Three years after the International Mountain Bicycling Association (IMBA) said it simply wanted mountain bike access to dirt roads in national parks, Interior Department officials reportedly are working to make it easier to expand mountain bike access to backcountry trails in the park system.
According to Public Employees for Environmental Ethics, Assistant Interior Secretary Lyle Laverty is preparing a regulation that would make it easier for park superintendents to allow mountain bikers into the backcountry of their parks.
"This is a lame duck gift for our Mountain-Biker-in-Chief," says PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch. "With all the troubles facing the country, the White House should be concerned about more than where the president can ride his bike."
Of course, Mr. Ruch is using a little hyperbole with his statement, as the proposed regulation that's expected to be released in the coming weeks is aimed at all mountain bikers across the country, not simply the president.
But it should also be noted that IMBA has been lobbying hard, and not always forthrightly, in trying to expand mountain bike access in the national parks. (Oddly, the group also has indicated an interest in emulating the National Rifle Association to a certain degree to get what it wants.)
And let's not overlook that there already are hundreds of miles of mountain biking opportunities in the parks, ranging from the classic White Rim Trail in Canyonlands National Park to routes through the woods at Mammoth Cave National Park, the carriage paths in Acadia National Park, and even the rail trails in Cape Cod National Seashore. In all, more than 40 national park units off mountain biking opportunities in some form.
But what IMBA's leadership craves is single-track backcountry access, access even into proposed and designated wilderness areas. But that card wasn't revealed when the organization first began making inroads with the National Park Service back in 2005.
When IMBA signed a memorandum of understanding with the Park Service in 2005, the stated intent was that IMBA merely was interested in looking at riding opportunities on dirt roads. And while that original MOU called for pilot mountain bike projects in two parks, soon thereafter it was expanded to three -- Big Bend National Park, Fort Dupont Park in the District of Columbia, and Cuyahoga Valley National Park in Ohio.
And then, during the summer of 2006 an IMBA crew visited Hawaii Volcanoes National Park to offer trail-building advice and even ran a 15-mile test event. Here's what park officials had to say about that test event: The 15-mile route included a 6-mile, 1700' uphill and loop trails over loose gravel, slick grass, and steep rocky stretches To prevent the introduction of non-native plants and insects into the park, rangers helped riders clean their bikes, packs, and shoes before the ride.
In January 2006 IMBA's communications director, Mark Eller, told the Traveler his group did indeed have designs on seeing single-track trails cut in national parks. "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," Mr. Eller said at the time.
Also in January of 2006, Jenn Dice, IMBA's government relations director, told a member of the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees that IMBA's members want to see single-track trails in the parks because a majority of the membership finds dirt roads "boring and mind-numbing, and not the kind of fun they are looking for."
In fact, IMBA's official stance when it comes to developing mountain bike tourism is that "single track is essential." Here's what IMBA's web site has to say about single-track trails: "Mountain bikers crave single-track and designing interconnecting single-track trails will bring them in droves."
As for the organization's thoughts on wilderness, which is out-of-bounds for mechanized vehicles? While IMBA supports wilderness designations, it also believes "mountain biking, a low-impact, muscle-powered recreation, is an appropriate trail use on public lands and is consistent with the values of Wilderness land protection, which includes recreation in natural landscapes. When proposed Wilderness Areas include significant mountain biking opportunities, IMBA pursues boundary adjustments and alternative land designations that protect natural areas while preserving bicycle access. IMBA can support new Wilderness designations where they don't close singletrack bicycling opportunities. "
In its bid to gain more access to the parks, IMBA has been working behind the scenes to see about changing Park Service rule-making policies with hopes of cutting through the red-tape to open up more park terrain to cyclists. Drew Vankat, the group's policy analyst, told the Traveler last December that IMBA was mulling a run at changing the rules that must be negotiated for a park superintendent to open park terrain beyond developed areas to mountain bikes.
However, others within the Park Service said at the time that IMBA was "applying pressure" to have the existing rule-making procedures changed. Specifically, they said, IMBA wanted to remove the current requirement that superintendents promulgate a special regulation to create bike trails beyond developed areas.
Guess what? Apparently Mr. Laverty is proposing to do just that.
PEER officials say they fully endorse getting more people out of their cars to bike on the paved and dirt roads of national parks. However, the group also believes that mountain biking on narrow trails could damage resources and conflict with visitor enjoyment.
It was with those concerns that the National Park Service in 1987 adopted regulations for bicycles that allow mountain bikes on trails only after an individual park follows a stringent decision-making process that allows for closer scrutiny. The process requires notice of a proposed regulation in the Federal Register and publication of a special federal regulation. Several parks have adopted the necessary special regulations to allow bikes. Among the parks are Saguaro National Park in Arizona and Golden Gate National Recreation Area in California.
That said, according to PEER, the proposed regulation, if adopted, would allow each park manager to designate backcountry trails open to mountain bikes by making a simple notation in an internal document called a "compendium." Now, that management document is available to the public upon request, but receives no public notice or public comment prior to approval.
Remember Mr. Eller's comment above that IMBA realized that expanded mountain bike access required "environmental assessments and rule-making procedures"? Well, PEER believes that under this proposed regulation there would be no requirement for park managers to prepare any environmental compliance under the National Environmental Policy Act or other laws prior to adoption.
"The pending proposed bicycle rule is a step backward for park conservation. IMBA is correct to anticipate that such a lax and nearly invisible process will open many more trails to bikes," says PEER Board member Frank Buono, a long-time former NPS manager. "We think the current rule is a good one. PEER does not oppose mountain bikes on trails in backcountry areas that are outside of designated, proposed or recommended wilderness but each proposal to allow bikes on backcountry trails should be thoughtfully and publicly considered."