On Christmas Eve, three days after she and her family moved to their home in the hills northwest of Portland, Lindsey Laughlin saw the elk herd.

It’s become a ritual. She wakes up at about 6:30 every morning and peeks out the window. “You start to see these lumps, darker spots,” Laughlin says. “And sure enough, when the sun starts coming up, you see them sleeping.” 

By about 9 am the elk begin to graze, then drift toward the tree line, on land recently bought by the regional planning agency Metro. 

But Metro plans to open that land to mountain bikers by 2018, and Laughlin fears the elk won't stay. Any sudden movement in her window is enough to send them darting away. 

"How can people go barreling through the woods and not affect the wildlife?" she asks.

That question has confronted Portland mountain bikers wherever they've put down roots—and pedaled over them. Twice in the past five years, they thought they'd found a place to ride, until park neighbors and city officials kicked them out. 

Third time's the charm? Not if Laughlin and her neighbors have the last word. 

Mountain bikers say the 1,303 acres of the North Tualatin Mountains Natural Area are some of the last rugged terrain close to Portland where they could ride. The land is northwest of Forest Park, running along Highway 30 near the Linnton neighborhood. Metro plans to develop this land with funds from a 2013 property tax levy, and cyclists pressured Metro planners to dedicate 9 miles of biking trails.

“Our safety valves have all disappeared,” says Andy Jansky, a biking advocate who sat on Metro’s planning committee. “That’s why Tualatin is so important.” 

But residents living near the natural area, 1.7 miles outside Portland city limits, want Metro instead to spend all the money on clean streams and native plants. They say the restored timberland is for wildlife—not hikers, dogs or, least of all, mountain bikers. 

Maps unveiled by Metro planners in May showed up to 9 miles of trails exclusively for bikes. The Tualatin Mountains Wildlife Committee responded by circulating a petition, handing out fliers and sending letters to the Metro Council to oppose the plan.

"Everybody up here is furious," Laughlin says.

The debate mirrors two previous fights over mountain bike trails on forest land—battles bikers lost.

In 2009, Portland mountain biker Frank Selker started pushing for more trails in Forest Park.

Selker sat on a citizens committee that debated the matter, surveyed park users and consulted ecologists about the trails. The committee endorsed more trails despite resistance from neighbors. 

But City Commissioner Nick Fish vetoed the bike trails in 2010. 

“People don’t want to share the park,” Selker says. “I wish I’d quit because it was so pointless.” 

Mountain bikers looked to 146 acres south of Forest Park, an area along the Willamette River called the River View Natural Area, where they cleared and rode bike trails.

But in March, Fish and City Commissioner Amanda Fritz banned mountain biking in the natural area, saying it damaged streams, harmed plants and frightened wildlife. 

Metro officials took an approach different from Portland's: They embraced mountain biking, seeing it as a mandate from voters for the 2013 levy.

“We heard loud and clear  that people wanted to get out and experience the land,” says Dan Moeller, a Metro land manager. 

Nearly 200 cyclists showed up at a public hearing in December and submitted more than 100 comment cards with requests like "More mountain bike trails please!" and "Let's make PDX a destination for off-road cyclists!"

North Tualatin consists of four plots of land. Metro proposals show that one will be mostly off limits to people. The other three will allow mountain biking, with trails designed to protect wildlife.

Neighbors are skeptical. In YouTube videos they've circulated, bikers power down steep hills while techno music pumps in the background. 

Mary Folberg, principal at Northwest Academy, says she's so upset, she's dropping Metro from her will. She had planned to donate some of her 33 acres.

"I just don't think you can trust them," she says. "People voted for wildlife."

Moeller says he does not know when Metro will make a final decision. But he says the agency will stand by cyclists. 

“Not everyone experiences nature in the same way,” he says. “Some enjoy nature with field guides and binoculars. Others enjoy nature on a bike.” 

Jansky, the bike activist, says available cycling land is scarce. He has to drive one hour northwest on Highway 30 for a forest ride on Scappoose Mountain. 

"The secret is to pedal really fast," he hollers, inching up a steep incline on his Salsa Beargrease mountain bike.

At a clearing, Jansky stops and listens to a chain saw hum. These trails, a last refuge for mountain bikers, are on Weyerhaeuser land. The timber company has agreed to host bikers, if they don't mind occasionally finding their trails blocked.

Jansky says chances to experience nature are shrinking. He says young people won't care about nature—or vote for it—if they can't get their tires out on the trails.

“I’m worried the iPod generation is going to have a camping app to go camping on their phones,” he says. “They won’t know the importance of clean water, trees and animals.”