Reader commentary: Battlefield bike trails should not be closed

By Chris Fordney

It was astonishing to hear the executive director of the Shenandoah Valley Battlefields Foundation say in Friday’s Northern Virginia Daily that “everybody agrees” with its decision to close several miles of mountain biking trails in the Third Winchester Battlefield in Frederick County.

Every runner and mountain biker I’ve talked to has been stunned and incredulous to hear that this outstanding community fitness and recreational resource will be blocked off. In no way do they agree with this decision.

Mountain bikers in particular are upset over being blamed for “damage” to the battlefield when the previous manager of the battlefield, the Civil War Trust, welcomed bikes on this land and even posted a photo of three mountain bikers on its website with the caption: “Cyclists enjoying the Third Winchester trail created by the CWT.”

Also losing out is the cross-country team at Millbrook High School, which was able to train on these challenging trails right outside the school’s back door. It has kept them off such dangerous running routes as Red Bud Road.

And it’s ironic to hear these trails described as “damaged” when they have been running through these woods for years, even decades, long before battlefield preservationists showed up and began cutting 10-foot-wide gravel roads through the woods.

Now, as part of an effort to turn the clock back to 1864, the foundation has announced plans to cut down a significant amount of forest. It also plans to erect structures on the battlefield.

Who’s damaging the battlefield?

It’s easy to point to some tire tracks and call it damage. This occurs on a few flat spots in the trails that tend to puddle and soften in wet weather, but for the most part these trails are robust, hard-packed paths that drain well and do not erode. The passage of many bike tires has helped strengthen the trails, not damage them.

These trails were skillfully laid out to avoid the gravel roads used by walkers and families and tourists. Part of the trail system runs through the ravines directly behind Millbrook, far from any of the gravel roads and markers in the main battle areas.

Another part of the trail winds through ravines closer to the main battle areas, but it’s down in thick woods, with sharp turns and steep drops and climbs – loved by mountain bikers and trail runners and rarely seen by visitors – as it makes excellent use of this small area. It’s all but invisible from the main visitor areas.

Another reason being raised to kick out mountain bikers is the danger that they might run into someone on foot. Yet the “compromise” the foundation has implemented would put mountain bikers on the same gravel roads with walkers, children and pets, heightening the potential for collisions and conflicts.

A true compromise would close off the flat segment of trail that parallels the gravel road through the Middle Field. But I’ve been told the foundation rejected that idea, revealing its extreme and exclusionary plan for this battlefield.

I am both a mountain biker and a Civil War buff. Several weeks ago I participated in a Civil War tour. I thought there was one thing missing: anyone younger than late middle age, even though it was conducted in association with James Madison University.

At a time when historical knowledge among the young is at an all-time low, the idea that they will ever be interested in the details of the Third Battle of Winchester is a stretch. Young people do like to mountain bike, however, but closing this trail will reinforce their view of battlefields as stuffy and boring and reserved for academic specialists.

The Third Winchester Battlefield is not a national park, and that can be an advantage, allowing for more creative and flexible approaches to preservation. The Civil War Trust took a tolerant, inclusive view and the result was an admirable blend of history and recreation, a friendly preserve of meadows and woods that all could use and enjoy.

By its actions, the foundation is messing up a good thing and will embitter a significant number of people in our area to the cause of battlefield preservation, particularly younger people who eventually will be called upon to further that cause.

That’s the real damage being done here.

Chris Fordney is a Frederick County resident. Email: chrisfordney@gmail.com