Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

Attention outdoor recreators: Culture clash just off the Washington & Old Dominion trail.

Certain mountain bikers have blazed new unauthorized trails down the historic hillock known for 300 years as Brandymore Castle. They’ve angered tree stewards and parks protectors who bemoan damage to plant life on that secluded tree-lined formation in Madison Manor Park.

I recently climbed that topographic feature (near the 1700 block of N. Roosevelt St.) with Jo Allen, a Virginia master naturalist and volunteer park co-steward for Brandymore Castle. We met at the official bike trail’s historic sign that explains how the rocky outcropping was first described in a 1724 survey by Charles Broadwater.

The problem, Allen said, is not that mountain biking is inherently bad, but that a few practitioners lack education in the environmental impact of their behavior on a hill that “takes your breath away.”

She is sentimental about the site, showing me Minie balls found by her late husband in the 1950s on the natural lookout site containing earthworks perhaps from the Civil War. As a youth, her husband met the “get off my lawn” old man who lived in the hill’s sole house. Allen and volunteers recently removed an old boiler, bed springs and golf clubs from its still-visible foundation.

Those volunteers worked for months cataloguing plants and pulling out invasive ones (garlic mustard). “The sad upshot is that we created a perfect hill for mountain bikers to ride down,” Allen said.

Consensus is that the culprits are young kids, socially isolated during the pandemic, she noted, who, without expert planning, cut what are called “commuter trails” or “goat paths.” Those muddy grooves “will eventually undermine tree roots,” which leads to erosion. Plus, stones “that have been here for thousands of years” have rolled down the slopes.
When we reached the hilltop, we found a freshly burned fire pit, trash and graffiti painted on trees (“love” and “Jesus”).

Mountain bike advocacy groups acknowledge the problem. “Part of our review process is to verify trails by comparing what was submitted to land manager maps,” said Zander Goepfert of the MTB Project, referencing a recommended Arlington route by MORE (Mid-Atlantic Off-Road Enthusiasts). “Sanctioned trails are built with sustainability in mind, mitigating erosion and limiting impact on sensitive areas.” But MORE’s website promotes mountain bike rides atop Brandymore.

Jon Levine of the 200-member Facebook group Arlington Trails says “Brandymore is a flashpoint,” but bike groups are 95 percent in agreement on sustainability. He has spoken to the kids who made the illegal trails, hoping to educate them. But his group thinks Arlington’s policy banning bikes on natural trails should be eased for responsible users.

Parks department spokeswoman Susan Kalish verified that natural trails are to be used only by walkers. “Wheels on trails compact the ground and have impact on flora and fauna,” she said. We’ve taken steps to inform users about appropriate uses, including placing signage along the trails, increasing Park Ranger presence and have installed some barriers.” Repeat violators can be banned.

Others see a need for greater public education. “There are limited personnel for enforcing rules in our 148 parks,” says Bill Ross, chair of the Park and Recreation Commission.

Allen agrees that public education is key, given the limited enforcement capabilities. Mountain biking “is fun — your own personal roller coaster,” the tree protector acknowledges. “If I were younger, I’d do it.”

County Manager Mark Schwartz on Sept. 29 delivered his delayed-by-pandemic commemoration of the 100th anniversary of Arlington taking its name.

Unveiling modern analysis of census data from 1920 (combined with a shout-out to the 2020 work of Arlington’s Complete Count Committee), Schwartz took to Facebook, YouTube and county TV to demonstrate a nifty new tool from the mapping office. It allows you to hover over a century-old street map online and view photos of the same site today.