I spent last Sunday riding my old haunting grounds near Laguna Beach, California. At one time, the entire region of coastal hills was owned and policed by the Irvine Corporation. This development firm was once a family-owned ranch that spanned the entire breadth of Orange County from the ocean to the edge of Riverside county over 20 miles to the North. Poaching the verdant hills was the only way for early mountain bikers to experience the area’s hidden treasures. Arrests were common back then, and every ride was a game of hide-and-seek at some level. The prize for breaking the law and risking bike and bank account was a peek at some of the Southland’s most varied and beautiful coastal sage scrubland, pocked with tortured sandstone monoliths’some of which hide ancient Chumash dwellings.

The magnitude of the Irvine Company’s land holdings effectively sealed the public from the lion’s share of Orange County’s open space, and for half a century, cowboys on horseback and rental cops driving four wheelers and motorcycles worked hard to keep it that way. Temptation and youthful arrogance gave rise to loosely organized ?resistance groups? who staged regular group rides and hikes into the forbidden lands. Ironically, the illegal forays had the effect of enhancing community awareness of the natural treasures hidden in Irvine’s endless hills. In recent times, local activist groups, which contained many of the outlaw trespassers, lobbied the Irvine Corporation (no longer family-held) to set aside large blocks of land for permanent parkland in exchange for development rights.

The Irvine Company could have held a grudge, and the local yahoos might have continued to jump their fences?but for the most part, the two sides put aside their differences. The Irvine Corporation set aside far more land than anyone would have imagined back then, and the outlaw groups threw in their efforts to establish a viable trail network. Sure, there were and are detractors on both sides, but the land in question is some of the most desirable property in the state–worth billions of dollars. The relationship was fundamental in establishing a mechanism for parkland-for-development trades that is now employed throughout the country.

Environmentalism runs rampant wherever a large population group abuts the sea?and Laguna Beach has triple the concentration of this new religion’s devotees. Once the parklands were in place, most were declared sensitive wilderness areas too pristine for humans to visit?mountain bikes, of course, the great yuppie Satan, were soon ushered off all but a few sections. In almost any other part of this great country, this would be the final and horrible end to this story. But I promise you a happier ending.

Remember all those outlaw mountain bikers? Well they proved to be worthy negotiators, as well as hard charging trail workers. Of course, poaching continued (albeit, on a more minor scale) in the now-forbidden Laguna Wilderness Parks. To reign in the poaching, and to give mountain bikers a chance to experience the areas that were posted off limits to them, authorities agreed to open the areas every other Sunday to cyclists. Now, naturalists could sniff flowers and teachers could take children’s groups on tour without having to keep a constant eye out for bikes, and Mountain bikers could plane to ride the Wilderness Park’s extensive singletrack network legally?without having to keep one eye over their shoulder looking for rangers.

Now, illegal trail use is at an all time low in all areas of Orange County, and mountain bikers have more places to ride. Here is a case for the record books: Arguably, none of these great things would have come to pass if all parties involved had not been enemies before they became friends. If the Irvine company had not greedily guarded its holdings, there would not have been huge tracts of undeveloped prime land anywhere in the County in the first place. If invading trespassers had not spread the word about the areas? spectacular wonders, few would have risen up to stop the Irvine Corporation from coating it with middle-class homes. If rabid environmentalists had not rushed in to prevent freeriding mountain bikers and ignorant hikers from turning the verdant landscape into a denuded spider web of poorly planned singletracks, there would be little, if any of its magic left for future generations. The miracle is, that all of these oppositional forces returned to the table and worked out solutions that benefited all parties. When nobody really needed to budge, every group moved over a little more.

Yeah, I had a great ride too.


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