When the International Mountain Bicycling Association holds its 2008 World Summit in Utah later this month, it will have a very special guest. National Park Service Director Mary Bomar apparently has agreed to deliver a keynote address to the industry arm.
By doing so, it appears that Ms. Bomar is giving implicit endorsement to IMBA's ongoing efforts to see mountain bike trails in general, and single-track trails specifically, cut through national parks. This is how IMBA announced the director's scheduled appearance at the summit, to be held June 18-21 in Park City:
One of the U.S. government's most senior officials charged with managing federal lands, Director Bomar's attendance will provide significant inspiration to IMBA's long-standing stewardship and advocacy work.
IMBA has worked hard on building biking advocates and also has worked diligently to assuage the concerns of those who believe mountain biking can hasten the erosion of landscape and can be incompatible with other trails uses.
But at the same time, the question of whether mountain biking is a good fit with all national parks remains. There are some areas in the park system where mountain biking is perfectly compatible. The White Rim Trail in Canyonlands National Park is one such example. Coursing along an old dirt mining road, the trail offers mountain bikers a multi-day trek through some incredible landscape. Mammoth Cave National Park also offers a fairly good network of dirt roads that serve as trails for mountain bikers, including one that's a 32-mile loop. Acadia National Park opens its 45 miles of carriage paths to cyclists.
There are other examples as well. In fact, 40-some parks already allow mountain biking in some form.
The question, though, is why does IMBA feel there's a need for new trails, including single-track, to be cut across national parks for mountain bike use? After all, the national forest system covers 191 million acres, more than twice what the national parks encompass, and a good deal of that landscape is open to mountain biking. The same can be said of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management landscape. And let's not forget all the state parks out there that are open for cycling.
Does IMBA feel there's a need to conquer as much landscape as possible?
Here's a comment that was made in another national park forum:
The International Mountain Bicycling Association is basically a trade group for the mountain bike manufactures and we should recognize that fact. They want more areas available to the bikers to sell more bikes. We have seen this act before - snowmobiles.
I have spent a lot of time on the trails of the Pacific Northwest which gave me an opportunity to observe how the park visitor uses the trails. Most of the visitors use the trails to get away from the mechanized world and related to Nature. They can hike at their own pace.
In non-wilderness areas, such as NRAs, there might be an opportunity to investigate the trail use. Two of the major problems with mountain biking are: 1) conflict with hikers and horsemen and women; and 2) damage to the trails from the bike tires by creating heavily worn spots on the corners and troughs for the rain. There is no justification for ignoring the fact that the majority of mountain bikers consider the trails as a challenge and to be cover as fast as possible. Basically, the mountain bikers are not in the parks to appreciate the flora and fauna. (emphasis added) There are a number of areas and trails which could be safely turned into mountain bike trails provided that the trails were policed to protect the hikers and horsepeople. What about mountain bikers using the sidewalks in some of our historic areas? Would the park visitors who are walking get out of the way and the bikers came tearing past?
The next ploy the bikers might take is that their mountain bikes are not "bikes," but "metal pack animals" which should be allowed in the Wilderness. I can't understand why there isn't more outrage over the inroads the IMBA have managed to create to move the Service towards acceptance. The next ploy for the IMBA is to offer free mountain bikes to Rangers in order to patrol the backcountry more efficiently.
Now, a popular rejoinder from the mountain bike community is that it should be able to enjoy the national parks as much as other recreational sectors and that to oppose that access is elitist or snobbish. But national parks are managed under distinctly different rules, and for a distinctly different purposes, than national forests, BLM lands and state park lands. Those points don't seem to hold much traction with IMBA. Here's a brief history that provides some insights into the organization's intent when it comes to national parks:
* In December 2007, Traveler learned that IMBA was quietly exploring a bid to change National Park Service rule-making policies with hopes of cutting through the bureaucracy to open up more park terrain to cyclists.
* In May 2005 IMBA signed a memorandum of understanding with the Park Service that called for two pilot studies into expanded mountain biking in the parks. Somehow after that MOU was signed a third pilot project was approved.
* Initially IMBA officials talked only of gaining access to dirt roads in the parks. But a few months later IMBA Communications Director Mark Eller told the Traveler the group really did have some single-track thoughts in mind when it reached agreement with the Park Service. "We feel comfortable, the NPS feels comfortable, with looking at the potential for trails to be opened. Those all require the environmental assessments and rule-making procedures," Eller said in January 2006.
* When Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne and Park Service Director Bomar last summer announced 201 projects eligible for centennial funding), a dual-use, hiking and biking trail in Big Bend National Park was among the group. While that project was not funded in the initial round of Centennial Challenge projects, it remains on the park's planner.
* In November 2007 IMBA gained the support of Mike Snyder, the Park Service's Intermountain regional director, who sent out a memo to superintendents in his region to say IMBA can provide "some great partnership ... that you may want to take advantage of."
And now Director Bomar is planning to deliver a keynote address to IMBA.
IMBA can be a worthy ally of the National Park Service. But where should the line be drawn when it comes to mountain biking in the parks? Is there a need to cut single-track trails in the parks? Is that the best use of the national park resource at a time when there already are innumerable mountain biking opportunities outside the parks? 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?
Hopefully Director Bomar in her keynote address will provide answers to those questions.