Among the 201 projects "certified" to meet the criteria for celebrating the National Park Service's centennial in 2016 is one to establish a dual-use, hiking and mountain biking trail in Big Bend National Park in Texas.
What seems odd, though, is that this project made the list at a time when the Park Service is in the middle of a five-year study examining mountain-bike use in the park system. Isn't that like approving a snowmobile trail through the Hayden Valley in Yellowstone before the park completes the latest environmental impact statement on recreational snowmobile use in the park? Should it be assumed that greater mountain-bike accessibility across the park system has become a forgone conclusion since that original memorandum of understanding was signed with the International Mountain Bicycling Association?
I'm told no from the folks in Washington, who point out that the Big Bend proposal is no more than that -- a proposal -- until Congress decides to fund the Centennial Initiative. And down at Big Bend, Superintendent Bill Wellman says the trail is not a done deal for a number of reasons.
For starters, the folks at IMBA have yet to come up with their half of the $120,000 proposed to fund construction of the trail and an associated trailhead, complete with picnic tables. Perhaps more importantly, an Environmental Assessment to determine whether the landscape in question is suitable for such a trail hasn't even gotten under way and could very well conclude this is not the place for such a trail, he says.
Cynics might say they're not surprised that greater mountain biking accessibility in the parks has appeared as an eligible Centennial Initiative project. After all, the Park Service's relationship with IMBA has been peculiar almost since the get-go back in 2005. When this relationship was first broached, there was to be a five-year study of mountain bike opportunities in the parks, with an eye on opening up dirt roads to the two-wheelers, as this snippet from an IMBA release clearly states:
A benefit to millions of bicyclists is the potential opportunity for new access to hundreds of dirt roads in National Park units that have been closed to bicycling. While National Park Service rules require a lengthy process to open single-track to bicycle use, appropriate dirt roads may be opened with a more straightforward administrative process.
And then, in January 2006, the group's spokesman, Mark Eller, let on that IMBA really did hope to cut some single-track trails in the parks.
"We feel comfortable, the NPS feels comfortable, with looking at the potential for trails to be opened," Eller told me at the time from the group's Colorado headquarters.
Not only does IMBA "feel comfortable," but the group already knows how those single-track trails should be constructed. According to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, IMBA has said it wants trails without water bars that might force riders to dismount, and trails 4-feet wide and that zigzag through the woods. Plus, IMBA doesn't want bike trails near dirt roads that might generate dust from passing vehicles.
And the National Park Service seems to be rolling along with this plan. Well, not everyone in the Park Service. It seems that a memo written back in the spring of 2006 by some of the administrative staff at Big Bend made it clear that they didn't want to see any single-track trails cut through the park.
Here's the conclusion from that memo:
"There is ... a great deal of worry, suspicion and outright skepticism about this proposal. While it is recognized that it does not set an outright precedent for other NPS areas if approved, it does make it much easier to propose in other NPS areas and more difficult to simply deny the request. The 'slippery slope' reference came up repeatedly in terms of the possibility and appropriateness of changing longstanding NPS policies with regard to wilderness use/management, motorized recreation, definitions of a "mechanized" device, agency control over examined activities, 'pay for play' implications, rulemaking and a host of other serious concerns
"The current policies are strongly supported by all levels of the park staff and they see no good reason to change them simply to allow for expanding mountain biking opportunities in the park. In a word, the park staff's answer to the possibility of expanding mountain biking opportunities in Big Bend National Park is a resounding 'No.'"
Superintendent Wellman inherited the mountain bike issue when he arrived at Big Bend in November 2006. And while he is familiar with the memo opposing mountain bikes, he also knows there are members of his staff who wouldn't mind seeing some mountain bike trails in the park.
The proposed centennial trail would start near the visitor center at Panther Junction and run roughly 8 miles in a loop, crossing the Chihuahuan desert and wrapping Lone Mountain while providing sweeping views of the Chisos Mountains, the southern-most mountain range in the country. The trail would be roughly 5 feet wide because of the need to accommodate mountain bikes.
Those are the "knowns." A number of surveys are getting under way to determine the "unknowns."
"We're just starting the archaeological survey for the proposed trail route. Then we'll do the EA," Superintendent Wellman tells me. "But what we're looking at -- and the first thing I told IMBA when we met on this -- we're interested in trails that are good trails for our park visitors and are a good way for the park visitor to experience the park, whether it's on foot or on mountain bike.
"What we're not interested in is a trail that's just a trail for mountain bikers to enjoy riding your mountain bike. The purpose of coming to a park is to enjoy the park."
The proposed location of the trail will "give us a trail in the desert portion of the park in an area where we haven't had a good way for any of our visitors to access the resource," says Superintendent Wellman, "and it's actually very close to our primary visitor center."
Though the setting can be spectacular when wildflowers -- mostly Fender's bladder pod -- are in bloom, the area is not proposed wilderness.
While Superintendent Wellman hopes archaeological surveys of the area can be completed this month, with a report on that work following in November, work on the EA isn't slated to begin until the new year, and then only if IMBA has the money to pay for it. The cost of the EA is estimated at $30,000, according to the superintendent.
Of course, if the archaeological work turns up significant artifacts, the proposal could die right there.
"There's a chance through the EA process that it won't turn out to be a viable project," says Superintendent Wellman, adding that there really is no other parcel of land in the park that would be suitable for such a trail. "It's pretty much here or nowhere in Big Bend."
Superintendent Wellman did allow that the park's existing trail system has some needs that must be addressed, and agreed that the $60,000 the park is proposing to commit to the dual-use trail could be spent on those needs. However, he added that the parking area and picnic area proposed to be built at the trailhead would meet another need of Big Bend visitors.
Nevertheless, cynics no doubt will continue to wonder why this project even made the centennial list. It takes, according to Superintendent Wellman, at least four-to-six hours to reach the proposed trailhead from the nearest interstate highway, which probably means few mountain bikers not from the area will decide to make the drive to sample this trail. And those local bikers already have miles and miles and miles of existing single-track mountain bike trails on state and other federal lands surrounding the park.
Aross the national park system hundreds and hundreds of miles of dirt roads are open to mountain bikers, ranging from the renowned White Rim Trail in Canyonlands to backwoods routes in Mammoth Cave. In all, 40-some parks already allow mountain biking to some extent. And there are thousands of more miles that range through U.S. Forest Service and U.S. Bureau of Land Management lands.
So why is there a need to cut single-track trails in the parks? Is that the best use of the resource at a time when there already are innumerable mountain biking opportunities? Can hikers and mountain bikers satisfactorily exist on the same trail? Many mountain bikers love the thrill of zooming downhill. Think those in national parks won't seek that thrill?
"If it were just building a trail to have a mountain bike trail we wouldn't be interested at all. But it's an area that looks like has a lot of benefit to general park visitors to have a trail," says Big Bend's superintendent. "The compromise is they're (IMBA) going to build it and maintain it."
"... What we're not trying to design is a high-speed, really thrilling mountain-bike ride," Superintendent Wellman added a moment later. "What they'll get here is a pretty mellow, very scenic bike ride. We get a lot of IMBA-type riders, but most of what we get are mom and pop and kids."
As for compatibility with the ongoing 5-year pilot project, Superintendent Wellman said if the pilot project ends with a decision not to expand mountain bike use in the park system beyond dirt roads, then IMBA will more than likely pull out of this project and the trail would be restricted to foot traffic.
Of course, the fact that this project was deemed worthy of centennial status sure makes it appear as if the Park Service really wants mountain biking to be a success.