Gary Ouellette loves mountain biking. For him it's calming and peaceful. Healthful. A challenge.
After 20 years in the sport, he knows exactly where to go for a good ride, which places will offer the best trails and the most tranquil setting. He recently spent $3,000 on a mountain biking vacation in Colorado and Utah. Closer to home he likes the Bradbury Mountain State Park in Pownal and Androscoggin Riverlands in Turner.
But Ouellette fears that his favorite Riverlands trail may soon be closed off.
At least to mountain bikers.
The Maine Department of Conservation is working now to turn the 2,600-acre Androscoggin Riverlands into the Androscoggin Riverlands State Park. Although much would not change — there would be no gate, no fee to enter and no ban on hunting or other sports already enjoyed there — the state would more closely manage the park. In October, a consultant made several suggestions for that management, including prohibiting mountain bikers from using the Homestead and Ridge trails.
Both trails are favorites of mountain bikers.
Kathy Eickenberg, planning chief for the Maine Bureau of Parks and Lands, said the trails are currently marked for foot traffic only and that initial proposal simply kept it that way. But the news shocked and angered bikers who say they never knew the trails were designated for foot traffic. They said they've helped maintain the trails for years, have used them without incident and deserve to keep using them.
The consultant is expected to offer a new proposal to the bureau's advisory committee this week. After that, the committee will present one or more proposals to the public.
Mountain bikers worry all proposals will cut them off from their favorite trails, and they hope a November meeting with state officials will change that.
"We're not viewed very highly," Ouellette said. "I would like to change that attitude. I think mountain bikers have a lot to offer the state and I would like to get that message across."
The state bought the bulk of Androscoggin Riverlands in 1990, one of the first purchases made under the Land for Maine's Future Program. In 2007 it added 326 acres at Turner Cove. The area includes a number of wildlife habitats as well as miles of snowmobile, ATV, hiking and multiuse trails, many of them maintained by private recreation clubs.
In 2008, local lawmakers and preservationists asked the state to turn Androscoggin Riverlands into an official state park — the first in 25 years and the third largest in the state. The state agreed and the Bureau of Parks and Lands, which is part of the Department of Conservation, began piecing together a plan for the new park.
In October, part of that plan got mountain bikers' attention.
"You'd be shutting down some real prime real estate to mountain biking," said Jared Buckingham, a Greene mountain biker who's been riding for four years.
Buckingham most often uses the Homestead Trail, which connects to the Ridge Trail. Bikers like both trails because they're quiet, flow well and offer a good experience for both beginners and more seasoned riders.
The initial proposal closes both trails to bikers, keeping them foot traffic-only.
Buckingham and other bikers said they only sporadically encounter hikers on Homestead and rarely on Ridge, they said. And when they do, there haven't been problems sharing the trail.
"Any time I have encountered a hiker, I have been pleasant and they have been pleasant to us," Buckingham said.
He and others would like to keep sharing.
The Homestead and Ridge trails are supposed to be reserved for foot traffic-only, but Eickenberg said the maps that stated that were not always good and not always available, so she understands why mountain bikers didn't know about the restriction. Eickenberg said the state doesn't want to close the park to anyone, but the hiker-only restriction to those two trails may ultimately be made formal.
Or the trails may be opened for all use.
It's too early to tell.
"It's all up in the air right now," she said.
The state has a number of things to consider, including wildlife habitats, when deciding which trail will be designated for which use, she said. The Homestead and Ridge analysis is still going on.
The consultant will present a second proposal to the advisory committee on Wednesday. A public hearing on one or more of the proposals will be held in December.
At some point in November, after the second proposal and before the public hearing, the committee plans to meet with mountain bikers to get their point of view.
Brian Alexander, president of the Central Maine chapter of the New England Mountain Bike Association and a member of the advisory board, hopes the meeting will help.
"I think there's probably a lot of misinformation and miscommunication," he said. "I think that things just have to kind of work themselves out in the next couple of months."
Ouellette said he will definitely be there.
"There's no one who really appreciates what mountain bikers want and what they need. I also believe the state may not have the appropriate resources on hand to design a trail appropriately," Ouellette said. "We want to work with the state."