Joel DeJong is an enthusiastic advocate for mountain biking. He runs a commuter bike-building company in Fremont, takes his kids out on wooded trails outside of the city on weekends and for the past seven years has marshaled hundreds of volunteers to help clean up and restore the overgrown woods near his home.
But his vision for a mountain-bike trail around the 27-acre Cheasty Greenspace on the east slope of Seattle’s Beacon Hill is dividing residents and drawing protests from nature lovers who don’t want one of the city’s few undeveloped parks turned over to active recreation.
The controversy is reminiscent of the fight two years ago when the Seattle Parks Department proposed allowing a private company to operate a zip line in West Seattle’s Lincoln Park, a plan that was shelved after a public outcry.
“Our concern is this will set a precedent, that Parks will take away a natural area of which there are very few left,” said Mark Ahlness, a retired teacher who led the fight against the zip line and is now one of the directors of the Seattle Nature Alliance, which advocates for preserving and protecting the city’s natural areas.
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DeJong and other supporters say the mountain-bike trail, which would be the first in a Seattle park, would give youths who aren’t able to get out of the city an opportunity to experience the joy of riding their bikes in the woods. And in the process, they argue, the kids would gain an appreciation of nature and a sense of ownership for the green space.
“We’re growing the forest stewards of the future,” said Susan Zeman, a neighbor and supporter of the proposed mountain-bike trail.
The Seattle Board of Park Commissioners in January approved a pilot project to develop the Cheasty trail. The preliminary plans call for a 1½-mile loop around the perimeter of what’s known as Cheasty Main, as well as a series of jumps and drops for different skill levels at the south end. The plan also envisions separated pedestrian paths and entryways.
DeJong and park officials say the green space is overrun with invasive species of plants and that, over the past decade, homeless camps, illegal dumping, drug use and prostitution have made the park all but unusable.
Parks Acting Director Christopher Williams said mountain-bike trails have been built in parks in other U.S. cities, including Tacoma, which opened one in an inner-city neighborhood in spring.
“We think that in a big urban city with an increasingly diverse population, it’s important to provide recreation opportunities for everyone,” Williams said.
He also noted that many new park uses, including bike polo, dodge ball and off-leash areas, all started in Seattle as pilot projects.
But what would normally be an innocuous City Council Parks Committee meeting last week turned into a heated public hearing over a package of grant awards from the Department of Neighborhoods that included $100,000 to help fund design and environmental review for the mountain-bike trail.
A council vote on the grant Monday is expected to be postponed because of the controversy. Meanwhile, Parks is awaiting final plans for the project and will hold public meetings in the fall.
Opponents, who include some longtime residents of Cheasty Boulevard, argue that a mountain-bike trail would shatter their peace and quiet, drive away birds and other wildlife and exclude all but the able-bodied.
“We’re talking about young, white male energy. This is public land. This is a race and social-justice issue,” said Cameron Justam, who has lived along the green space for 40 years.
Ed Newbold, a wildlife artist and Beacon Hill resident, said he worries about the loss of the deciduous-tree canopy that is now home to Wilson’s warblers, Hammond’s flycatchers and other bird species not commonly seen in the city.
He suggested that the city is falling for the “good-looking, socially skilled” mountain-bike athletes who are able to attract grants from outdoor organizations. The estimated cost of the project is $750,000.
“Protecting nature isn’t glamorous. It doesn’t bring the money in,” Newbold said.
Mountain-bike advocates say they have two decades of experience in building trails that are well-designed and have no more adverse impacts on the land than walking trails.
Glenn Glover, executive director of Evergreen Mountain Bike Alliance, said the Swan Creek Trail in Tacoma that opened this spring has attracted not just mountain-bike enthusiasts but also neighborhood youth.
“The experience has been tremendous. We’ve seen kids on everything from a Huffy to an old Sting-Ray. It gets them off the streets and into a safer environment,” he said.
Glover also cautioned against making the trail too tame as a compromise with critics.
“If it doesn’t have a certain level of excitement, it won’t be a long-term draw,” he said.
On a recent sunny morning, DeJong and Zeman led a group of about 30 Cleveland High School volunteers pulling out heaps of invasive blackberry and ivy that covered the forest floor and wound tightly up the trunks of Big Leaf Maple trees.
DeJong and other neighbors spent six years and 7,000 volunteer hours restoring and adding walking trails to the 10-acre section of the green space known as Cheasty Mountain View. DeJong said that as he looked across the road to the larger expanse of green space, he asked himself, “How do we restore that and not spend Saturdays for the next 30 years?”
His answer was to expand the uses for the park and attract new advocates and new volunteers with the plan for a mountain-bike trail. He’s gotten support and volunteers from numerous community organizations, including BikeWorks, REI, Cleveland High School, Asa Mercer Middle School, the Refugee Women’s Alliance and Seattle Public Schools’ World School.
Most of the students who show up for work parties, he said, have never been in the Cheasty Greenspace or known that it was public land. He said that when he tells them of the plans, “Their eyes light up. They say, ‘I’m gonna be able to ride my bike in here?’ ”
DeJong said, “They’ve never been able to access it safely, and now they’re getting excited about being able to play in these woods.”