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National Park Service Director Bomar Scheduled to Meet With Mountain Bike Community


How does NPS Director Mary Bomar see the future of mountain biking in the national park system? NPS photo.

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.


WOW! I thought it was bad enough that some hikers don't want bikers on "their" trails. I didn't even realize that there was such a hard-core, intolerant segment of the hiking community that won't even tolerate bikes in "their" PARKS!

I'm a long-time hiker, trail runner, and backpacker, and a recent convert to mountain biking, so I feel I have a balanced perspective on this issue. To tell you the truth, I've always wondered why virtually all hiking trails are off limits to bikes. Where's the incompatibility between biking and hiking? Speed perhaps? When I'm trail running on tight single track I average about 7 mph. You know how fast the average mountain biker goes over the average stretch of technical singletrack? About 8-10 mph. Not much difference. Since running and biking are both faster than hiking, should running should be outlawed on hiking trails?

Any other incompatabilities? The "where to draw the line" argument mentioned jet skis and dirt bikes. Give me a break. They are noisy. Mtn bikes are not. In fact the only "compatibility problem" I've ever encountered while either hiking or biking is that bikes are TOO quiet and can surprise hikers and wildlife.

What else...oh yeh, the old "bikes tear up the trail" argument. Actually the opposite is true. Studies have shown that biking creates similar or even LESS wear on trails than hiking, and not even close to the destruction from horses. If you think these studies are skewed, take a couple minutes and bike, then hike a section of soft trail. You will see that your shoes will tear up the ground more than a fat-tire bike. The problem with many trails that I see, especialy the more remote ones, is that there is not ENOUGH "wear and tear" on the trails and they are overgrown.

The most bizarre argument Kurt makes is that there are plenty of places for bikers to ride, so they don't need any more. That's just ridiculous. I'll bet hiking trails outnumber singletrack biking trail 1000:1 nationwide. And dirt/gravel roads don't all. Kurt says there are "innumeral" mountain biking opportunities. Personally, I have ONE mountain bike trail within a 50 mile radius of my house, while there truly are innumeral hiking trails within just 5 miles.

Hikers and bikers need to cooperate. Together we can build and maintain trails, and in all but the most heavily used areas (or where the terrain is too rugged for practical mtn biking) there's no reason why they can't be dual use.

You are correct that the Gila River Indian Community prohibits almost all access to Hohokam Pima National Monument, as they consider themselves to be descendents of the Snaketown inhabitants and because they consider Snaketown to be a sacred place. As best as I understand, the NPS does have minimal jurisdiction in the sense that if the Gila River Indian Community wanted to engage in some kind of development that would harm Hohokam Pima National Monument - I believe that the National Park Service would be able to step in to stop it.

The one other NPS Unit with almost no National Park Service jurisdiction is Poverty Point National Monument - which is run as a Louisiana State Historic Site. They're actually rather resentful of the "National Monument" designation, and very much intend to keep the site under State jurisdiction. As near as I can tell, the NPS seems fine with that, given that the State is maintaining adequate preservation of the site.

The NPS does often close critical habitat areas. Piping Plover closures are quite common in Gateway NRA, for example. Parts of the Dry Tortugas National Park are closed as migratory bird habitat. I'm sure there are probably many others.

To further add to the confusion, though, there are actually at least a dozen Naitonal Parks that permit hunting. It may be fairer to say that National Parks and National Wildlife Refuges have similar levels of protection. There seem to be examples on both sides of one area having a greater degree of protection than the other.

Sport hunting is not a reliable indicator of protection. In the National Park System, sport hunting is permitted in national preserves (categorically, I think) and in some other parks. Among the examples are Hawaii Volcanoes National Park (feral hogs, several exotic game species), Cumberland Island National Seashore (archery deer hunts), and Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore (deer, small game).

Well, not all National Wildlife Refuges enjoy that high standard of protection, but some do. Pelican Island, the very first NWR, established in 1903, is off limits to visitors, as well as a number others.

As far as I know, there is only one NPS unit, that is closed to the public: Hohokam Pima NM in Arizona, because it is inside the Gila-River-Reservation, or Gila River Indian Community as it is called now, of the Pima and Maricopa tribes. The National Monument was proclaimed to protect the prehistoric 'snaketown' settlement. I'm not familiar with all the details, but as far as I know, the NPS has no jurisdiction over the area and the tribes accept no public access.

Do you know of just one NPS unit, or significant parts of a unit, that is closed to protect it from the detrimental effect of public access? I mentioned a few examples for that under the jurisdiction of other agencies. So in general a National Park has a higher standard of protection than a National Wildlife Refuge, just because you may not hunt in a National Park. But some NWRs have a higher standard than the National Parks.

I'd like to make two points on this:
1) I'm not a fan of "slippery slope" arguments. I'm not sure why the slippery-slope argument doesn't pertain to hiking trails. Surely it would apply to the construction of boardwalks, or to paved hiking trails in the Great Smokies or to the base of Yosemite Falls. But even back-country hiking trails can show the collective wear of thousands of pairs of feet. If the standard is going to be recreation that will "conserve the scenery.... and leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations", then surely those sorts of hiking trails would not pass the test. The same thing would apply to the Going-to-the-Sun Road or the Old Faithful Inn (and the Old Faithful ampitheatre). And yet, none of the National Park Service's various lodges, scenic touring roads, or other facilities have really led to such a "slippery slope." Thus, I find the main implication of your post - that there is little room for any new mountain biking trails in the National Parks without opening a slippery slope contrary to the mission of the National Park Service - to be fairly implausible. Mountain Biking is a healthy physical activity, creates minimal additional noise pollution, and provides additional mobility to visitors - allowing them to explore deeper into Parks then they would otherwise.

2) I think a parallel issue to this is that the current Federal lands classification system is a complete mess. I'll say up front that my own thoughts are not fully developed on this subject - but I'm going to toss them into this discussion for the sake of developing them further (as inspired by your most recent response.) In general, one could sensibly classify Federal lands on the basis of *significance* and on the basis of *level of protection.* Unfortunately, the various Federal land designations all have overlapping levels of *significance* and *level of protection* which makes it hard to answer the question of "What exactly is the National Park System" supposed to be?

All Units in the National Park System are clearly supposed to meet a minimum level of significance. We can quibble about the significance of Steamtown or the Carter G. Woodson Home, but for the most part, everything passes the "significance test." Of course, not all of the most-significant areas in the US are included, some of the most-obvious exceptions are Mt. St. Helen's, Cahokia Mounds, Niagara Falls, Monticello, Mount Vernon, and Papahānaumokuākea (Northwest Hawaiian Islands) Marine National Monument - all of which would passs any "significance test" for inclusion in the Naitonal Park System, but all are managed by other entities.

Secondly, there is the level of protection. All National Park Service sites meet a high level of protection. Nevertheless, there are variations, even leaving aside the National Historic Sites, Historical Parks, Battlefields, Military Parks, and Memorials. In at least nine cases, different National Parks have been created precisely because of the different levels of protection between them - these are the various "National Park (or Monument) & Preserves" in the system. Around twelve other areas of the National Park System enjoy their very existence to man-made dams - which is perhaps the anithesis of "preserve unimpaired."

Of course, the other areas of Federal Lands are hardly any more consistent. I have a general sense of a descending order of protection from National Park Service to Fish & Wildlife Service to US Forest Service to Bureau of Land Management - but I probably couldn't articulate the exact differing levels of protection between a National Park and a National Wildlife Refuge or a National Forest and a BLM Land. Moreover, just as a "National Park System Unit" represents some sort of intersection between "significance" and "level of protection" so does the term "National Monument" represent the same sort of intersection. And yet, there are now six different Federal Agencies running National Monuments - the four already mentioned, as well as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Armed Forces Retirement Homse. Two other entities, the US Army Corps of Engineers and the Valles Caldera Trust, run lands with similar designations as well. That makes a total of eight!

The last wrinkle to all of this is the Federal Wilderness Designation. Wilderness appears to be the strongest-level of protection that can be applied to an area of land - but isn't necessarily tied to significance. Many areas of the National Park System are Federally-designated Wilderness, and clearly should not have further development for recreational uses like mountain-biking. I think it would be hard, though, to argue that all natural areas in the National Park System should be managed to this same standard. And after all, a wilderness could be designated in a spectacular National Park just as much as it could be designated in some fairly non-descript BLM land.

At the end of the day, with so many overlaps between things that are "National Park" and things that are "not National Park", I think it makes it exceedingly hard to answer the question of "What should the National Park System be?" And it may well be that the most satisfactory way to answer that question will be to simultaneously answer the question of "How should all of our Federal lands be organized?" Allright - there are perhaps my overly long thoughts for the day.

MRC - you make some good points. I hadn't thought of actually considering National Wildlife Refuge to be a higher level of protection than a Naitonal Park. I had ordered them the way that I did because the National Wildlife Refuge rather famously can allow oil drilling under at least some circumstance - something that seems almost unthinkable in a National Park. I think that's yet another example that various levels of Federal land classification are very poorly defined, and really aught to be clarified.

@Sabattis: "I have a general sense of a descending order of protection from National Park Service to Fish & Wildlife Service to US Forest Service to Bureau of Land Management".

In my book the FWS has the highest standard of protection, before the NPS. USFS and BLM have very different levels within their jurisdiction, but in general I'd put some BLM lands, that have some kind of protection, over those of the USFS. FWS wilderness areas for example have no access to visitors, the FWS National Monument, Hanford Reach NM, has parts set aside for research, with no access for the public. But it is more difficult: On Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument (USFS), the main blast area can only be accessed on a handful of established trails, straying beyond them is forbidden to protect the recovery of nature after the 1980 eruption.

This kind of protection is rare in the National Park System. Another volcano comes to my mind: In Sunset Crater National Volcanic Monument the cinder cone must not be climbed. Recreation is a huge part of the NPS mandate, if ecological research and really undisturbed nature is wanted, it looks like other agencies are better equipped.

"Superlative opportunities for recreation for public use and enjoyment..."

Where do you draw the line for what's appropriate in a national park, for which the National Park Service has considerably different management mandates and responsibilities than does the U.S. Forest Service for national forests or the U.S. Bureau of Land Management for its empire?

Some find ORVs and dirt bikes to be superlative modes of recreation and enjoyment. Should we build trails for those, too, in the parks? What about Jet skis and power boats? Each carries a threat to the resources, and, of course, the Park Service is mandated to "conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations." (emphasis added).

Indeed, many courts have ruled that the Park Service's main directive is to conserve the resources, not provide "superlative opportunities" for each and every mode of recreation.

Hiking trails long have existed in the parks, and while there might have been a few added in recent years, I can't recall any substantial trail additions. And I think it can be argued that a mountain bike trail and use of it lends more impacts, both actual and aesthetic, than a hiking trail.

As I've noted before, that's not to say there aren't already existing opportunities for mountain bikers in the parks and opportunities yet to be examined in terms of existing dirt roads that wind through many parks. But does the Park Service need to examine cutting new single-track trails in places like Yellowstone, Yosemite, Rocky Mountain, Great Smoky Mountains, Acadia, Voyageurs and on and on?

Perhaps if there weren't countless opportunities for mountain biking throughout the national forest system and the BLM landscape, not to mention state parks, it would be easier to justify greatly expanded mountain bike opportunities in the parks.

As for Segways on the Mall, they're running primarily on concrete sidewalks and pathways, no? Do they carry the actual impacts of cutting new trails through a forest or across a meadow and then the resulting use?

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