Because people are lazy, American Idol-watching couch potatoes, or because the trails in our parks are too steep, and littered with cow poop?

A guy named, appropriately enough, Ted Stroll, brought this up in a commentary in the Chronicle last week.

As an East Bay Regional Park District trail safety patrol volunteer, I monitor Mission Peak Regional Preserve in Fremont on my mountain bike. I start my patrols at a trailhead above Ohlone College. After passing a stagnant watering hole, I labor up a steep service road, passing a cattle feedlot. A short stretch of pleasant trail soon yields to another steep dirt road. For more than 2 miles, the grade averages 11.5 percent. Only near the summit, among barren expanses of stubby brown grass, does the grade ease. At times, cattle will have torn up the route or littered it with dung, material that spatters on my face and legs often enough.

The arduous travel routes, barren terrain and intrusive cattle combine for a discouraging visitor experience – which may explain why I can count on one hand the visitors I see on average during my 10-mile patrol. As on many square miles of Bay Area public land, human-powered recreation bears the earmarks of an afterthought at Mission Peak.

Hmm, the grade eases near the summit? Which Mission Peak is he talking about? (See, this is why more copy editors need to be hikers — I could’ve asked him to clarify — “you mean that flat area a quarter-mile from the summit?” — one of the perks of the job is intimidating writers with our vast storehouse of obscure facts.)

But anyway. His point is that better trails might encourage more return visits. This may be true to a point, but here’s the thing: almost all of our open space is in mountainous areas that weren’t much use for anything but ranching, logging and mining (until later generations with 40-hour work weeks discovered something called “recreation”). It’s difficult to carve new trails in mountainous terrain; it’s easy to use existing roads. Which is better for the environment, building new single-track trails, or not building new single-track trails?

Mission Peak is an odd example to cite for under-use, considering the hundreds who march up to its summit every Saturday and Sunday. Yeah, it’s a tough slog. But people do it all the time. Would you really want to spend three hours zigzagging to the top of Mission Peak when you could just take the road and get there in 90 minutes? Heck, if anything, all the shortcutting at Mission Peak tells us a significant number of people think the roads aren’t steep enough.

I tend to file this along with the wailing and gnashing of teeth over the fact that outdoorspeople are so predominantly pale-skinned. You can line the parks with perfectly maintained, gently graded paths through ancient redwood forests that pass thousand-foot waterfalls and people will still not come if they’d rather be someplace else.

Maybe it’s my experience as an ex-smoker: you hear a thousand lectures, you endure a million coughing fits, you pony up for skyrocketing prices, but until your mind’s made up to quit, you keep on smoking. Better trails might win more repeat business, but the real challenge is turning around the massive majority who will never go even once. Good luck with that.

Anyway, read the guy’s commentary and report back with your thoughts. Click on the comments for some choice tit-for-tat between hikers and bikers.