environmental issues

[FIRST PERSON] Are dirt bikes ruining mountain trails?

Iya Gozum

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[FIRST PERSON] Are dirt bikes ruining mountain trails?

TRAIL TRAFFIC. Hikers going down from the campsite of Biak na Bundok in Batangas encounter three dirt bike riders.

Jong Campo

In many mountaineering circles, the principles of 'leave no trace' are among the first things taught to beginners. This includes respecting other trail users by protecting the quality of their experience.

I was going down a trail in Batangas after camping overnight at Biak na Bundok of the Malipunyo mountain range when I chanced upon a jarring sight: a dirt bike gingerly parked in the middle of a singletrack.

It had rained the past couple of days, making the soil mushy. Our hiking shoes had effectively lost traction. The ruts were deep and impressed with tire tracks.

The day before, a friend who was on the lookout for birds and their calls pointed out the grating sound of an engine reverberating across the silent forest.

Was it a chainsaw or a motorcycle? I said I was not sure and instead shared that before, a group of para-enforcers in Palawan confiscated hundreds of chainsaws from illegal loggers.

A man in full dirt bike gear was guiding another rider having a hard time climbing an uneven section of the trail with rocks jutting out. He must be the owner of the bike I found on the trail earlier.

They greeted me when I passed by. Another rider was behind them. He asked if there were other mountaineers with us. I said yes, the rest of our group was only 30 minutes behind.

Slate, Soil, Leaf
TRACKS. Tire tracks impressed on mud along the trails in Batangas. Photo by Iya Gozum/Rappler
More skills, less impact

As a hobby, dirt bike riding is a popular way to explore the outdoors, test skills, and push one’s stamina. Motocross, a form of dirt biking, is a physically demanding racing sport where riders compete on off-road courses with purpose-built bikes.

It is a different sport than mountain biking, which also uses singletracks and mountain trails. But mountain biking is more lenient on the trails.

For Bans Mendoza, damage on trails can be considerably reduced if the rider is skilled in the first place.

Mendoza had been riding downhill mountain bikes professionally for more than 20 years. He started to dabble in and out of dirt biking more than a decade ago.

Veterans in the sport would know how to handle their bikes better. Besides, it’s in their best interest to keep the trail as pristine as they can to continue riding in good conditions in the mountains.

But there are those, especially beginner riders, who “rely on the motorcycle to do the work,” Mendoza told Rappler in an interview.

“The engine of the motorcycle is heavy,” Mendoza explained in Filipino. “If you can’t go up an incline in the mountain, you would rely more on the motorcycle. That would create ruts. When it rains, water would run off on those ruts, wash off the soil, and form canals.”

For the safety of the people around them and the environment, Mendoza suggested that beginners take up schooling to learn not only skills but also a modicum of care.

“‘Di lang sa tao, sa kalikasan din (Not only for people but for the environment, too).”

Path, Nature, Outdoors
TRACES. Ruts in one part of the trail going down Biak na Bundok in Batangas. Photo by Jong Campo

Mendoza also pointed out that aside from weekend riders, locals living in the vicinity have been using motorcycles in the mountains for their commute.

Doon naman pumapasok ‘yung pag-maintain ng locals [ng trails] para ‘di masira nang husto ang kalikasan, he said.

(This is where the locals’ trail maintenance comes in to lessen the damage to the environment.)

5 years ago

I first hiked the same route from Manabu to Biak na Bundok five years ago. My hair then was several inches shorter, my pack unkempt. I had no innate physical strength to bank on.

It was August in 2018. It also rained softly that morning, but the trails were not as slippery. That weekend, we didn’t share the route with anyone else – hikers, runners, or riders.

During that climb, I learned how to cook rice outdoors, set up a tent, and tie knots. Friendships were cultivated and food was shared among the climb team. It was easy to fall in love with the sport of mountaineering when you’re with the right company at the right place. Good weather was just a bonus.

Adventure, Hiking, Leisure Activities
THROWBACK. This section right before the summit of Biak na Bundok was full of tall cogon grass. Five years later, and the section remains the same, but now a tad bit wilder. Photo by Dennis Lopez

When outdoors, one’s experience is highly shaped by the conditions of the mountains. I would wager that personal experience factors heavily whenever hikers like us and riders like Mendoza bring up the necessity of mountain preservation.

It could sound vain and self-serving to one’s own ambitions. But what sport doesn’t have an inkling of ego?

In many mountaineering circles, the principles of “leave no trace” are among the first things taught to beginners.

You should take your trash with you. You should respect others by protecting the quality of their experience. You have to be courteous, greet other trail users, and let nature’s sounds prevail.

Yet there are still many hikers who litter the trail and riders who rely on engines to ascend inclines. At the summit of Biak na Bundok, where we set up camp for the night, one section was littered with plastic bottles and containers – probably from visitors of the previous days.

Echoing sounds

My friend and I reached the newly paved road at the foot of the mountain half an hour after our encounter with the riders. Dead zones of mahogany trees line both sides of the road.

We heard a faint sound of an engine roaring. Was it a chainsaw or a motorcycle? We already know the answer.

What I wasn’t sure of was how long it would take them to reach the summit. – Rappler.com

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Iya Gozum

Iya Gozum covers the environment, agriculture, and science beats for Rappler.