National Park Service Open to Cutting Single-Track Bike Trails in the Parks

The White Rim Trail in Canyonlands National Park is one area that mountain bikers have access to in the National Park System. NPS photo.

National Park Service officials say they are not averse to cutting single-track mountain bike trails in the park system, as long as "potential impacts" don't arise.

That position comes three years into a five-year "pilot project" of increased mountain bike access in the national park system and less than a year since a mountain bike trail at Big Bend National Park was deemed a centennial project.

That position no doubt will be warmly received this week in Park City, Utah, where the International Mountain Bicycling Association is holding its "World Summit" at which National Park Service Director Mary Bomar is listed as one of the keynote speakers. The summit opens June 18 and runs through the 21st.

According to Jerry Case, the Park Service's regulations guru, before single-track trails can be cut in the parks "(C)onsideration needs to be given to the (National Park Service) Organic Act and specific park legislation, and an assessment of potential impacts" must be made.

IMBA officials are working hard to see single-track trails become a reality, even though there already are hundreds of miles of mountain bike opportunities across the National Park System and thousands of miles elsewhere in the national forests and the lands managed by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.

Traveler learned in December 2007 that the cycling industry association was working quietly to see if it could convince the Park Service to change its rule-making policies to shorten the process for getting such trails approved. Apparently the group has continued to make inquiries at the Interior Department about that matter.

Beyond those efforts, officials at Public Employees for Environmental Ethics believe illegal mountain biking already is occurred at Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area in Tennessee and Kentucky, at Mammoth Cave National Park, Point Reyes National Seashore, Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, and Valley Forge National Historical Park.

"These parks are all allowing bikes on particular 'TRAILS,'" says Frank Buono, who joined PEER after more than 33 years with the National Park Service, a career that saw him serve stints as assistant superintendent at Mojave National Preserve and Joshua Tree National Park. In 1994 the National Parks and Conservation Association conferred upon him the prestigious Mather Award for public service. "I emphasize that word because PEER does not want to confuse these clear cut cases with parks having dirt roads (like the White Rim Trail in Canyonlands National Park) open to bikes. Such parks do not need a special rulemaking.

"There may be other parks that are allowing bikes on what are indisputably 'trails' in the backcountry (technically, under the NPS rules, trails outside of "developed" or "special use" zones.)," he adds. "PEER just doesn't have any evidence on other parks yet."

Back at the National Park Service's Washington headquarters, Mr. Case didn't think creating more pathways for mountain bikes might lead Segway proponents to argue successfully for their own distinct pathways in the parks.

While the footprint of mountain bike trails and imagined Segway trails are similar, he said that Segway trails wouldn't be allowed because those are "motorized vehicles."

As to how the National Park Service, which is mandated by the Organic Act to conserve the park system's landscapes unimpaired for future generations, will avoid becoming simply another public, multiple-use landscape as more and more user groups demand access to the parks, Mr. Case wasn't entirely sure.

"That is our greatest challenge, to encourage use and enjoyment of this national resource, while preserving it for future generations. There are no easy answers to the user capacity question," he said.

Comments

Segways are a BAD idea. Horrible idea! Come to visit the National Mall in Washington D.C. for even part of a day and you will clearly see why. Mountain bikers, if they run smack into you, will also fall down and get hurt which is probably why they take care to NOT run into you. Segways, on the other hand, can plow right into you without even slowing down and no consequence to them! I lost count of how many times I have been nailed by a segway in D.C. I have seen them hit the elderly with walkers, knock over a baby stroller with a baby in it, and those Segway tour groups are a lawsuite waiting to happen. You have to have a bit of skill to use a mountain bike, not everyone can do it, especially on a trail. Segways, on the other hand, can be used by even the most reckless idiots on the planet. Segways can go remarkably fast [Ed. top speed about 12 mph], which makes impact with a pedestrian oh so much more painful. I could go on and on about why Segways in the Parks is a bad, bad idea. Instead, for anyone who thinks Segways are a good idea for the Park system, I challenge you to sit (at a safe distance) on the National Mall on a Wednesday afternoon and watch the Segways. I am on board for trails for the mountian bikers, but I would rally against the Segways and I am glad that they mentioned that just because they make a trail for the mountain bikers does not mean they would for the Segways.

I think it is quite the hyperbole to imply that mountain-biking paths will turn the National Parks into "becoming simply another public multiple-use landscape." The "multiple uses" of Forest Service and BLM lands as the Forest Service and BLM would describe them typically begin with agriculture and extractive industries. Even if you include motorized recreation sports, that's still a significant step beyond allowing non-motorized mountain biking. Although you quoted the a portion of the National Park Servic Organic Act, the first half of the act also says that "The service thus established shall promote and regulate the use of the... national parks..." and then goes on to say "which purpose is to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wildlife 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 future generations."

So I think there is a very interesting question here - does the phrase "leave them unimpaired for future generations" imply that this is the primary mission of the NPS as stated above? Or is the phrase "leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations" expressed as a limitation on the purpose of providing for their enjoyment by the people?

Like any proposed use of the national parks, mountain bike access by trail to a park's back country, or on single tracks, should be examined via a standard public process before given the green light. The National Park Service has an open and public process to review and make assessments on impacts from uses like this, and the National Parks Conservation Association fully supports the continuation of that process to make assessments on mountain bike use. If the Park Service determines on a case-by-case basis that mountain bikes won't harm a specific trail's environment, or the experiences of other visitors, then that activity would have a place in that park.

Ron Tipton
Senior Vice President
National Parks Conservation Association

I'd like to thank the Traveler for bringing this issue into the light--I get very mistrustful any time an interest group (such as IMBA) pursues its aims out of view of the general public by proposing to streamline approvals for biking trails in the national parks. It's clear that the mountain bike community wants to have more access to hiking trails, not just two-lane dirt tracks. The White Rim road, as Kurt mentions, is certainly an appropriate place for bikes. But what about trails on which people have long been able to enjoy a relaxed, restful experience viewing nature without having to maintain a constant lookout for fast-approaching cyclists?

I do wish that mountain bikers would consider the effect they have on other trail users. I frequently hike trails in the Wasatch mountains near my home along with my family, and have learned to completely avoid trails used by bikes. It's just too unnerving to have riders swoosh down a narrow trail at 10-15 mph, appearing out of nowhere, and expect me (and often my young daughter) to jump out of the way--often onto a steep, brushy hillside. Only twice in the last ten years has a biker stopped his or her machine and let us pass.

Simply offering a polite "thank you" as you zoom past does not, to my thinking, constitute a "ride friendly" policy. I'm out on the trails to enjoy nature, not for thrills, or even to cover lots of ground. I want to be able to stand there and listen to the birds without an ear cocked for the telltale sounds of approaching wheels. To me, shared use is a misnomer. The only thing that works around here is segregated use--either separate trails or an odd-even day system, both of which are excellent solutions in popular areas.

But the national parks? I fear the day when the Widforss Trail in Grand Canyon or the Howard Eaton Trail in Yellowstone become popular biking destinations, or when the switchbacks up to Cascade Pass in the North Cascades are featured in Outside as one of the "ten best singletracks." The parks are some of the last refuges of peace and quiet in our nation. I'm with those rangers and superintendents who want to keep it that way.

I'm sure my comments will seem insensitive to the desires of mountain bikers, many of whom sincerely believe that foot and bike use are compatible. While mountain bikers undoubtedly enjoy nature as much as I do, they should pause to consider that trails have different meanings for other folks. When park trails are turned into singletrack, I will be forced to walk elsewhere. And there are few other places left.

I realize that this is a minority opinion, but I offer these views in the hope that reasonable compromises can be reached--such as opening selected dirt roads to biking, not the parks' hiking trails.

Segways are not permitted on the National Mall and can only cross the mall at 3rd, 4th, 7th and 14th Streets. All Segway tour operators are fully aware of this ruling, however two of the three tour operators - Capital Segway and City Segway Tours consistently ignore the law. Segway speed in DC is also restricted to 10mph on the sidewalks. I suggest that if you see segway riders acting recklessly and outside the law that you report it to the nearest NPS representative.