Hikers, Bikers and National Parks
How big is the deal surrounding efforts pushed by the International Mountain Bicycling Association to expand mountain biking in the National Park System? Apparently the American Hiking Society thinks it's pretty big.
The hiking society recently issued an "action alert" to its members asking them to oppose an anticipated rule change that would make it easier for national park superintendents to allow and expand mountain biking in their parks. Of concern to the society was the prospect that the rule change could loosen environmental oversight of mountain bike decisions in the parks, possibly open wilderness to bike trails, and provide little public opportunity to comment on bike trail decisions.
That alert quickly attracted IMBA's attention, and the bikers quickly responded with an article aimed at soothing the hiking society's concerns.
“Unfortunately, the alert has rippled through the hiking community, causing consternation and confusion amongst the shared-use trails community," IMBA said in a recent release. "Some hiking-based groups have expressed concern that mountain biking will infringe on foot travel, but IMBA remains confident that shared-use trails can succeed in national parks, as they do in countless public land settings around the globe.”
Now, IMBA officials have also said they are not interested in seeing mountain bike trails threading through officially designated wilderness in parks. And yet....while IMBA spokesman Mark Eller told the Traveler in mid-October that his organization was not planning to lobby for a change in the current wording that prohibits "mechanized" vehicles into officially designated wilderness in favor of one that would bar "motorized" vehicles, something a bike definitely is not, IMBA in mid-November applauded U.S. Forest Service "steps" to do just that.
"Mountain biking is incredibly popular in national forests and we believe it's appropriate to clarify the distinction between mountain biking and motorized use. Better policies will foster improved partnerships and riding experiences," IMBA Executive Director Mike Van Abel said November 11. "We're extremely pleased the Forest Service is taking these steps to formally recognize bicycling as low-impact and human-powered. Embedding this information in their employee handbooks will promote better understanding and practices in all 175 national forests and grasslands."
Now, if the Forest Service goes ahead with this wording change, how long do you think it will be before IMBA starts lobbying the National Park Service to follow suit?
As to the current issue focused on the National Park System, IMBA says it wants the Park Service to change its regulatory ladder for authorizing bike trails so as to simplify the administrative process for park superintendents who see cycling opportunities in their parks. Currently, changes can take more than a year to implement, says IMBA.
But that's not exactly the case, according to Frank Buono, a former NPS manager. He says the proposed rule will not improve the administrative process, but rather seriously weaken the currently regulations.
"The proposal will not return control to local managers any more than the existing process. Under the current bicycle regulations, the decision is made locally. A park wanting to permit bicycles on backcountry trails makes its own decision and then undertakes a special rule-making," says Mr. Buono. "The special rule-making (at 36 CFR Part 7) is not a 'multi-year process.' Saguaro National Park did it a few years ago in a single year. The special rule-making ensures a heightened level of public and agency scrutiny that will be missing if the special rule requirement is eliminated."
That said, Mr. Buono maintains that the changes IMBA would like to see would make it 'easier' for IMBA and its local affiliates to have a park manager designate backcountry trails as open to mountain bikes."
"The manager would then simply enter a notation into the park's annual compendium that designate which trails, if any, are open to bikes. The compendium is available to the public, and is announced only in local newspapers, BUT is not announced as open for public comment at all, let alone in the Federal Register," he adds. "IMBA insists that NEPA review would still occur. In truth, NEPA review may or may not. It depends on the diligence of the manager. We know for certain that the NPS does not perform NEPA for Compendia generally. And there is always the dreaded 'categorical exclusion.'"
Mr. Buono, who now works for Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, says the cycling group is correct when it points out that in cases of "significant controversy" the Park Service would still have to undergo the special rule-making process with all its public scrutiny. However, he says park managers might decide that a biking trail designation is not highly controversial and so no special rule-making is necessary.
"After all, the IMBA proposal is aimed at eliminating the special rule-making process (the so-called 'multi-year' bureaucratic nightmare),'" he says. "Under the present regulation - every designation of a trail in the backcountry MUST undergo the public process of a special rule-making. That is the process adopted by the NPS in 1986 and it is the process that affords maximum protection to the parks, their resources and their enjoyment.
"...The present rule does not preclude bikes in the backcountry, it ensures a slower and more deliberate process," he says. "The present rule helps ensure that errors are not made, e.g. inadvertent designation of bikes on backcountry trails in the 12 million acres of recommended and proposed wilderness in the 27 parks where Congress has yet to designate wilderness."
All that said, PEER recognizes bikes as serving a legitimate park use and mode of transport. "They are generally permitted on park roads, parking areas, and trails within the developed zones of parks," notes Mr. Buono. "Several parks permit bikes on backcountry trails under special rule."
However, he points out that "several parks today permit bikes on trails in backcountry in open violation of the existing rules, largely because they have been petitioned by IMBA to allow bikes on trails. IMBA cites these parsk as stellar examples - among them, for example, Big South Fork and Mammoth Cave.
"Not even the NPS Washington Office has a complete list of the parks that are now violating the current rule. How is the public supposed to learn of such designations? Has NEPA been done for all of them? Did any of those parks decide that high controversy compels them to conduct a special rulemaking?" he wonders. "For the latter question, the answer is a flat 'NO.' Yet, these parks serve as the model of what IMBA seeks to implement for the entire National Park System."