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Hikers, Bikers and National Parks


Cyclists have great riding opportunities on the White Rim Trail in Canyonlands National Park. NPS photo.

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."


The mountain biker in me want to respond one way, however the preservationist and organic act stickler in me is pulling in a very different direction.

To me there is very little argument about the purpose of National Parks. They are museums of the natural world. They protect the unique, the important, and the fragile. Most importantly they provide an avenue for the people of this and other countries to experience parks. Yet that must be done in a way that will forever maintains the quality of both the physical resources and the natural experience. In actuality, that is indeed impossible, as any interaction changes (sometimes only very subtly) a resource or experience.

In my mind those rules should be one way (perhaps the most important way) that new activities are measured and judged. Those that pass the test should move on the be judged in other ways.

In some ways, mtn biking in parks can pass that test. It gives visitors a powerful experience of the natural resource, however it does so in a way that impacts the resource in new ways. Further, it has the power to impact the experience of others. Managers do not need additional conflict and they don't need to stress their limited budgets to repair additional trail impacts (they have a hard time keeping up as it is).

To me this means that unless mtn biking is done only on resources that are highly resistant or resilient to impacts and where either time or place separate bikers from hikers and horseback riders, permitting bikes in parks will lead to problems.

Finally, how would this impact parks that are managing backcountry as though it were wilderness (sometimes where wilderness is considered to be only yards off main roads or developed areas)? Maybe it would spur on the wilderness movement in parks. Maybe, it would put a great deal of power in the hands of IMBA, making it harder for a park to manage its own land (just look at Yellowstone... its winter use is managed and influenced by an outside group).

One would think the change in administrations would make a perfect time for the folks at DOI and Ag to sit down and sort through their maze of properties and see which really fit best where. From time to time one hears rumors of the Forest Service being moved over to Interior. Perhaps BLM would fit better under Ag. But that would be just for starters.

When one starts talking about trends, I think one of those that is obvious is that there are more than a few questionable NPS properties. In light of the current economic crisis, and the NPS's long-term fiscal crisis, would it be unwise to not just consider where the various BLM, FS and NPS properties best fit, but which ones should fit? We'll examine this question a bit more closely in the not-too-distant future.

The challenge if one went down this road, though, is producing a sound and amenable solution. What one person sees as a waste of federal time and dollars, others see as a personal favorite.

I've noticed an interested connection between several Traveler articles recently, including this one, the article on China's "First" National Park, and the article on "Did the NPS Ever Manage this National Monument". It seems that many National Park issues are arising from the fact that the "Big Four" Federal Land agencies no longer really have definitive lines drawn between them based on the purpose of the of the lands that they manage. I mean you have protected places of National significance like Misty Fjords being managed by the Forest Service, large remote tracts of wild land that are not really suitable for visitation like Bering Land Bridge National Preserve being manged by the Park Service, a mix of the same resource being split between BLM's Canyon of the Ancients National Monument the Park Service's Hovenweep National Monument (which although it came first, is now a National Monument within a National Monument), and there are probably any number of other combinations in between. With the various Federal lands such a mess of designations, its no surprise that there is no right answer to figure what is the right level of use in one area vs. another.

LOL! Somewhere long ago I read a long report on the amount of trail dirt various hiking boots displaced with each step, average stride and X miles hiked = much more maintenance than I thought.
Anyway, IMHO mountain bikes no way in hell enhance the National Park Experience.
And the idea of slashing even more trails through our parks for these playthings is ridiculous.
For me Our National Parks are a place where nature rules and with humility we humbly get to visit, for a while.

“Recreational development is a job not of building roads into the lovely country,
but of building receptivity into the still unlovely human mind.”
Aldo Leopold

Thanks for the even-handed responses, especially dapster.

I couldn't believe I was reading that bikers were being singled out for scaring away the precious wildlife experience. I take it someone's never been on the trail with certain groups that include, but are not limited to, families with younger children, teenagers and the ubiquitous wilderness drunk. And careless hiking destroys more "off trail" environments simply by damaging cryptobiotic soils (that most hikers wouldn't recognize even as they tread through it) than bikers do with their machines.

That said, not all terrain is suitable for biking anyway, in particular the venues which I frequent. A good majority of hiking trails will remain as such. While I personally don't much care to coexist with that segment of the biking world that is too inconsiderate (or arrogant) to announce their passing intentions, give a slight clue as to how many are in the pack to follow, or attempt to use an inordinate percentage of the available path, I have no qualms with intelligent, respectful trekkers. Just don't ask for funding to expand your particular "sport" from my coffers and I'll reciprocate with the same decency towards your kind. Now if only the powers that be would offer that same guarantee to both sides.

Ask any number of competent soil scientists what the soil rate of erosion would be if mountain biking were to be totally allowed in our national parks, and if the general consensus DOES show and prove that mountain biking is more harmful and damaging to the National Parks environment: Then would the IBMA be screaming afoul by the AHS. Probably so! I think it would be wise to have a complete and comprehensive soil impact analysis on all of our National Parks before allowing any mountain biking. If the soil scientist say:NO GO! Then what, another snowmobile fiasco, where pollution studies have shown that the fuming gas sleds do create a health hazard to the general Yellowstone environment. No!? I suppose sound science would get trumped again by greed and more of the same gross mismanagement by the NPS. I see the same original sin of greed (from potential biking outlet shops) occurring within our National Parks if the IMBA gets entrenched.

I'm pretty well resigned to the conclusion that IMBA and the Traveler are going to "agree to disagree" about the benefits of better policies for mountain biking in national parks, but I do want to make sure that we keep the facts straight.

IMBA applauded the USFS for recognizing the need to broadly manage recreation as motorized or non-motorized, and to recognize that bikes belong -- quite obviously -- in the second category. The topic of Wilderness was not addressed in the release that the Traveler cites.

Wilderness legislation frequently makes use of the term "mechanized." Although there are some obvious problems with that terminology -- namely that many types of mechanical devices are commonly used in Wilderness -- IMBA has no nefarious plan to unseat that language.

There are several other problems with the analysis of the proposed NPS rule making given above. But, as I said, at the end of the day there are simply going to be those who think that the national parks could benefit by adopting more shared-use trails with options for mountain biking, and those that see things otherwise. It's good to see that many in the Traveler's readership are willing to speak up for the value of responsibly broadening the park service's recreational offerings.

Oh, boy. Here we go again...

The NPS should not allow bikes on trails within the national parks. There are so many places that mountain bikers can ride, we do not need to open up the parks to bikes as well. There need to be some places that we can go for slow, contemplative travel on foot, and bikes definitely destroy the experience for hikers. Not only that, bikes cause massive erosion and scare wildlife.
What no one seems to mention is that when bikes are banned, it does not mean that bikers are banned. They are still welcome to travel on foot with the rest of us.

Say what? Please note that these places are called "National Parks", and not "Pedestrian Parks". There are already many miles of places set aside for "slow, contemplative travel on foot". Why must other human-powered means of travel be denied? Where is the equality? What if hikers are destroying the experience for bikers? Why not have trails designated for single-purpose and multi-use, to give this balance?

Hikers also cause erosion and certainly scare wildlife, not matter how stealthy or careful you might think yourself. The same rationale that you use to demonize Mountain Biking, (to the end of banning it entirely within all the NPS units), could just as easily be applied to foot travel. Trail erosion, trashing the area, scaring wildilfe, loud sounds, illegally entering wilderness areas, etc. can all be attributed to human foot-bound travel. There are irresponsible hikers out there too, to be sure. Must we utilize the "Kindergarten" mentality, where the entire class in punished for the transgressions of a few individuals?

Watch out for what you choose to demonize. For one day, you just may find your favorite pasttime in the crosshairs of groups with the same closed-mindedness that you exhibit, taking your rights to your participate in favorite sport away.

Even hiking...

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