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?
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."