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Mountain Bikers Encouraged to Seek Access to Rocky Mountain National Parks

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Mountain bikers in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. Coming to a Rocky Mountain national park near you?

The International Mountain Bicycling Association has a friend in the National Park Service's Intermountain regional director, Michael Snyder. In a recent memo to park superintendents in his region, Mr. Snyder says IMBA can provide "some great partnership ... that you may want to take advantage of."

This is just the kind of reference IMBA officials have been seeking in their continued efforts to gain more access to national parks, access that includes cutting single-track trails across the park landscapes.

It does seem kind of strange to me that the regional director would recommend that his superintendents explore possibilities with IMBA at a time when the Park Service is still working under a 5-year memorandum of understanding to test mountain biking in three parks. Of course, park superintendents all along have had the authority to approve or ban mountain biking inside their parks, so why there was a need for the MOU is equally baffling, unless it was merely intended to give IMBA some name recognition and legitimacy with the superintendents.

And really, there already are quite a few miles of mountain bike trails in the park. Across the park system hundreds and hundreds of miles of dirt roads are open to mountain bikers, ranging from the renowned White Rim Trail in Canyonlands National Park to backwoods routes in Mammoth Cave National Park. 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.

I've asked this before but will revisit it now: 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?

As I noted earlier this fall, mountain biking is a proposed centennial project at Big Bend National Park in Texas.

Roger Siglin, now retired from the Park Service, recently toured the site of that trail. Here's what he had to report:

My wife and I hiked a loop around Lone Mountain following the proposed mountain bike trail. The total distance can’t be much more than two miles. An extension of 1 to 1.5 miles leaves the north end of the loop and follows an old road which ends when it reaches the Grapevine Hills road. On the east side of Lone Mountain the proposed trail stays up on the mountain slope a short distance. This made the first half of the route unpleasant to hike. It is covered with lechugilla, cacti, sotol and other typical desert plants. The ground is very rocky, mostly because fragments of the hard lava capping the mountain have covered the slope.

Trail construction will be difficult and will leave a highly visible scar from the nearby highway north of the visitor center. The flagged route does not follow the contour, but zigzags up and down the slope short distances and skirts several large boulders. I suppose that is to make the route more interesting for bikers, but it would appeal less to hikers for that same reason. We continued on around to the west side of the mountain where flagging was no longer visible. More of the high Chisos Mountains is visible from the west side.

The entire route is north of park headquarters, with a proposed trailhead directly across the road from the concession gas station. A hiking or biking trail around Lone Mountain could easily be constructed below the base of the mountain on flat to gently sloping terrain and the views would be much the same. It would be a very easy hike and a constructed trail there would leave no visible scars from a distance.

Two more phases to the project would add five or six miles of bike trail with two loops that would basically parallel the upper end of the Grapevine Hills road.

I am not a mountain biker and at 71, don’t anticipate becoming one. But if I were planning a shared-use trail I would not pick this location. For children on bicycles, or anyone else for that matter, the east side of the trail would be dangerous because of the rocks and desert vegetation. None of the trails projected in the three phases of construction would be particularly attractive, but at least they are outside of potential wilderness according to the park's wilderness plan. Phases two and three near the Grapevine Hills road and the leg on Phase one, would be unattractive to hikers, and I do not think would appeal to mountain bikers. There is a horse camp at Government Springs with a corral, but it may be moved, so even horsemen would probably not use the trails.

It is difficult to avoid the thought that this project is being proposed primarily for IMBA to get one more foot in the door, the door being widespread creation of new bike trails, or the opening up of existing NPS trails to mountain bikes. The trailhead is already one of the centennial initiative projects. Apparently the trail itself may become a centennial project as the following quote from IMBA indicates: “IMBA is a member of several coalitions that are actively campaigning for increased NPS funding and a sponsor of a Centennial Initiative project for new shared-use single-track in Big Bend National Park.”

 

There are some shared-use single tracks where I live. Before they were opened to mountain bikers, it was a great place to go for a quiet hike. Now on those beautiful fall days when you want to get out the trails are swarming with mountain bikers, which makes it kind of hard to have a leisurely hike.

That's not to say the mountain bikers aren't entitled to the trail, because it was designed as dual-use. But the result is that mountain bikers are displacing hikers. Hopefully that won't be the case in parks that take up IMBA's "great partnership."

Comments

Mack P. Bray,

You said, "I was not aware that any for-profit, trail building businesses existed."
In response, though supported by IMBA and a host of other groups, the Texas Trail docs are 501(c)(4) non-profit. Talon Trails are a for-profit organization that constructs a variety of trails, including hiking-only, depending on their customers' desires.

Your comment "The fact that they exist says it all," doesn't quite say anything other than you're not contributing meaningful dialogue to this discussion, but rather relying on blanket statemtents like "Mountain bikes/bikers are a cancer in National Parks" to try and prove a point. This really doesn't seem very productive as far as reaching any sort of consensus is concerned. If you're not interested in consensus, then perhaps at least the prudent thing to do would be trying to educate the other readers rather than lambast those points of view that aren't your own.

Frank and Bart, I'm enjoying the dialogue.


Frank:

If I could share the specifics of what I'm talking about re closures, I'm sure you'd agree. These decisions were all about closing trails...not closing roads, ORV routes, etc. These decisions had nothing to do with "preservation," by the way. In principle, I agree with you about the importance of preservation. But I still believe you can preserve national parks and still allow the public to respectfully enjoy them.

Perhaps other contributors can cite some examples of closures (or perhaps regulations?) they've witnessed that illustrate my original point of seemingly arbitrary decisions.


HH: You're double dipping! Also, the NPS and the Organic Act are not yet even 100 years old, let alone 150. Yellowstone was set aside in 1872, 135 years ago, a generation before the NPS, and it was done so not to provide for people's enjoyment; it was done so to preserve it from resource exploitation and development.

Bart: I too enjoy your thinking and sharing on NPT. You successfully use evidence and humor to make poignant points.

As for the exact wording of a revised or new mission, I can't say. I might use the word preserve rather than conserve as was originally intended (although, if you look conserve up, one definition is preserve, but I think preserve sends a stronger message). The mission should mandate management based on the latest research (this would address the issue people closing areas without justification). I see problems with the use of unimpaired for two reasons: 1. It implies that before contact, humans didn't alter the environment and we should leave the land in a supposed "pristine" state; 2. It is too non-specific, too non-scientific a term.

I see that you take the middle road, which first prompts me to applaud. However, after some reflection, isn't the middle road that's led us to the current morass? The fight to balance preservation with use has lead to dozens of director's orders, thousands of miles of roads, and many substantial impairments. While not a purist, I believe we should err on the side of preservation. There's a lot of talk about providing for enjoyment, but many equate that to unfettered industrial access. Roads have clearly been an impairment; an example I often cite is the Zion Canyon Road. The Virgin River has been channelized to protect the road, and now cottonwoods are not naturally regenerating. Resource managers at Zion proclaim "We need the road!", but I disagree. People could walk or bike a trail up canyon. They could ride a mule. Access doesn't have to mean impairment. Oh, and when a landslide backed up the Virgin River, the NPS was there to clear it to provide access, even though Zion's founding charter claimed its mission as preserving the geological processes of the Canyon, not preserving motorized access to the Canyon.

Anyway, I have to get to work now. Hope to share more later.


Frank:

I'll bet we don't disagree that much, except maybe in certain details. Re closures of facilities/trails/areas, I'll resist citing specifics since I believe I'll risk losing my anonymity, which I find I'm thoroughly enjoying!

But I will cite an example shared with me recently by a friend. He mentioned he went to a meeting in a major western park, during which some in attendance wanted to close a certain area (to any entry, including hiking). But they couldn't agree on what justification they'd use to do so! If these folks stopped to consider who's paying their salaries, maybe they'd reconsider their intentions.

On a more humorous note, I once saw a sign on the gate leading into a remote section of a national wildlife refuge in Arizona. The sign read something like: "Area Closed, Public Entry Prohibited, Keep Out." Beneath this sign was another that read: "Your tax dollars at work."

Re the Mission, I believe the basic intent, as Haunted Hiker stated, is still a good one. Recall that I emphasized the need for "responsible" public use. Defining such terms as "responsible," "public enjoyment," "conservation," "unimpaired" etc. is what becomes problematic. The intent of my original post was to let common sense dictate how we manage these areas, not the notions of a few purists (and conversely, not the notions of a few abusers). While a hiking trail represents some impact on an ecosystem, most of us agree that trails are a good thing. Most of us also agree that allowing for personal watercraft isn't such a good thing. Then we have all those more debatable areas imbetween.

Hopefully reasonable heads will prevail and wise decisions will be made, taking into account the variables for each circumstance....and the intent of the Mission. Jeez...who am I kidding?!

Just curious: what would be your wording of an ideal Mission?

Good discussing this with you. I've admired your desire to think innovatively all along!


Frank and I have disagreed on this before.

But I still insist that the Organic Act has not failed. Yes, it is a paradox to conserve, promote the use of, and provide enjoyment for while leaving unimpaired. Yes, in order to fulfill such a mandate requires leaders possessing intellect, insight, and courage that the current NPS may not have or nuture. Yes, the NPS fails in small and not so small ways every day. But, all in all, the NPS has suceeded in its mandate by keeping the parks unimpaired enough to continue to provide for the enjoyment of billions of people over the last 150+ years.

The Organic Act is not "antiquated, fundamentally flawed, and needs extensive revision" any more than the Constitution of the United States is "antiquated, fundamentally flawed, and needs extensive revision." Don't throw the act out with the bathwater.

Hell, if anything's antiquated, it's evoking Edward Abbey.


I was not aware that any for-profit, trail building businesses existed.

The fact that they exist says it all.

This issue is nothing more than mountain bike creep.


While I can definitely see the arguments made against biking, in the Big Bend's case in particular I think that a well-planned, environmentally friendly, sustainable single track trail is feasible. As it is not slated for the Basin, and as it is not slated for an area that sees a lot of foot traffic, I don't have a problem with it if done properly.

I also think it is highly possible to create a trail in this area that doesn't promote consistent down-hill thrill-seeking behaviour, but rather trails with lots of small ups and downs that prevent a rider from gaining too much speed without sacrificing enjoyment. The Texas Trail Docs (an IMBA supported group) and Talon Trail Systems (an Austin-based trail building business) are both experienced in creating such trails.

Conversely, if a new trail is not the best solution, perhaps we should close some dirt roads to vehicles and make them mountain bike and equestrian trails only. Like hikers don't appreciate mountain bikers bearing down on them, nor do bikers appreciate being run over by automobiles.

I think the case should be made for park specific regulations. The impact felt in the Big Bend region is not the same as the impact that would be felt elsewhere, and vice versa. Thus we should not judge all parks by one, or one by all, or all by three in the case of the 5 year MOA.

Ultimately, I hope that human powered activities have a fair shot over lazy vehicle-centric pursuits, lest we give way to the "pave our way to greatness" mentality that has turned Yosemite into the world's most beautiful parking lot.

Food for thought....

Full disclosure: I am an occasional mountain biker. (I spend more time rock climbing than anything else, but also very much enjoy camping/backpacking) I am not a member of IMBA, nor do I race in the Texas' local TMBRA circuit. I have hundreds of hours of trail building/maintenance experience, much of those used by mountain bikers. I am right handed. My favourite beer is Guinness, although I'm fond of New Belgium's many offerings. You can't beat the price of a good Shiner Bock though.

Cheers.


Bart,
Here I disagree with you. I believe the mission is antiquated, fundamentally flawed, and needs extensive revision. Instead of keeping our eye on the mission, we should revise or rewrite the mission (please see my comment on Glenn Canyon NRA for background/details). Why is it that once the government does something, that initial thing is almost NEVER revised or scrapped for something new, something modern, something rational? Are we preserving wilderness or preserving legislation? I digress.

As for "closed", are you talking about closed to vehicular traffic or completely closed to entry? I understand that sometimes managers close caves at Lava Beds to protect nursing bat colonies, or sometimes managers emphasize that areas are closed to hiking due to cryptobiotic soil. If you mean closed as in I can't get my RV, 4x4, ATV, or even Geo Metro in there, then I don't see that as closed. These areas are opened to walkers, and that's how it should be. I'm reminded of one of my favorite Abbey quotes: "A journey into the wilderness is the freest, cheapest, most nonprivileged of pleasures. Anyone with two legs and the price of a pair of army surplus combat boots may enter." I think the environmental "purists" you reference would agree with Abbey; I don't think they want to keep people out; they merely want to keep out their deathmachinepolluting contraptions that completely alter the wilderness and humans' experience in the wilderness.

To come back to the topic, I'm with Kurt and others who believe that old dirt roads make excellent biking/multi-use trails. Like Abbey, I'd rather see bikers than drivers. But like Kurt, I don't want to get mowed down by enthusiastic mountain bikers catching air.

Finally, there are 3,793,079 square miles in this country. Roughly 2-3% of that is wilderness and/or national parks leaving roughly 3,679,286 square miles for mountain bikers. Isn't that enough already?


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