High-flying volunteers

Last month, two members of the Mountain Bike Unit (MBU) patrol found a man with a badly broken leg on the Backbone Trail, about a mile off Mulholland Highway. They radioed for help, knowing he’d have to be carried out to an area where a helicopter could land and take him to a hospital. Forty-five minutes later, an emergency crew arrived and carried the injured man out on a stretcher. 

It was the latest example of the essential yet little-known service this all-volunteer team of mountain bikers has been performing for 25 years: patrolling the public trails of ten nearby parks totaling 60,000 acres in the Santa Monica Mountains on lands owned by the National Park Service, California State Parks and the Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority. 

The 130 volunteers currently in the program patrol the trails in groups of two to four wearing distinctive yellow jerseys and helmet covers. In the Malibu area, volunteers patrol the national recreation areas of Zuma/Trancas Canyons and Circle X Ranch, as well as the Malibu Creek, Leo Carrillo, Point Mugu and Topanga Canyon State Parks. They assist hikers, equestrians and mountain bikers – or anyone using the trails – by providing information, directions, help with minor repairs and first aid. The bike unit is able to go places where rangers in vehicles can’t go, because most of the trails are only about three feet wide. 

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Malibu resident Larry Koch has volunteered with Mountain Bike Unit for the past several years. 

“We’re the eyes and ears of the park rangers,” he said. “I’ve had three rescues with a broken collar bone and one with a broken leg. The dispatchers know we’re out there. 

“What’s interesting is I’d be out mountain biking anyway,” Koch continued. “I’m a retired airline pilot, so I’ve got time on my hands, and it’s a chance to give back to the community. I got 500 hours in this year and I try to go at least twice a week for about four hours.” 

The MBU was formed back in 1988 by a Calabasas-based group of mountain bikers called the Concerned Off-Road Bicyclists Association (CORBA), and later spun-off as an independent organization. It was the first volunteer program in the nation co-sponsored by both a federal and state agency, and became a model program for the International Mountain Bicycling Association (IMBA). 

The volunteer organization reports to Melanie Turner, a Santa Monica Mountains law enforcement park ranger for the National Park Service. 

“They kind of run themselves,” Turner said. “The ages of the volunteers run from the 20s to the 70s. They schedule themselves for a minimum of eight hours of patrol each month on the MBU website.” 

“There are all levels of riders in the MBU and you only go where you’re capable of going,” Koch explained. “You go on patrol with like-skilled people and all trail levels get covered. One person carries a medical pack and another carries a radio.” 

What causes the most trail accidents? 

“Speeding too fast for conditions, a lack of common courtesy and head-on collisions,” Turner said. “There have been 14 wrecks in the past two years that have led to a helicopter take-out.” 

Volunteers are certified after undergoing an extensive series of training classes conducted by the park agencies, and must also go on several ride-alongs before they can graduate. 

Class topics include visitor contact skills, radio use, park rules and regulations, first aid and CPR certification, park etiquette, park philosophy and historical information. 

Field training exercises are held at Malibu Creek State Park. “It’s a huge production of about a hundred people enacting a dozen mock scenarios of what we might encounter when we’re patrolling,” said Volunteer Coordinator Stacey Ruda Best. “For example, different situations with horses, people picking wildflowers and major medical emergencies.” 

While volunteers are considered to be first responders in emergency situations, they have no law enforcement authority. They report park violations to the rangers by radio if visitors are uncooperative. 

An informational meeting for those interested in volunteering is scheduled for the King Gillette Ranch Auditorium at 9 a.m. on Sat., Feb. 2. Actual volunteer training sessions begin on Feb. 9, 2013 at National Park Service headquarters in Thousand Oaks. For more information, visit the website at www.mountainbikeunit.com

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