Collision Course

Illustration of a cyclist riding on a trail that also looks like a crane.
Illustration by Curt Merlo

Illustration by Curt Merlo

It was a supposed to be a day of celebration, but local cycling advocate Michael Hufhand sat in the meeting, silently stewing. When mountain-bike trails were first planned at Fort Harrison State Park around 2009, Hufhand had been ecstatic. More than 20 miles of dirt singletrack—more than anywhere else in Central Indiana—would be mere pedal strokes from his home. But seven days before the trails were set to be approved by the state Natural Resources Commission (NRC), Hufhand noticed on the meeting agenda that Indiana officials planned to cut nearly two-thirds of the agreed-upon paths, declaring those areas protected nature preserves.

Illustration of a cyclist riding on a trail that also looks like a crane.
Illustration by Curt Merlo

Hufhand felt blindsided. He and his fellow members of the Hoosier Mountain Bike Association had spent countless hours walking and mapping the proposed trail routes with representatives of the Department of Natural Resources (DNR). (Editor’s note: The author is an avid mountain biker who had been acquainted with Hufhand.) As it turns out, though, they weren’t the only ones taking stock of the property. The local Audubon Society, among other groups, had cataloged multiple state-endangered or -threatened bird species on the land. Based on those findings, the DNR decided that much of the area needed to be set aside to protect the birds and their habitat.

The NRC approved the nature preserves that day, eliminating many of the planned mountain bike trails. Hufhand bit his tongue because, he claims, officials assured him that the ban was only temporary. For the next few years, he lobbied the DNR to build the trails again and again, only to be turned down each time. Frustrated, he allegedly decided to take matters into his own hands. Hidden video cameras captured Hufhand and his friend Jed Kidwell using herbicide sprayers to create illegal trails in Fort Harrison’s Chinquapin Ridge, home to a great blue heron rookery and the endangered Indiana bat. Hufhand and Kidwell were arrested last February and charged with trespassing and criminal mischief.

In a turn of events as unlikely as the trail bandits themselves, however, Indiana Speaker of the House Brian Bosma seems to have joined their cause. Representing northeast Marion County and part of Hamilton County, Bosma has long been interested in connecting the Geist area with downtown Indianapolis via a greenway. Such a trail almost certainly would pass through Fort Harrison. And while he’s clearly against any illegal activity, Bosma says he’ll support Hufhand’s controversial new plan for a paved path through Chinquapin Ridge.

At the center of the dispute is a question that cities rarely ask in pursuit of connectivity: With natural areas disappearing fast in Central Indiana, does our need for recreation and safer ways to travel outweigh the needs of wildlife?

Almost immediately after buying his first mountain bike in the early 1990s, Hufhand fell in love with the sport. Being surrounded by nature, the exhilaration of speed and skill, and the sense of absolute freedom were like nothing the medical device salesman had experienced before. Some of the first trails he rode were at Fort Harrison, at the time an Army base and one of the few places in Indiana where mountain biking was allowed. Hufhand recalls riding the trails at all hours of the day and night, often coming across camouflage-wearing soldiers practicing maneuvers. But when the land became a state park in 1996, those trails were shut off.

Hufhand went on to help form HMBA, serving as its president for 10 years, opening access and building trails throughout the state. But Fort Harrison always remained in his mind, and when DNR officials asked for a formal trail plan, he and his group sprang into action. The DNR’s initial concern was that Fort Harrison needed at least 10 miles of trails, fearing the system wouldn’t be successful if it had less than that, Hufhand says. So HMBA volunteers crafted a plan that would create more than 20 miles of trail throughout the park. But then came the concern over the herons and other birds.

“We were led to believe that once we proved that we would have no effect on the birds, then we would be allowed to build the additional trails,” Hufhand says. “Based on the positive history we had with the DNR, there was no reason to distrust them. A couple years later, we’re suddenly done at Fort Harrison. No more new trails. It was a bait and switch.”

Hufhand continued advocating for trails inside the prohibited preserves, but with each passing year, his appeals became more belligerent, his tirades more irate. Depending on who you ask, park staff were either sympathetic to his cause or exasperated by the constant badgering. Acquaintances say they would see Huf, as he’s known in the local cycling community, straddling his bike at a trailhead and immediately turn around, wanting to avoid a lengthy lecture about the continued injustice of the DNR’s actions. So what happened next came as little surprise to anyone who knew him.

With no changes on the horizon, it was increasingly clear to Hufhand that the once-promised trails were never going to happen unless someone took radical action. Nearly seven years after the DNR closed off access to the nature preserves, whispers of two bandit trails began to spread throughout the local mountain-biking community. The trails were nicknamed Sedona and Flagstaff after two cities in Arizona that were forced to legitimize miles of illegal trails after they proved popular with locals.

“We were led to believe that once we proved that we would have no effect on the birds, then we would be allowed to build the additional trails.”

It wasn’t long before the DNR caught wind of the illegal trails, and park rangers set up hidden game cameras in hopes of snaring the culprits as they worked on them. Grainy footage showed Hufhand and Kidwell walking through the forbidden nature preserve at night, large containers of herbicide on their backs. After the two were arrested, prosecutors claimed the duo not only built the illegal trails, but also solicited donations for the weedkiller on Facebook.

Despite the looming criminal charges and a yearlong park ban, Hufhand continued to obsess over what could be at Fort Harrison, redoubling his efforts from afar. In the year after his arrest, he and his friends hatched a new plan he hoped would have broader appeal. The “Indy Urban Wilderness” idea centered around a 2-mile paved greenway connecting Geist Dam to Fort Harrison and the rest of Indianapolis’s trail network. Five natural-surface trails would branch off of the greenway, totaling about 12 additional miles of track, all through the prohibited nature preserves.

The idea for a paved connector trail in the area wasn’t new. A Geist resident named Ray Peck had been advocating for such a greenway for a couple of years. For him and others in the neighborhood, biking to Indianapolis meant riding on congested Fall Creek Road, which has very little shoulder. A trail was a public-safety necessity, Peck believed, and the fastest and easiest way to achieve it was on an existing road through the off-limits Chinquapin Ridge nature preserve.

By piggybacking on Peck’s efforts, Hufhand hoped to create a groundswell of support for his Indy Urban Wilderness plan. Maps of the proposed trail network quickly made their way to homeowner groups throughout the northeast side. Most importantly, Hufhand’s attorney—prominent conservative Greg Garrison—alerted Bosma about the idea. The Speaker of the House liked it. He had already been working behind the scenes for at least a year trying to broker a compromise between trail advocates and the DNR, even hosting an invitation-only meeting with his aides in his Statehouse office in 2017. The wheels were in motion.

Of the four Fort Harrison nature preserves dedicated in 2011, only one, Lawrence Creek, currently allows bicycle trails in its charter. A second, Warbler Woods, features hiking-only paths. But neither of the other two preserves currently allows trails. The hooded warbler and several other federally protected migratory birds nest along the 135 acres of ash, oak, and tulip trees highlighting the pristine Bluffs of Fall Creek preserve. And Chinquapin Ridge, where the bandit trails were found, hosts the most fragile populations of all: great blue herons and egrets.

DNR spokesman Marty Benson says the state’s goal is to balance access with conservation whenever possible, but that might not be feasible at Fort Harrison. “Endangered species are protected by state and federal law,” he says. “It’s rare for a species that has been eliminated from an area to ever reestablish a viable breeding population at that site. If it does happen, it is typically through costly reintroductions and management, which don’t always work. It’s much more practical to protect those species from leaving or dying out in the first place.”

A 2014 Purdue University study used simulated models to conclude that increased human activity, either by pedestrians or cyclists, through the area could be a nuisance for nine species of birds.

“If people would just stay on the proposed greenway,” the disruptions could be minimal, says local Audubon member and bird expert Don Gorney. “But people generally aren’t good at adhering to rules. It’s likely that signs telling people to stay out of the rookery would have the opposite effect, and people wanting to get a closer look at the birds would create more of a disturbance.”

The activity could interrupt the herons’ breeding cycle, in particular, Gorney says. Constantly flying away from danger means mothers are spending less time incubating their eggs and feeding their young.

“Human recreational activity in parks can definitely have a detrimental impact on species, particularly larger animals,” says Dr. Emily Zefferman, a California ecologist who studies a conservation district there. “There is, of course, the issue of people leaving trash, trampling habitats, and bringing in invasive species. But human presence alone, including our scent and voices, can cause many animals to avoid areas.”

“Human recreational activity in parks can definitely have a detrimental impact on species, particularly larger animals.”

Other experts believe it’s possible to create trails in sensitive areas and still protect wildlife, however. Former Fort Harrison naturalist Jeff Cummings says in the years since the legal mountain bike trails were established, the park staff hasn’t seen any disruption among the birds there. Dr. Jeff Marion, a professor of forest resources and environmental conservation at Virginia Tech, isn’t surprised. “Most wildlife have a decent capacity to habituate to consistent non-threatening trail use when visitors stay on the trails,” he says. “Heron rookeries can coexist nicely with trails when the trail allows viewing from a distance.”

Longtime residents of the area also argue that wildlife and humans existed in harmony long before the state park was established in 1996. Marian University cycling coach and member of the Indiana Trails Advisory Board Dean Peterson says he used to ride through the property before the state took over, and would welcome an opportunity to ride there again legally.

“We need to preserve our natural treasures, but we don’t have many green spaces to choose from in Indianapolis,” Peterson says. “In comparison to other cities our cycling team has visited, the amount of natural-surface trails here is minuscule. Other cities are able to strike that balance between conservation and recreation, so why can’t we? The last thing we want is for the [herons and other wildlife] to leave. If we can expose more people to the beauty we have here, you’re going to see a lot of them want to do a better job of preserving it.”

The criminal case of Hufhand and Kidwell is set to go to trial in April. If convicted, both men face up to 18 months in jail (although a fine seems more likely). As for the trails, both the DNR and Indy Parks have confirmed preliminary discussions about an alternative route for a paved Geist-to-Indy connector path, but no firm plans have been established.

Although he declined to be interviewed, Bosma says he’ll sign a letter in support of the Indy Urban Wilderness project. In a provided statement, he praised the efforts of Hufhand, Peck, and others. “Trails positively impact our quality of life and quality of place, both of which play a supporting role in retaining and attracting residents and businesses to our area,” it reads. “I’m excited about the proposed plans to expand and improve our valuable local trails, and I hope to see these initiatives move from planning to implementation.”

Peck believes the only way a deal gets made is if Bosma “steps in and really pushes this with the right people. He seemed to agree with me. I really do think we have reached critical mass at this point. There’s money available for trails, and the Geist area is desperately in need of connectivity. The local politicians understand that their feet will absolutely be held to the fire, and they risk being publicly shamed—or voted out of office—if they don’t actively get behind this movement.”

“I’m excited about the proposed plans to expand and improve our valuable local trails, and I hope to see these initiatives move from planning to implementation.”

For its part, the DNR has “no specific plans to reevaluate the status of those nature preserves,” Benson says. “However, if someone comes to us with a trail proposal that won’t impact those natural resources, change the character or purpose of the preserve, and will fit within our operational rules and policies, we are certainly willing to look at that proposal and evaluate it.”

Changing the terms of a nature preserve normally requires a revision of the preserve’s dedication documents, which must be agreed to by the land owners and then approved by both the NRC and the governor. But because trails were listed as an option in the original dedication documents of Fort Harrison, all that would be needed is for the DNR to agree that the changes won’t negatively impact the natural features and the reasons the preserve was set aside.

If the DNR did decide to add new bike trails to Fort Harrison, current HMBA president Paul Arlinghaus says his group would be happy to help plan and build them. Ironically, though, Hufhand and Kidwell’s alleged actions may prevent that from becoming a reality. Arlinghaus believes that the DNR will now dig in its heels on the proposal, not wanting to set a bad precedent for the rest of the state. Hufhand may have attracted one of the most powerful men in Indiana to his cause, but damaging a forest in the middle of the night has a way of putting the brakes on cooperation.