Save the Brown Pow: Part 1

Save the Brown Pow Part 1: Why the Environment Matters
Words: Stephanie Ignell Photos: Matt Roebke

Too often in the mountain bike world I have heard comments like, “climate change doesn’t directly affect mountain biking,” or “environmental stewardship doesn’t matter to customers who are buying bikes.” These statements suggest that mountain bikers are apathetic towards environmental ethics and regard it as inconsequential. While climate change impacts may not be as drastically noticeable in mountain biking as it is in other sports or industries (i.e., snow sport), there are very real and impending negative implications to our sport. Some of these impacts are already happening, like the continual drought in the Pacific Northwest and other geographical regions. But to understand why this is so important, you need to understand how climate change impacts our ecosystems.

Many scientific models call for a significant increase in average global temperatures. For example, according to a report from the USDA on the North Cascades and Washington (2014), the Pacific Northwest (otherwise lovingly labeled the PNW) may experience an average warming increase of 2.1oC by 2040. This change will directly impact various ecosystems throughout the PNW, including systems pivotal to the continued longevity of our sport.

One impact is the increased vulnerability of our hydraulic systems, more specifically the hydrologic changes in the PNW’s watersheds. Many access roads and bike trails cross streams or rivers that will be subjected to flooding, snowpack changes, higher winter soil moisture, and the increased risk of landslide occurrences (USDA 2014). This impacts not only our access to trail systems, but affects the sustainability and longevity of the trail itself. While trail builders do an incredible job of creating and designing non-erosive drainage, increased flooding and higher precipitation during the fall and spring can cut off trail access and damage its integrity. The excessive amount of fallen trees and debris blocking sections of trails and roads this last fall and through this winter provides an example of what can be expected in the future.
Another main impact will be the degradation of forestry ecosystems. The projected high temperatures and increase in drought leads to higher tree mortality rates by increasing plant diseases, pests, insects, weeds, and, not to mention, wildfire occurrences.

This point has been driven too close to home recently with several wildfires impacting communities across the PNW that have not only threatened forests, lands, and trails; but even impacted our air quality in such a significant manner that participating in outdoor activities could cause temporary, or even significant, health problems. Not even a few days ago our beloved Chuckanut Mountain in Bellingham, WA caught on fire and we are still waiting to see the extent of damage that occurred in this popular recreation area.

These disturbances decrease the resiliency of our forest’s ecosystem and ultimately lead to the degradation and changes within these systems. Risking the integrity of these systems affects our ability to maintain and create existing and new trails; this may inevitably lead to a decrease in the quality and abundance of trails available to bikers. Furthermore, the decreased resiliency of forest ecosystem may cause regulatory agents to limit or ban recreation activities because of its fragile state. Mountain biking already experiences push back from regulators over the concern that biking may damage protect lands. The degradation of forest ecosystems will likely only exacerbate this problem
Lastly, climate change greatly impacts the quality of our soil. Higher temperature and lower precipitation events lead to a significant reduction in soil moisture throughout the summer months. What does this mean? It means that beyond soil degradation, increasing vulnerability of forest ecosystems, and decrease in vegetation growth, our beloved brown pow becomes dust – literally.

This synopsis is not an extensive description of climate change impacts, nor is it meant to be taken as a scientific literary piece. Rather, this is the ramblings of an educated, concerned mountain biker who believes that, based upon these facts (yes, facts), most of us fellow bike lovers care a great deal about what happens to our environment. If nothing else, advocate to keep the brown pow, well, brown.

This is the first article in a two part series about bikes and the environment and the importance of sustainable trail building and supporting your local trail builders. Next up we get to discuss the importance of Sustainable Trail Building and supporting your local trail builders.

If this article has peaked your interest and you desire to learn more about these vulnerabilities, please take a look at the link below to see the USDA report released in September 2014 on Climate Change Vulnerability and Adaptation in Washington’s North Cascades Region.