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Hundreds of off-road bicycling enthusiasts got a shock not long ago when they showed up at their favorite woodsy riding trail in South Dade. Someone had built a chainlink fence through the heart of the winding track, bisecting enough of the hairpin curves to render the rest useless.
"The track is basically ruined," says Scott Huffman, a 36-year-old stockbroker who had ballooned from 150 to 200 pounds before buying a $1900 Gary Fisher Supercaliber mountain bike a year ago. "Developers tear up everything. Here's this one little plot we carved out to have a little good, clean fun. It's my gym, basically, and now it's gone."
The fence, which surrounds a small plot within a 640-acre nature preserve, wasn't built by real estate developers. It represents the latest salvo in a three-year-old guerrilla war between county naturalists and mountain bikers.
The bike trail verges on the north bank of Snapper Creek Canal near Old Cutler Road and snakes through seven acres of jungly undergrowth, up and down over humps in the earth where a Tequesta Indian village stood several centuries ago. In a region devoid of mountains and bereft of much unboggy wilderness, many off-road bikers consider the Snapper Creek track tops in Dade County, all the more so because of its unsanctioned status and semi-secret location.
But the 2.8-mile network of paths lies inside the R. Hardy Matheson Preserve, a sprawling state-owned tract named after a former Metro commissioner and overseen by the county's Natural Areas Management Section, a division of Metro-Dade Parks and Recreation. Most of the preserve is mangrove swamp, but some of it is equally sensitive high ground, home to twenty different rare plant species. County workers finished the fence on May 17, adding signs that accuse bikers of having reduced a flourishing "pine rockland habitat" ("one of the rarest ecosystems in the United States") to a paltry four acres.
"The use of mountain bike trails was beginning to expand to the point where it was killing plants and being an overall detriment to the land," says Joe Maguire, natural areas management supervisor. "It was out of control."
The initial response of some mountain bikers was to tear down the admonitory placards and slice through the fence with bolt cutters hours after its completion. The county rebuilt the fence and Coral Gables police staked out the preserve for a few days to prevent further mayhem.
Maguire says the county didn't set out to ruin the bike track but adds that he isn't all that disappointed that it has. Rob Line, Maguire's predecessor, who now works in a similar capacity for the state of Delaware, agrees. Last summer cyclist Alberto Herrada sued the county after breaking his arm on the trail. A judge declared the county blameless, but not until after hundreds of hours were spent preparing a legal defense. Before that, mountain bikers had engaged in sporadic turf battles with paint-ball warriors inside the preserve, and had enraged nearby residents by parking scores of cars and trucks on private land. Maguire faults the bikers for riding at high speeds in opposite directions and generally being wild men.
"There's no question that where the bikes go the grass is dead," admits two-wheeler Al Garcia, addressing the eco-criticism. "It's like a mule trail, and we did clear out some of the more overgrown areas with machetes. But as far as destroying the habitat, I don't think we did. That's ridiculous."
Huffman, the pedal-pushing stockbroker, says most mountain bikers are responsible citizens. He criticizes the county for what he sees as a selective crackdown. "They don't keep the crazy party-animal teenagers from going in there and lighting bonfires," he notes. "They don't keep the fishermen from fishing there and throwing beer bottles and fish heads all over the place. I assume the taxpayers are paying for the fence. That's the part that aggravates me the most. They're going to shut it off and preserve it for who? Mountain bikers are getting pushed out of more and more places."
The off-road cyclists want to reconfigure the bike trail so the fence doesn't interfere with the fun. County officials say no way.
"I admit it could be done in such a way that the bikers could still use it," says Line. "But we're sticking our necks out. Here are people engaging in risky activity that we would be in the position of condoning. The attitude of a mountain biker is to go where no one has gone before, to go to the roughest, wildest, toughest terrain and do the hairiest stuff possible. In the mountain-biking community, there are those who realize that the rogue elements, the cowboys, are hurting the sport. The professional hobbyists are pretty responsible, but there are a lot of these other guys who don't want to be told in any way, shape, or form what to do. I expect to see a serious backlash in other parts of the country there mountain bikers are trashing natural areas."
A few bikers still ply the trails at Snapper Creek. Unlike picnickers, hikers, canoeists, and fishermen, they are breaking the law by being there: County codes prohibit horse-drawn, human-powered, and motorized vehicles from wandering off officially designated trails and roads.
"We haven't chosen to make arrests," says Maguire. "We would consider it if the fence continues to be cut.