07 August 2014

MTB access: How come Austria and Baden-Württemberg linger in resistance?

From a mountain bikers perspective there’s no such thing like the freedom to roam, explore new areas and experience the excitement of riding unknown trails. At first glance, there’s not much needed to have this experience. True? Not if you live in Austria or the State of Baden-Württemberg in the southern part of Germany. Where most riders take trail access for granted, legitimate trail access is a whole different story.  

Whereas the rather discriminative 2-meter rule in Baden-Würtemberg legally forbids mountain bikers to ride singletrack (or every other trail narrower than 2 meters), Austria has the dubious honor to be even more restricted as it comes to trail access. In large parts of Austria mountain bikers can’t even ride on forest roads, some touristic areas and bike parks left aside where tourism industry has to pay for MTB trail access. This sounds crazy but it’s harsh reality. 

In Baden-Württemberg, discussion even transcends the legislative part of the 2-meter rule. Defenders of the current law increasingly emphasize the stereotype image of the mountain biker as disruptive persons, having a huge impact on nature resources. Deutsche Initiative Mountain Bike puts a lot of effort  to adjust the current law and endeavors to change this stereotype (incorrect) image by campaigns that promote tolerance and respect between different trail users. 

Back to the Austrian situation where forest law dates from 1975 a period in which mountain biking was non-existing. In 40 years, laws have never been renewed and therefore, the legal framework is outdated and doesn’t do any justice to reality in 2014.

So Austria might has the image of a great MTB destination, in fact it is a country with one of the most restrictive legal frameworks towards mountain biking in Europe. A legal framework that’s avoided by payments in some touristic areas but doesn’t secure local trail access for Austria’s internal market, its own residents. That said, an enormous potential to develop mountain biking is neglected, much to the regret of the Austrian mountain bike community itself. 

A new dispute about legal trail access for mountain bikers in Austria was born a couple months ago when a lawsuit between a hunter and a group of mountain bikers drew a lot of media attention. Fortunately  it came to a settlement in court and the initially charged penalty of €15.000(!) was left behind. Immediately after the court hearing, upmove the mountain sports community started a new campaign called Legal Biken in Österreich to lobby for trail access and to promote Fairplay mountainbiken.

How come?

Why is trail access for mountain bikers after  40 years still an issue? Why do some land managers still linger in resistance? Is it ignorance, a lack of knowledge how to manage mountain biking, persistent myths about the impact of mountain biking or is it simply a matter of principles? And are there any solutions to this kinds of disputes that can reconcile the interest of all parties? Yes, there are. And it’s not only a matter of changing the law, it’s a matter of changing attitude. Of course a change of law will be a huge step forwards and strengthen the legal position of mountain bikers but in the long run, we need a paradigm shift. A strategy that’s grounded on the positive side of mountain biking, the health, social and economical effects.  Therefore, the systematic exclusion of one single user group (by law or policy) must be stopped and the solutions starts with the recognition of mountain bikers as legitimate trail users. 

That doesn’t main we shut our eyes for serious problems. Problems are there to be solved and luckily, there are numerous solutions to minimize the impact of mountain biking on the natural environment, wildlife and other trail users. We can tackle liability issues by risk management plans. We can encourage mountain bikers to become dedicated volunteers who contribute to the maintenance of their trails. Bottom line, mountain bikers are a reality, face reality and dare to collaborate with mountain bike groups, clubs and national associations. Linger in resistance will never lead to a sustainable solution. Move forward and roll into  transition and acceptance phase.