POWNAL – A new trail linking Bradbury Mountain State Park in Pownal to the Pineland public lands in Gray and New Gloucester has become the focus of a furious debate between mountain bikers and other recreational users.

At issue is whether the state will allow construction of a path for bikers in addition to the trail already being built. Critics of the bike path contend it would interfere with hunting and other uses of the land, illustrating how a growing sport like mountain biking can clash with more traditional recreational pursuits.

The intensity of the debate appears to have caught everyone involved by surprise.

“You can never be all things to all people,” said Rex Turner, state recreation planner.

The debate came to a head in the past year, as the Department of Conservation prepared a new management plan for the 730-acre state park and 600 acres of public land surrounding the former Pineland Center nearby. At the same time, work was getting under way on the connector trail from the park to Pineland after a decade of land purchases and easements.

With just days to go before the department closes the public comment period on the bike trail proposal, both sides are rallying their troops.

The lands and conservation easements for the path that will link Pineland to Bradbury Mountain were purchased between 2002 and 2008 with about $550,000 in taxpayer money.

So far, Turner has received more than 100 comments, which he says is a huge response compared with management plans for other state lands. More than 70 people showed up at a public hearing earlier this month. Anti-biker fliers have been circulating in Pownal, while bikers have launched an online campaign.

The park was deserted on a chilly weekday morning last week, but on summer weekends it is buzzing with people taking advantage of the only state park in southern Maine that allows multiple uses. Equestrians and bikers share trails with hikers, picnickers, campers and bird watchers.

Dogs are allowed if leashed. On winter weekends, runners and bikers continue to show up, along with cross country skiers and, in places, snowmobilers.

The park and its host community, population 1,500, seem a world apart from the urban centers of Portland and Lewiston-Auburn, each a half hour drive away.

Pownal’s downtown includes one gas station, festooned last week with a banner welcoming hunters, along with a restaurant, town hall and church.

Park visits have more than doubled, from 34,448 day users in 1994 to 100,415 in 2009. No numerical breakdown of the types of users is available, but much of the increased use is said to be from mountain bikers, who with park permission created more than 20 miles of trails, most of them on the east side of the park across Route 9.

The park has become a major destination for mountain bikers in New England who prefer to ride three- to four-foot wide paths with plenty of nooks and crannies. The bike trails are also popular with runners for the same reasons.

Brian Stearns, president of Friends of Bradbury Mountain, a group representing bikers and other park users, said bikers have worked hard to act responsibly in the park but have been unfairly stereotyped as unruly and blamed for creating rogue trails in the area.

“Everyone wants to say mountain bikers are a bunch of 17-year-old Mountain Dew drinking renegades. The reality is most of us are professional adults,” said Stearns.

He said bikers want the same experience as hunters and hikers — a chance to see nature close up — and that they are happy to share the resource with everyone else.

Stearns, who served on the state advisory committee that drafted the proposed management plan for the park, said bikers have been willing to compromise, unlike their opposition. Originally, the bikers had pushed for a number of trails along the new corridor linking Pineland and the park.

Now they are asking for just one, which would roughly parallel the connector trail already under construction.

Mitch Wacksman, president of the Portland chapter of the New England Mountain Bike Association, said the state should make the most of the lands by opening them up to as many uses as possible.

“I would like to see the potential for people to use it maximized,” said Wacksman.

Others disagree.

Pownal selectmen have asked conservation officials to ban biking trails alongside the new trail.

Hunters who have enjoyed undisturbed access to the land say they worry that if one bike trail is allowed, it will soon become riddled with others, which will scare away deer and make hunting dangerous.

“The mountain bikers have taken over the majority use of the park,” said Tim Giddinge, a hunter, Pownal selectman and member of the advisory committee.

The Royal River Conservation Trust voted last week to join the debate and will send a letter to the state in favor of limiting the corridor to a single connector trail. Henry Nichols, executive director of the trust, said the Pownal Land Trust, which has since merged with the Royal River Land Trust, negotiated many of the agreements with landowners with the goal of a single trail.

“That was the intimation made to the landowners and we are very keen on making sure whatever we say to landowners that we follow through and are good for it,” said Nichols.

Even some of the runners who use the park’s bike trails are against adding a bike trail on the corridor land.

Ian Parlin, who heads Trail Monster Running, a club that runs Saturday mornings in the park, said the state should honor its stated intentions to landowners for a single trail.

“If there were more trails, I am sure I would use them, but I would also use the single trail and be happy with that,” said Parlin.

The public comment period closes Wednesday. The final management plan is expected to be issued by the end of the month.

Turner said that even if conservation officials reject a bike trail on the corridor lands there would be opportunities to revisit the subject in the future. The management plan is reviewed every five years.

“If need be, issues can be readdressed,” he said.

Staff Writer Beth Quimby can be contacted at 791-6363 or at:

bquimby@pressherald.com