The first ‘trigger news’ this week is that Forestry England are planning to introduce a fee of up to 20 percent of income on anyone using their land for commercial purposes. As mountain bikers, that’d primarily concern people like coaches or event organizers and it would be an absolute disaster for them. From comments I’ve seen on forums and social media, losing 20 percent would basically completely erase any hope of turning a profit from their businesses. Because it’s a charge on turnover rather than a fixed price annual license, for example, there’s no incentive for them to grow their work either, because the more they earn the more they pay.
We’ve already seen the PMBA enduro series shift mostly north of the border to Scotland where fixed events costs are more reasonable, and organizer, Kevin Duckworth, can still eke a living out of crafting much loved tracks while living in a caravan in the woods most of the season. Are we soon going to see all the MTB coaches and other commercial forest users in cycling heading to the Highlands, to private commercial sites, or illegal trails?
If the coaches and events go then so do the people paying to park in the forestry car parks to have their sessions or sign on for demo activations / races / challenges etc. The visitor centers can say goodbye not just to their spend in cafes, but also the other family members who I often see tagging a lift with riders and then spending the day exploring the woods. That’s a lot of people who will be not saying, “I like being in the woods, I should do this more often” and that ripples out into the surrounding area in the revenue of petrol stations, local shops and accommodation providers etc.
Having spent Sunday at Dalby Forest and seen just how much of the car park was full of mountain bikers, we’re clearly a significant slice of the user base, at least on a cold day in January. These new potential restrictions come on top of media rights charges that were brought in a while ago for the magazines I used to work at. When Forest Enterprise (as it was called) then started charging to use trails for photography and features, we simply went elsewhere. Which immediately and short-sightedly killed a huge amount of free marketing for their sites in the process.
With MTB coaches, there’s also a very obvious added irony when post-accident litigation is the biggest fear of most landowners when it comes to having mountain bikers on their land. Without easy access to skills coaches, you’re looking at a less capable riding population who are more likely to crash and potentially sue said landowner. Oh and from what I’ve seen a disproportionate number of the people smart enough to get coaching to make their mountain biking more fun and less dangerous are women and kids. Exactly the demographic that's so woefully under represented in mountain biking. So, if think you these plans are decidedly heavy handed, then add your name to the petition against them at change.org.
Is it about to end where it all started?
This isn’t the isolated bad news regarding forestry in the UK either. There’s a Natural Resources Wales board meeting planned this week to discuss a recent spending review in the face of ever increasing pressure on budgets. That will include the potential closure of the visitor centers and mountain bike facilities at Nant Yr Arian and the legendary origin point of all UK trail centres Coed y Brenin. Understandably this has caused a serious uproar on social media. Dafydd Davis, the visionary who cut the first trails into the forest and masterminded the whole Welsh trail centre explosion of the late '90s and early '00s has even gone so far to suggest that the current setup is being deliberately mismanaged. This includes limited cafe openings on busy days and broken car park payment machines reducing potential revenue and create an excuse for closure.
For balance, Beics Brenin (the bike shop based in the Coed y Brenin) visitor centre are taking a perhaps more reasoned view on their website. “It is important to say that we have operated at Coed y Brenin as Beics Brenin since 2004, and have a long and successful working relationship with Natural Resources Wales. At present, we have received no indication from Natural Resources Wales that there is any risk of an end to mountain biking at Coed y Brenin, or to expect any immediate changes that would seriously disrupt our operations or impact our tender. Of course, we also acknowledge that these are very difficult times of spiralling fiscal demands and it is only right that these challenges should be met by a thorough process of assessment to ensure that operations remain viable. For this reason, we welcome any efforts to review the health of these visitor centres and their operating arrangements.”
Again, there’s a chance to get genuinely involved here too with a public meeting involving members of NRW (Natural Resources Wales), the local community and council as well as mountain bikers and other forest users. This will be at Ganllwyd Village hall at 6.30pm on Thursday 1st February. Anyone is welcome to attend and I’ll hopefully have an update from the meeting as soon as possible.
"Ignorant, arrogant and entitled”
On the surface, both these news stories seemingly fly in the face of the hopeful noises being made at the DMBinS (Developing Mountain Biking in Scotland) hosted, SRAM sponsored ‘UK Trail Project’ I reported on the other week. Where long time trail campaigner, builder and facilitator, Dave Evans, has been appointed to spend three years promoting better communication and understanding between everyone involved in creating sustainable, positive mountain biking development. Dave has already cautioned that we’re facing an uphill battle with many other stakeholders on the land management and ownership side who think mountain bikers are often "ignorant, arrogant and entitled”.
There’s certainly some truth in that but then there's a very complex series of arguments about what we are genuinely entitled to as tax payers supporting organizations with a mandate for public recreation. Plus, if MTB coaches have to pay to work on nationally owned, tax funded trails shouldn’t driving instructors give 20 percent of their revenue to the Highways Agency and local councils to help pay for the upkeep of roads?
To be honest I really don’t know where my own head is at with all this right now. The current climate definitely feels like one of pressure and conflict rather than sunshine and sweetness though. How that plays out we’ll have to see, but expect more updates, thoughts and ways you can get involved in this very complicated subject as the year progresses. Or doesn’t.