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Going Big (part 2)

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Villanueva has to deal with persistent access issues as well. A portion of the Pacific Crest Trail, which has been closed to bikes since 1988, runs through his area. Renegade bikers know it affectionately as the "Perfect Cycling Trail." The epic Tahoe Rim Trail has many sections open to mountain bikes, but a few are closed where the trail dips into wilderness areas. On the rare occasions Forest Service officials catch cyclists riding in wilderness, they confiscate a wheel and force the biker to walk out of the woods.

But while Villanueva often acts as the bike cop, he is also a dedicated mountain biker. He remembers how eight years ago, when he started working with the Forest Service, one of his superiors scoffed at mountain bikes as little more than a passing fad. Villanueva assured him bikes were here to stay. He was right: Mountain bikers are now the second-largest trail user group in the country, after hikers, according to the Outdoor Industry Council.

Villanueva has become the agency’s go-to guy for mountain-bike management. He travels the state consulting on trail design, in an effort to minimize damage. It’s not easy. The new high-tech bikes have opened up new stretches of trail deep in the forest. Older trails not designed for bikes have suffered the most, he says. On the Corral Trail, a 2.5-mile loop southwest of the lake, he estimates that years of use, much of it by mountain bikers, have displaced nearly 2,500 cubic yards of soil. That sediment contributes to the clouding of Lake Tahoe’s clear waters and impacts the local fisheries.

But Villanueva says he sees hikers and horse riders cut switchbacks too, and that locking bikes out is not always the best solution. Bikes only damage trails if the trails aren’t built properly, he says. He has redesigned trails like the Corral Trail, to armor them against knobby tires. Many of the newer trails, often designed with help from IMBA, could last as long as 50 to 100 years with regular maintenance, he says.

In his redesigns, Villanueva tries to make trails as fun as possible in an effort to defuse the temptation to build more thrilling, and dangerous, illegal ones. He knows that some bikers prefer taller stunts and teeter-totters, but on Forest Service land, he utilizes only natural features: logs, dirt mounds and boulders. "What we’re trying not to do is sanitize the trails. I think we’ve been guilty of that in the past," he says.