The lure of the lines

Mountain bikers find escape on power line easements

New England Outdoors (1/27/2003)

Brion's comments:
'With huge tracts of open space sparse in New England, power line trails often provide an urban outlet for fat-tire fanatics. Originally written for the now-defunct new England Outdoors magazine.'

Feature article:

Every outdoor New England activity, it seems, has a corresponding sirensí song. Windsurfers are drawn to the rustling of treetops that tells them a decent breeze is working up. For skiers and snowboarders, it could be the first raw autumn day that reminds them that the snow guns at Killington are already hard at work.

Mountain bikers have power lines. While most trails hide their bounty from public view, power lines often run across roads and highways, tempting riders with a corresponding cut of single or doubletrack, inevitably setting off the fat tire equivalent of a Pavlovian reaction. What mountain biker hasnít stopped during a casual drive in the country to study a transmission line trail, wondering if itís ridable, where it goes, and for how long? Is it legal to ride it? Lawyers may call power lines "attractive nuisances." For us, they are simply "attractive."

From Bostonís North Shore to Glastonbury, Conn., Burlington, Vt., to Bangor, Maine, power lines call to us. Their terrain is as varied and complicated as the region we live in, from loose gravel to granite outcropping, smooth trails to muddy bogs.

"Youíre in these Godforsaken, barren areas, really a desolate wasteland of earth," says Philip Keyes, president of the New England Mountain Bike Association.

Itís important to note that Keyes is laughing as he says this. He and his riding partners are big fans of the rugged power lines just northwest of Boston, especially during spring and fall, when trail riders are asked to avoid more environmentally sensitive areas.

"Itís NEMBA policy. Donít ride where itís muddy. Go ride the power lines instead," says Keyes.

Plus, many of these trails are just flat-out fun ("dangerously fast," says Keyes), with their rollercoaster topography and clear delineation. Hardcore cyclists say they are ideal for night riding. Some even speak reverently of early morning rides with a heavy fog or a light rain, when the lines come alive with the faint glow of a corona discharge.

But like any siren song, there are caveats that riders should heed (short of being strapped to the mast).

A question of legality

First and foremost is the legal issue. Ownership of power lines in New England is as diverse as the terrain. It is, really, a patchwork. In some instances, the power company actually owns the land that the towers stand on and the cables traverse.

But in most cases, the land is privately held, with the landowners and power company agreeing to a right of way or easement that permits the power companies to construct and maintain their transmission lines. Some of those agreements specifically permit public use of the land, but thereís no way to tell simply by looking at it. And in some areas, the lines wind their way through public lands, such as state forests and federal parks.

Public access to these trails varies greatly. To make it more confusing for the prospective power line rider, there arenít many hard and fast rules regarding what trails are open for passive or non-motorized recreation, with one notable exception. The iron-clad law among mountain bike organizations is that if the land is posted with a conspicuous "No Trespassing" sign, a chain link fence and a gate with a huge padlock, itís prudent to respect the landownerís wishes and stay off.

"My general rule of thumb is this ó If itís being used, use it," says Bob Hicks of Wenham, organizer of the newly formed North Shore chapter of NEMBA and a long-time cycling advocate. "Whatís the worst thing that can happen? Some one tells you to leave, and you leave."

Hicks and many other New England mountain bikers share a legitimate concern that access to power lines might be limited if landowners feel their property, or their hospitality, is being abused.

"Itís the old bugaboo of overuse on trails that have somewhat questionable public access," says Hicks. "My concern is turning people loose on power lines as their own private playground.

"Thereís a tacit approval to use land thatís not publicly posted (as off limits). We found that if itís just casual riding, itís not a problem," he says, acknowledging that property owners who allow free public use of the land for recreation are generally immune to legal liability. "The landowner owes us no duty of care."

That sentiment is echoed by Martin Murray, a spokesman for Public Service Company of New Hampshire. Murray says PSNH has a more than 2,700 miles of right-of-ways in New Hampshire, the great majority running across private land.

"We canít legally allow a use of the land except for the use detailed in the agreement," he says.

However, Murray quickly adds that "because of the tradition of outdoor activities" in New Hampshire, mountain bikers and hikers can typically use their own judgment to decide whether theyíre welcome on an unposted power line trail.

Guilt by association?

During a ride along the Massachusetts Electric power lines that run through Middleton, Mass., Hicks points to an iron fence that blocks the entrance to the rough doubletrack that runs underneath the cables.

"This isnít here to keep us out," states Hicks. "Itís here to keep those others out."

"Those others," says Hicks, are typically four-wheel joy riders, thieves looking to dump stolen cars, or shady operators with illegal cargo -- such as roofing materials or old appliances -- to unload. Although this can be the source of some gallows-style humor ("It must be the magnetic field that attracts all those junk cars and appliances," says Keyes), many New England cyclists are concerned with the possibility of being lumped together with these unsavory characters.

Keyes says heís crossed paths with power company workers a number of times while out on power line trails, and has never heard a discouraging word. The same canít be said for Davis Carver of Maine, who says heís had some unfriendly encounters with Central Maine Power workers on transmission lines in rural sections of Vacationland.

Carver says the CMP transmission lines that he and colleagues use run across peopleís farms and fields, often close by their homes. As a result, heís concerned about drawing attention to the trails, since landowners may object to any increase in traffic and associate mountain bikers with motocross riders and four-wheel drive trucks.

The danger, Carver says, is that motorized vehicles, particularly the four-wheel drive rigs, take a serious toll on the trails and surrounding rivers (after a typical truck run, the rivers "run brown for three or four days," he says). It would be unfair, he says, to put mountain bikes in the same category.

"The way we look it is thereís no problem (now), so why draw attention to it" by publicizing the trails, says Carver.

Ironically, Mark Ishkanian, a spokesman for CMP, says succinctly that his companyís policy "allows mountain biking on our transmission lines." And Hicks, a motocross veteran who, at 66, has opted for more genteel athletic pursuits, says he believes the erosion issue is a red herring.

"A power line is an environmental disaster to begin with," he says, referring to the construction of the lines and herbicides used to destroy the brush.

"Erosion is nothing but a rationale (used by other trail users) for getting rid of us," he says. "Weíre creating a social conflict on the trails because of our numbers and our speed. The objection other trail users have is our sudden, high-speed appearance on their scene. By its nature, a power line is not a typical setting for a social conflict."

Fortunately, mountain bikers have fostered enough good will in the past few years that theyíre being viewed as more of an asset than a detriment to trails in many areas (Lynn Woods officials have credited the arrival of mountain bikes with a corresponding drop in crime at the city park). In short, responsible riders have little to worry about.

In Connecticut, where mountain bikers have struggled to gain access to trails, cycling advocate Theo Stein and the Coalition of Connecticut Bicyclists worked with officials of Northeast Utilities to develop a policy that allows passive recreation -- including off-road cycling -- on Northeast property. According to Emmanuel Ford of Northeast Utilities, the company is among the largest landowners in New England, and the federal license for their hydroelectric transmission lines requires a plan that addresses the public good. That policy now allows non-motorized recreation, on much of their property, including power line trails.

"We work with all sorts of groups to keep the trails open," says Ford. "You canít please everybody, but we try."

J. Stanley Watson, a scientist with Northeastís Land Planning and Management division, says the Connecticut Forest and Park Association typically discourages mountain bikers from using the stateís blue blazed trail system.

"However, on some Northeast Utilities properties, bike clubs have volunteered to maintain these trails," says Watson. "In this instance, on Northeast Utilities property, theyíre welcome to use (the blue trails)."

ĎDonít ask, donít tellí

In general, power company officials acknowledge that they donít specifically prohibit mountain biking along their transmission lines, though most donít advocate recreational use to the extent that Northeast Utilities might. Many sidestep the issue by saying land use questions should be referred to the landowner.

"In my opinion, the power company just doesnít want to know about it," says Hicks, inspiring comparisons to President Clintonís "Donít ask, donít tell" policy regarding homosexuals and the military.

Some officials, such as those with Green Mountain Power in Vermont, havenít had to address the issue at all. Asked what Green Mountain Powerís policy was toward mountain biking along the companyí power lines, spokeswoman Dotty Schnure replied: "Nobodyís ever asked me that question before."

"From a practical viewpoint, in most cases I think most people would not set out on a nice scenic ride along a (power line) right of way, since there are so many other beautiful places to go in Vermont.," says Schnure.

But in urban areas, power lines often provide the only off-road outlet. Here, mountain bikers have actually gained some measure of respect for helping to discourage less desirable types from loitering and keeping trails clear for utility company vehicles.

"We love to see mountain bikes on our property," says Watson of Northeast Utilities. "Those sorts of groups are providing eyes for the landscape, watching out for the guy who wants to dump his couch."

"We want people to get as much use of the land as possible, as long as thereís not a public safety issue," says Susan Stevens of the New England Electric System companies, holding company for such utilities as Massachusetts Electric and New England Power. "We canít patrol the lands on a regular basis."

Roughly two-thirds of New England Electricís 1,200 miles of transmission lines hover over private property in Massachusetts, Rhode Island and New Hampshire. And, like other power company officials, Stevens recommends asking the landowner if thereís any question about access.

"Weíve just never had a problem," says elite racer Andrew Mahoney of Salem, Mass., while looking over the rocky power line trail running between Salem Woods and Lynn Woods that he and his brother John use for training forays.

And with a hard push of the cranks, Andrew and John spin past the steel girders of a transmission tower and disappear over another granite ledge, heeding the seductive song of the power line.

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