You are here

IMBA: Not Every Park Suitable For Mountain Biking, No Interests, Currently, For Trails in Wilderness Areas


Mountain biking the White Rim Trail in Canyonlands National Park. NPS photo.

Spend time poking around the International Mountain Bicycling Association’s website and you might start to wonder about the group’s thoughts regarding pedaling in proposed wilderness and officially designated wilderness. After all, head over to their “frequently asked questions’ and you’ll find the following position regarding “Wild Places.”

Are Bicycles Appropriate in Wild Places?

Yes, bicycling is a human-powered, low-impact, quiet form of travel compatible with wild places and the intent of the Wilderness Act. There are instances where bicycling may not be feasible or appropriate. Some trails in proposed Wilderness areas are too rugged or steep for our use. On some national trails, such as the Appalachian Trail, IMBA respects the prohibition of bicycles. In other cases, trails should be closed to all forms of recreation (hiking, bicycling, horse use, etc.) when sensitive plants, wildlife or weather-related seasonal conditions are present.

In light of IMBA’s desire to see more mountain biking opportunities in national parks and in seeing that more than a few national parks – such as Yellowstone and Great Smoky Mountains – have thousands and thousands of acres they treat as wilderness, but which are not officially designated wilderness – I decided some clarification was needed. So I contacted Mark Eller, IMBA’s communications director.

The bottom line, Mr. Eller assured me, was that IMBA has no designs on lobbying for bike trails into proposed wilderness in the parks and would probably support official wilderness designation of those landscapes.

“If we’re looking at an area where there are no existing bike trails, chances are very good we would support that wilderness designation,” he told me Friday. “We really just want to look at it on a case-by-case basis.”

That said, IMBA wouldn’t mind a change in the language pertaining to what type of equipment can be taken into a wilderness area. For instance, rather than the current prohibition against “mechanical” devices, Mr. Eller said his organization would prefer official wilderness and wilderness study areas be off-limits to “motorized” vehicles, something a mountain bike decidedly is not.

For now IMBA is not, however, lobbying for such a change.

“We’re willing to discuss it with our partners. But as far as wilderness goes, there’s no campaign to change that in wilderness right now,” said Mr. Eller.

Specifically regarding mountain bike access in the parks, the spokesman said that where the National Park Service believes mountain bike trails likely would be inappropriate, IMBA probably would not push to see biking trails. Yellowstone, he said, is one park where the organization “would not be pursuing a bike system.”

Overall, Mr. Eller said it’s important to the organization that biking be a good fit with a park.

“We don’t think that one size fits all works very well for us,” he said. “We work with the park staff and with local mountain bike advocates and look for areas that would be good opportunities to add mountain bike trails.”


[Jasper Canyon, in Canyonlands NP, is another example of public land recently and permanently closed to the public for unclear reasons.]

In order to support the bicycle ban, you have to believe the following:

-Telemark and randonee skiing equipment is non-mechanized. Those $600 boots with four buckles and a walk mode switch? Those $350 bindings with tour mode, heel lifts, release function, and ski brakes? Totally natural and non-mechanized.

Don't forget the $700 skis, $150 climbing skins, $300 avalanche beacon, $50 probe, $50 collapsible shovel, $150 backpack to carry it all, and $1K worth of Gore-Tex outerwear, goggles, gloves, etc.

-Rock climbing cams, nuts, rappel devices, quickdraws, carabiners, and ascenders are non-mechanized and totally natural. So are crampons, ice axes, and ice screws.

-Kayaks, inflatable rafts, canoes, and pedal-powered boats are non-mechanized.

-Of course, spring-loaded trekking poles, $500 neon-colored tents, $100 folding camp stoves, and hiking shoes made of six kinds of plastic with Chinese slave labor are totally, unquestionably natural and non-mechanized.

Yet bicycles are "mechanized" and unnatural.

Anyone who has ever used all these kinds of sports equipment will immediately realize how ridiculous it is that bicycles are discriminated against. Human power is human power, whether it is used to move shoes, kayaks, skis, snowshoes, or bicycles. Mountain bikes are not equivalent to off-road motorcycles, just as a Huffy is not equivalent to a Harley.

As far as "damage", the only two studies that directly compare the impact of people on foot, horse, and bicycle are Seney/Wilson and Thurston/Reader.
Wilson, J.P. and Seney, J.P., 1994. Erosional impact of hikers, horses, motorcycles, and off-road bicycles on mountain trails in Montana. Mountain Research and Development 14(1):77-88.
Thurston, E. and R. J. Reader (2001). Impacts of experimentally applied mountain biking and hiking on vegetation and soil of a deciduous forest. Environmental Management 27(3): 397-409.

Both come to the same conclusion: horse travel has the greatest impact by far, and bicycle and foot travel have comparable impact. There are no studies, anywhere, that show bicycles doing more damage than people on foot. Any claims to the contrary are simply false.

Really this isn't about logic or environmental preservation, it's about selfishness. People want to think that public land is their own private preserve, and no one else should be able to come there and disturb their solitude.

Well, here's the problem: if you don't let the public visit public land, the public won't care about preserving it. Wouldn't it be better if the 25% of the population that rides mountain bikes actually supported Wilderness? We'd have a lot more of it for everyone to enjoy. Keep excluding them, and you'll continue to be kings of a shrinking empire.

Quoting Kurt Repanshek: "Just as bikers should be able to enjoy their activity, I don't think it's unreasonable to allow backcountry hikers to be able to enjoy theirs—especially when you consider all the opportunities for bikes outside the national parks."

No one is disputing that everyone should be able to enjoy his/her favorite trail-related activity—no one, that is, if you leave aside the writers on this blog who evidently think many cyclists shouldn't be able to enjoy riding remote singletrack. Proper management techniques, including alternate-day use, limiting use by permit, etc., will ensure that everyone can have a stellar experience in his/her favorite backcountry area. It would be interesting to find out how many trails in national parks and national forests, including in Wilderness areas, are fading away because of semiabandonment. Trails in a few areas, like around Lake Tahoe, may be oversubscribed, but I bet that many others, e.g., most trails in Nevada, are disappearing for lack of enough use. Check out some dilapidated and half-overgrown segments of the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail and you'll see evidence of underuse aplenty.

Few things are more moronic than this line of argument (I quote from a prior post): "A point that seems to be missed by the mountain biking community is that no one is banned from hiking trails, only their bikes are. They can still enjoy the trails on foot, just like the rest of us."

Let's apply this kind of thinking in other contexts! How about this: "A point that seems to be missed by the Jews is that none of them is banned by restrictive covenants from living in any neighborhood in this country. Jews can still live in any neighborhood they want if they will convert to Christianity, just like the rest of us."

Or this: "A point that seems to be missed by the gays is that no one is banned from getting married. Any gay or lesbian person can marry anyone he/she wishes, as long as it's someone of the opposite sex, just like the rest of us."

In sum, the argument that mountain bikers can go wherever we want if we'll only walk is detestable and stupid. We'd rather not, thank you, at least not all the time, any more than someone else might want to convert to another religion. And not only is nothing wrong with mountain biking, but it confers many benefits that hikers and horsemen can only envy, like remarkably increased physical fitness. (See any overweight mountain bikers lately?) How about turning the argument around and arguing that trails should be limited to cyclists because doing so won't infringe on the trail's accessibility to any hiker who's willing to ride a bike? Oh, but the argument would arise, "I can't do that! I'm not fit enough!" Fine, so stop being resentful of those who can and who are.

"Although we haven't yet seen the proposed rule change from the Park Service, the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA) believes that the current mountain biking regulations appear to be working well and that there is no demonstrated need to change them. Like any use of the national parks, the use of mountain bikes on trails should be examined via a public process, environmental review, and fully comply with National Environmental Policy Act before given the green light.

"NPCA believes that any changes made to the mountain biking regulations must take into consideration: 1) the capacity of park staffs to effectively manage mountain biking and ensure visitor safety; and 2) associated impacts on wildlife, vegetation, overall trail conditions, and the experience of other park visitors. Furthermore, any changes to the current mountain biking policy should not allow for mountain biking on parklands that have been or may be recommended by the National Park Service or others for inclusion into the National Wilderness Preservation System."

Let me translate this as it could have appeared in a different but related context in 1948:

"Although we have not read President Truman's proposal to integrate the military, the National Military Tradition Association (NMTA) believes that the current policy of separate service for whites and blacks is working well and that there is no demonstrated need to change it. NMTA believes that any change in service policy must take into consideration (1) the capacity of command officers to deal with strife that will inevitably arise from integration, and (2) associated impacts on the morale of white servicemen. Furthermore, no integration should take place in any unit that is currently constituted, but should be considered only for newly formed units in which people are not accustomed to current practice. NMTA would prefer that any change be undertaken very cautiously, with an eye to achieving a degree of integration in approximately 80 to 100 years, and only where it will not upset any current institutional practice."

d-2, all great points, but I just don't see how a leg activates paddles kayak is not mechanized. It has pedals (like a bike) that propels the kayak forward. The whole mechanized argument is a smoke screen. I'd rather see trails opened or close based on sound reasoning. If a trail sees hundreds of hikers each day, then it's probably not the best trails to open to other uses. Now, for the other 80-90% of trails in the backcountry that see nary a soul each day, we should definitely explore their suitability to mountain biking.

Somebody has yet to explain why trails that were opened to bikes for decades somehow need to become illegal the day that land becomes wilderness, besides the fact that we have an incorrect interpretation of the law. For those who don't remember, bikes were allowed in wilderness until the Reagan administration banned them. So, what one administration did, another one could undo by a simple reversal of interpretation. Congress does not need to be involved.


I promised not to digress, yet I feel I must. One last time....

Having worked at Fire Island National Seashore, I recognize the materials used to close beaches TEMPORARILY to protect nesting plovers. While the beaches are closed, again TEMPORARILY, the interdune regions of barrier islands are usually open to access and the bays behind them are also not affected.
Frank C, you are correct Sir, that the initial intent of these closures are to be "Temporary". However, couple these temporary closures with:

-Overwintering Population Closures (Birds)
-Critical Habitat Designation (Birds)
-Nesting Season Closures (Birds)
-Fledging Season Closures (Birds)
-Turtle Nesting Closures (Eggs laid)
-Turtle "50-day window" Closures (Hatching)
-Wilderness Study Areas (Year-round)
-Safety Closures (Storms, beach erosion, etc.)
-Closure Entry Violation Buffer Zone Expansions (Sporadic and Subjective)

…And you have overlapping closures that can last year-round. These closure windows can be also be manipulated so that immense stretches of beach are closed for the entire summer season. Also, please remember that CHNSRA is operating under a Consent Decree, which has changed the rules dramatically. The environmental groups that wrote said decree have their own agenda.

And closing an area to bikes or motorized vehicles is not the same as closing it to all entry.
Again, correct Sir. However, the former can quite easily, and often times will, lead to the latter. That has been my point this entire thread. Nothing is sacred when it comes to access.

You are Both Right as this has become a problem in National Parks: Temporay Closings of areas (for various reasons) happening one after the other.

There is an idea out in some parks to allow for guided tours though the areas, allowing for people to see the area on bike but be monitored so as not to cause any harm

Well, Zebulon, national parks are not the only kinds of public lands. There are many different types of lands set aside at the state, local and national level for public enjoyment. All things do not have to be permitted at all of these places just because all are supported by public funds. It makes sense that parks have different rules from National Forests or Wildlife Refuges or public lands under the BLM. Nothing could be more "reasonable" than the American people deciding that parks should be different.

And, as far as 'reasonableness' is concerned, it is certainly 'reasonable' to note -- and acknowledge -- that this is the law, and the law was specifically designed to avoid mechanized access. For the perfectly good public policy 'reason' that mechanized access changes the experience that Congress and the American people decided was the highest and best use of this or that segment of the public lands.

I love my mountain bike. I get an experience on it I get no other way. But, Zebulon, I know it is an entirely different experience from hiking, canoeing or cross-country skiing into the wilderness (all of which I have done). I think you must know the experience on bikes IS different, and that is why you are pushing so hard for what you enjoy.

It is not reasonable to think that all kinds of recreation use can simultaneously exist on every type of public land.

I have yet to hear a reasonable argument as to why cyclists should be banned from Wilderness. People need to escape the harsh reality of daily life... Well, public parks are not your own private Idaho. Being publicly funded, they should be shared by all. All I hear is rationalization to justify the unjustifiable.

I've been to Henry Coe (south of Silicon Valley, home to millions of people), biked there for a whole day, and barely saw another soul. And this is 30 miles south of San Jose, CA, a major metropolis. I bet that the same is true for just about any park in this country, and that except for a handful of very popular trails, most of them are empty beyond 2 miles from the trailhead. Yet, some Wilderness advocates are pushing hard to make Henry
Coe state wilderness. The real goal is simply to ban bikes, and this is what is going on all around the US, thanks to the eco zealots from the Sierra Club and other so called environmental organizations.

Please take a read through the following for the real history of the Wilderness Act:

Add comment


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

National Parks Traveler's Essential Park Guide

Recent Forum Comments