Big Bend National Park: Is It Ready For A Mountain Bike Trail?

Big Bend officials are taking public input on what should be considered by an environmental assessment examining a multi-use trail intended to take mountain bikers into the park's backcountry near Lone Mountain. Photo by Jeff Blaylock.

Officials at Big Bend National Park in Texas want to know what you think of a plan to develop a multi-use trail backcountry trail, one whose primary mission would be to accommodate mountain bikers.

Already the International Mountain Bicycling Association is trying to rally its troops, sending out an "action alert" that contains a letter supporters can copy and send off to Big Bend officials who are working on an environmental assessment (EA) that will examine the project.

While the National Park Service is taking public comments through September 20 to see what the EA should consider, this project seems greased. After all, creating a mountain bike trail in Big Bend a year ago was "certified" as a Centennial Initiative project even though the Park Service was still in the middle of a five-year study examining the propriety of mountain bike trails in the National Park System beyond current practices, which limit mountain bike use to existing paved and unpaved roads in the parks.

And back in June the director of the National Park Service, Mary Bomar, attended IMBA's World Summit and suggested that there be a special "parks edition" mountain bike.

The proposed trail in Big Bend would start near the visitor center at Panther Junction and run roughly 5 miles in a loop, crossing the Chihuahuan desert and wrapping Lone Mountain while providing sweeping views of the Chisos Mountains, the southern-most mountain range in the country. The trail would be roughly 5 feet wide because of the need to accommodate mountain bikes. It would not cross into recommended wilderness in the park.

Big Bend officials have scheduled some public meetings to discuss this project. They are set for September 10 from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. at the Brewster County Community Center in Study Butte, Texas, and September 11 from 6:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. at the Sul Ross State University - Espino Conference Center.

To provide comments and identify issues for consideration, visit the National Park Service Planning, Environment and Public Comment (PEPC) website during the comment period. Or, you can submit written comments to: Superintendent, P.O. Box 129, Big Bend National Park, Texas, 79834.

Comments

First, I haven't been to Big Bend yet, so please take that into account for the following comment:

On principle, I'm fine with mountain biking trails in the parks. Although they are imperfect (meaning they do create ruts in the ground), at least they are less intrusive than motorized vehicles, provide exercise for park goers, and enable people to go deeper into a park than normally would be allowed. I equate this activity to rock climbing and other activities that aren't necessarily unobtrusive but are relatively low-impact.

Having said that, mountain biking can be hazardous in slow-growth areas (deserts, for example, where cacti and other plants can take years to seed and flourish). So I don't want mountain biking where they can clearly destroy the environment.

But biking, in general, is better than a lot of alternatives. If good trails can be created & maintained that don't screw up the environment, then hurray for mountain biking!

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My travels through the National Park System: americaincontext.com

As an unabashed fan of adding more shared-use trails to national parks, I have to thank "Barky" for a well-considered message. Trail design and construction do more to determine the impacts of recreation than whether the traffic comes from foot travel, bicycles or equestrian use. Adding well-considered mountain biking trails to appropriate national parks -- as determined by on-the-ground field staff -- holds the promise of bringing many new NPS supporters into the fold.

As for the Traveler's assertion that the Big Bend trail has to be five feet wide to accept bike traffic ... well there are plenty of mountain bikers who would much rather see the trail narrowed to the 18-inch tread size normally associated with singletrack mountain biking. But those design parameters are best left for the Big Bend trail-building staff to determine -- and that's exactly how things are proceeding in the park.

Mark raises an intriguing question (although it's one that's been touched on previously). It revolves around his statement that adding mountain biking trails "holds the promise of bringing many new NPS supporters into the fold."

Are we to assume that mountain bikers could care less about national parks unless they can ride off-road -- and preferably on single-track trails -- through them?

In the past at least one commenter has pointed out that the national parks need all the advocates they can muster, and that mountain bikers, being somewhat innocuous on the landscape (a point that can be debated), should be courted.

So should a concession here and one there be allowed in the name of luring advocates for the parks?

Should Yellowstone drop its prohibition to paddlers on the Firehole, Madison, Gibbon, Lamar and Yellowstone rivers to lure more advocates who like to paddle? Should prohibitions against mechanized travel in wilderness and recommended wilderness in parks be dropped to lure more ATV and snowmobile users in the name of building park advocates? What about prohibitions against personal watercraft?

Is it so difficult to find advocates for the parks simply because of the qualities they preserve/conserve and showcase, and not because of what recreational add-ons folks can bring to them?

Are there not already enough multi-use lands throughout the state parks, national forests, BLM lands, and even the National Park System, to meet the needs of all these varying interests, or must the National Park Service take on an across-the-board multi-use mission as well?

Good questions, Kurt.
All NPs offer opportunities for some activities; that doesn't mean all/some NPs should accommodate all activities.
I love Big Bend, for its open spaces, ruggedness, aloneness. I think it is big enough that a biking trail would not interfere with other uses -- horseback riding (my thing), hiking, etc. It goes without saying (or should) that the trail must be placed and constructed so it doesn't encourage erosion, must be maintained, and the users must take responsibility for their behavior (trash, staying on the trail, etc.).
I say all this despite the fact that I don't especially like mountain bikers, particularly the really thoughtless, careless one that came jouncing around a blind curve on a horses-only trail in one of our state parks several years ago, spooking our horses and getting several of us hurt. But I know most aren't like that.
In answer to your larger question, no, I don't think every other NP should drop every restriction or encourage every type of recreational activity. Each is its own situation -- size, locale, types of plants and wildlife, potential impact of the activity on the park and on current users -- all these and more. We must not turn our NPs into Disneylands with real trees! That doesn't mean we shouldn't be constantly looking at each individual park to see what activities might be added, or deleted for lack of interest.
I'm a big fan of vast open spaces, and I generally dislike the sweaty masses with flip-flops and screaming kids. BUT, we do need them. First because they help pay the NP tab, both through use fees and through their taxes, and second, because some of them will inevitably connect somehow with the larger park experience. They'll "get it" and become our next generation of park lovers and supporters.

I stumbled across this site while researching a trip to Texas for some mountain biking that we want to take in the fall. I appreciate the thoughtful approach the poster and commenters have taken to what is generally a contentious issue. My wife and I (mid-30's) are avid mountain bikers in the DC area. While I can't speak to anyone else's experience and thus don't want to extrapolate from anecdotes, mountain biking (which we picked up about 5 years ago) made me understand just how precious and important our parks are. Indeed, thanks to the parks we've visited for MTB-specific trips, I now give about 5% of my annual income to park systems, state and federal. Seems like the right thing to do in light of how much I enjoy just being in them.

I know many people rightly condemn the damage (and occasional, but rare, rudeness) that thoughtless or careless riders can inflict on park systems. Moreover, one commenter noted correctly that there is a slippery slope angle to making exceptions to generate interest in the parks. We spent New Year's '08 XC skiing in backcountry Yellowstone and the snowmobiles -- though rare -- were unfortunate. That said, people who genuinely care about mountain biking and the parks (in my own experience, the vast majority) rigorously self-police, and everywhere we've gone it's been pretty effective. So, I'd love to see a responsible, respectful trail system set up in Big Bend. If it has to 5 ft wide, so be it (of course we'd prefer a foot and a half, but we'll take what we can get!). Looking forward to seeing Big Bend for the first time this October!

Mike;

It's a pleasure to read your excellent comment!

Bicycles & biking are a great thing, no doubt about it. That's not to say the venue is without problems & complications ... but 'considering some of the alternatives', bikes are wholesome & earth-friendly.

Kurt's post mentions ...

"The trail would be roughly 5 feet wide because of the need to accommodate mountain bikes."
... but does not say why that width is needed. I'd say, this is a rather pregnant & pointed oversight that deserves more attention:
  • Firstly, standardizing the width of a bike-trail at 60 inches will radically reduce the range of places & contexts where bike trails will ever exist.
  • The generous width is to accommodate competitive behavior among bikers: so they can race & pass each other.
  • Bicycles and hikers are seriously incompatible on trails. Even slow-moving bikers require that pedestrians get off the track for them.

Five foot wide tracks are not trails: they are narrow-gage roads. Be real.

Although many cyclists are nice & considerate people, the dominant cultural expression in the Pacific Northwest is certainly the 'rowdy', go-fast, fly-through-the-air, skid & slide, yee-haw! & yippeee! mountain-biker. Uh, yeah.

Is that bad? No laughing! No hollering loving obscenities at your friends! No breaking traction! Sounds kinda 'stuffed', huh?

But those are the realities, Mike et al. Bikes hog the trail, and the main fun of mountain-biking is to get an adrenaline-buzz going. "Hey! Watch this!"

If I was a mountain-biker, I'd fight that 60 inch trail standard tooth & claw. If that's the direction it goes, that's the end of the line for ya. A token 5-foot wide route here & there, and that's it.

Here on the Olympic Peninsula, we have bike-routes on forestry-land, but not in the Olympic National Park. Guys 'n gals get all wild 'n crazy, battered & bruised ... you can hear 'em shrieking & bellowing a mile away. They're outside, having a ball. I could care less if they are scuffing up the trail and reveling in rutting.

But we don't try to mix bikers & hikers on Park trails. They're not compatible.

First, to Kurt's comments:

You are using the "slippery slope" argument in your post. That's fine, but it's also not logically tenable. It's making an assumption that people (in this case, NPS regulators) don't know where to stop. I consider it perfectly reasonable that regulators will know where to stop. It's a pretty big leap to say that allowing man-powered travel (like bikes, kayaks, canoes, etc.) will eventually lead to fuel-powered travel (like ATVs, snowmobiles, etc.). Simply prohibiting an activity simply because it may lead to other, worse activities is, in my opinion, not a reason to prohibit that initial activity. It may be valid in true cause-and-effect situations (such as increased biking leads to increased erosion, which is a valid argument to make) but it is not valid in conscious decision making decisions. If I chose to eat ice cream tonight, it is not true that it will lead to me gorging myself on ice cream until I did.

Now to Ted's comment:

I do hear you regarding overzealous mountain bikers, you make a fair point. I'm wondering if trail co-existence is even possible in some areas, or if biking should only be pursued where there is adequate space to build two sets of trails. It's a very interesting point you make, but I still have to say that it deserves serious consideration in those parks where space permits. It sounds like (again, I haven't been there) that Big Bend is a good candidate. It should still be less intrusive than motorized vehicles.

My travels through the National Park System: americaincontext.com

Barky,

Too big of a leap? See Yellowstone and snowmobiles, Pictured Rocks and Cape Lookout and PWCs, Big Cypress and off-road vehicles. I'm sure there are other examples, but that's a pretty good start.

Barky;

You raise a very good point:

"I'm wondering if trail co-existence is even possible in some areas, or if biking should only be pursued where there is adequate space to build two sets of trails. It's a very interesting point you make, but I still have to say that it deserves serious consideration in those parks [b]where space permits[/]." (emph. added)

You're right - on moderate topography it is relatively practical to build wide tracks, without extensive "road-building". Big Bend might be such a place. Easy terrain also lets us use multiple routes, 'wherever', almost at will (perhaps allowing for separate walking & biking trails.

But in rugged country, there is often only one route that can be used, and to make 60 inch track-bed on steep slopes would involve heavy engineering. Indeed, it is common to see evidence along Olympic Nat'l Park trails, that even the original 18 inch tread was excess for the conditions.

(Mike - I think a possible/partial antidote to 5-foot tracks might be to make bike-trails one-way. Then bikes don't have to have 'clearance-width' when they meet.)

Ted et al,

I just don't know enough about the topography of the proposed trail sites to weigh in on the width issue. I know of a number of state parks that have narrow multi-use trails, including some trails in the GW National Forest in Maryland and Virginia (not a park, of course), and most of the state parks permit bikes on the trails provided there's been no rain in the previous 48 hours (a good rule). On such trails I worry more about horses than anything else. As someone noted earlier, the dangers are quite real.

As for the fun of MTB being in the adrenaline high, I agree in part -- nothing like a screaming downhill. That said, some of the most fun I have biking comes from a nice rolling ride through the spectacular scenery just as the sun starts to drop or rise. Red Rocks in Vegas and Saguaro near Tuscon come to mind. And as I get older, it's likely that that kind of fun will be more and more in my future (sigh).

I do think that there's merit to the slippery slope concern. I agree it's a logical fallacy in a vacuum, and I also agree that it is a big leap from a bicycle to a 4-stroke, but stranger things have happened. But the park systems rely in part on serious people who care about the parks (such as those represented here), and I feel safe in assuming that such persons would be vigilant for any such leaps.

That's really the thrust of the issue for me: anytime you post rules in the parks you rely to a large extent on the goodwill and respect of the public to ensure compliance. My own experience in this regard has been quite good -- for every irresponsible or thoughtless person there is a dozen who are there to stop the damaging behavior or notify the rangers. And, not to be a polyanna, but part of me likes relying on that -- yet another reason why I love the parks.

What a neat site -- if only the dialogue in DC were this civil and substantive ...