enforcement of these rules is the role of the Union County Police. However, based on experience at all other mixed-use parks in the state that have some non-bike trails, such violations are nearly non-existent due to the quality of the bike trails themselves. 

What are the impacts to parking, crowding, and park capacity?

Several attendees expressed concern regarding the increase in park attendance due to addition of bike trails, and the impact on parking and trail capacity. The bike trail has been designed with direct access to as many of the current Watchung Reservation Parking lots as possible. This includes the WR Tracy Lot, Summit Road Lot, Skytop Pavilion Lot, Lower Skytop Lot, Rt 22 Scotch Plains Lot, and Glenside/Deserted Village Lot. Since users of the bike trails will be coming from all different directions, and wanting to ride different parts of the park based on their ability level, we anticipate the biker load will be spread relatively evenly throughout these parking areas. There is also substantial overflow parking available in the Equestrian Center back lot, a large gravel parking lot where a few horse trailers are kept, and direct access to the bike trail is possible.

In terms of crowding/bike demand, the addition of Watchung as a legal biking destination will simply spread the current load on regional biking trails (Chimney Rock, Lewis Morris) more evenly. Rather than drive to these parks in neighboring counties, Union County bikers will ride closer to home more frequently.

Why are there marking flags in the woods if the trail design isn’t finalized?

Some attendees were under the impression that the existence of marking flags indicated the trail construction had begun. This is untrue. Flags are placed as guidelines for a recommended trail route so the county engineering consultants have a route proposal that can be analyzed for compliance to IMBA standards. Flags are purposely used because they can be easily moved or removed to reflect changes to the route. Trail construction will not commence until flagged routes are approved by the engineering consultants and modified if necessary.

We hope this provides some much needed clarity on the nature of the bike trail. Feel free to reach out to me with any questions at: jamiemeiselman@gmail.com.

The opinions expressed herein are the writer's alone, and do not reflect the opinions of TAPinto.net or anyone who works for TAPinto.net. TAPinto.net is not responsible for the accuracy of any of the information supplied by the writer. Click here to submit a Letter to the Editor.

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