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Bush Administration Publishes Proposed Rule For Mountain Biking in National Parks


For the next 60 days the Interior Department will be taking public comment on a proposed rule-change that could make it easier to designate mountain bike trails in national parks. NPS photo.

In what's being described as another example of the Bush administration whittling away the conservation ethic of the National Park Service, the Interior Department today published a proposed rule to "streamline" the regulatory landscape regarding mountain bikes in national parks.

Pushed by the International Mountain Bicycling Association, the rule, which is attached below and open to public comment for the next 60 days, would give individual park superintendents more power to authorize mountain bike trails in their parks. While conservation groups said the proposed rule could lead mountain bikers down hiking trails and into lands that are either proposed for or eligible for wilderness designation, IMBA officials said the proposal merely makes it easier for parks where mountain bikes make sense to allow their use.

"The proposed rule change will not diminish protections that ensure appropriate trail use. All NPS regulations, general management plan processes, and NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) still applies," said Drew Vankat, IMBA's policy analyst. "In fact, the proposed rule specifically requires at least an EA (environmental assessment) to open an existing trail to bicycles. Absolutely no environmental processes or agency policies will be shortchanged. The public will still have ample opportunity to comment both locally and nationally."

At Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, though, officials interpret the proposed rule as much more egregious, saying it could open thousands of miles of existing national park trails to mountain bikes. And Wilderness Society officials said the proposed rule change would degrade the Park Service's conservation ethic by creating user conflicts on trails and eroding the landscape.

According to PEER, current NPS rules require that backcountry trails may be opened to bikes only after adopting a park-specific regulation in the Federal Register, a process that allows public review and comment. The proposed rule, the group argues, would require a special regulation only for bike use on yet-to-be-constructed trails. As a consequence of this change, says PEER:

* Nearly 8 million acres of recommended or proposed wilderness lands in approximately 30 parks would be opened up to mountain bikes, which would be prohibited only in officially designated wilderness (the Wilderness Act of 1964 prohibits bicycles). This proposal also reverses a commitment made by former NPS Director Mainella in an October 4, 2005 letter to PEER that parks will not open trails to bikes in recommended or proposed wilderness areas; and

* It will be easier to open trails that are now open to hikers, horseback riders and other uses to mountain bikes, whose introduction often creates conflicts with these users.

"The pending proposed bicycle rule is an example of special-interest intrusion into national park management," commented PEER Board member Frank Buono, a former NPS manager. "The need for this change is mysterious as several parks have designated bike trails under the current Reagan-era rule."

In addition to PEER, a number of national park advocacy, hiker and other outdoor recreation groups are mobilizing to oppose this change.

"While we support mountain biking or other activities that get park visitors out of their cars, it is important that one of our national parks uses does not preclude other uses," stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch. "The other concern is that mountain biking on narrow backcountry trails can create damage and new maintenance demands, which is precisely why the Park Service adopted regulations for mountain bikes on backcountry trails only after a stringent decision-making process."

At The Wilderness Society, Kristen Brengel said IMBA officials weren't being entirely truthful when they claimed the proposed rule changes nothing.

“They’re trying to make it seem that there’s no change, but there is a change. That’s the whole point of the document. They’re not accurate," she said.

Under the proposed change, said Ms. Brengel, park superintendents could make a "determination," which requires less scrutiny and public input than the special rule-making process, to expand mountain bike use in their parks.

"If you’re a park manager who thoroughly understands the policies, you should not designate any mountain bike use in eligible or recommended wilderness. The problem comes in when the very same superintendent and park managers get pressure from the mountain bike community to open up hiking trails to mountain bike use and these policies do not give those folks (park managers) a credible defense," she added. "They (the proposed rules) are lenient and appear to allow the use anywhere, and it’s a problem. ... Rather than having absolute clarity, a a manager or superintendent needs to make a choice between following one set of policies or another one.”

The National Parks Conservation Association issued the following statement:

The current National Park Service mountain biking rules, which have been in effect since 1987, have been working well in offering all visitors to our majestic national parks a safe and enjoyable experience, and should not be changed by the Bush Administration.

NPCA supports the use of mountain bikes in national parks under appropriate circumstances. However, the proposed new rule would, in certain cases, circumvent the normal public process and limit the opportunity for full public discussion of the use of mountain bikes on existing trails now used by hikers and equestrians. The rule also limits the scope of public involvement in Park Service consideration of mountain bike access. NPCA strongly believes national parks should offer full transparency on important park management decisions, including this one.

NPCA also feels that the proposed rules should explicitly state that Park Service-recommended Wilderness areas or areas that are now under study for potential designation as Wilderness, are off limits to mountain bike use.

Of the approximately 25 national parks where mountain biking is currently taking place on dirt trails, only Golden Gate National Recreation Area in California and Saguaro National Park in Arizona have completed the necessary public process and designated specific trails for mountain bikes. NPCA believes that all parks should come into compliance.

NPCA will be analyzing the proposal and will be providing comments to the Park Service. We encourage our members and other national park advocates to do the same.

Back at IMBA, spokesman Mark Eller said the proposed rule change would simplify, not weaken, the process to open up park landscapes to mountain biking, when appropriate. As for proposed wilderness areas or park lands eligible for wilderness designation, he said the group wouldn't fight official designation unless there had been existing mountain bike use on the land.

"Once it’s adopted as wilderness, we accept that there’s no bicycling in wilderness,” said Mr. Eller, who also put his faith in park managers to make appropriate decisions when it came to where to allow biking.

“We think they have good judgment and they won’t put mountain bike trails or shared use trails where they don’t belong,” he said.

While Mr. Eller suggested opposition to mountain biking in national parks is more of a perceptual issue than an on-the-ground problem, that view was challenged by Mr. Buono at PEER and Ms. Brengel at The Wilderness Society.

"The structure of the bikes, the nature of their use, makes them more than conveyances to take one into the backcountry. In some ways they are a thrill sport, similar to jet skis, or downhill skiing where the activity is by and large the end in itself," said Mr. Buono. "Our recent experience at Big Bend where mountain bikers want a new trail constructed near Panther Junction show that IMBA representatives want the NPS to construct a trail particularly suited to speed and sharp maneuvers. This has no place in the 'enjoyment' framework of the NPS mission. I am not a believer in 'all enjoyments are equal" under the Organic Act.'"

As for Ms. Brengel, she said mountain biking is definitely an enjoyable activity, but one that brings certain user conflicts with it into the national park landscape.

"I think bikes do cause damage. I think you can look at areas like Moab (Utah) and you can see some of the direct impacts of mountain bike use," she said. "In addition, they’re fast-moving vehicles on public lands. A land manager has to weigh having a vehicle on a route with a hiker, and user conflicts are a real problem on public lands. So it is unclear to me why the Park Service would decide to go from taking a careful look at user conflicts to not taking a careful look. It seems contrary to the pro-user mission of the park system.”

Interestingly, IMBA officials, in their current marketing efforts for their "National Bike Summit" scheduled for March in Washington, D.C., are promoting a session on "Developing National Park Service Singletrack Near You."


3 years later, nothing has happened.  I'm guessing that nothing will happen for another 10 years because nobody wants controversy at the NPS (controversy = more work).

I don't think it's that challenging to effectively address the discrepancies, though. First, bikes yield to everything else on the trail, because they are fast, have a lot of kinetic energy, sharp points & rotating metal rods, and are poorly controllable under the circumstances. Dismount and remove the machine from the path, let people & horses by, then jump back on. Second, maintain traction at all times. Since bikes don't really have the ability to peel-out, or side-slip, this problem is really about going downhill too fast and then braking into a continuous slewing skid (a surfboard on gravel). Knock it off. Get off the bike and walk it down the hill, if it isn't possible to brake within the limits of traction. (Since we know the hills where the offending behavior will occur, it is easy to make a few busts.)

Kurt notes that if we get a good cellulose-conversion process going we might become greedy, over-harvest the forest here on the Olympic Peninsula, and thus generate an environmental movement backlash against our excess.

The problem is, though, that logs yield more value if they are turned into lumber & pulp, than if they are turned into fuel.

Obviously, both log-prices & fuel-prices vary, but even with the lowest log-prices and the highest fuel-prices, it will be a challenge if not a 'stretch', to make a profit turning logs into SUV-fuel.

Logs are just worth too much.

Take the case of firewood. Around here, it sells for $150/cord. Pulp-logs, the cheapest kind, sell for about $300 a cord-equivalent, whole, with no additional work. Today, that $300 buys 7 barrels of crude, but the logs can't come anywhere close to producing 7 barrels worth of energy.

So at what price-points do logs begin to match the energy-value of oil? Well, it's obviously going to be pretty 'extreme' - that's a safe call. I would guess conservatively that the price of fuel-energy has to rise to 'destructive' levels, before it makes economical sense to turn logs in fuel.

Until fuel goes really-really high, you'll make more money selling your logs to the lumber & pulp mill, than you will selling them to the distiller.

... So in the parallel universe we inhabit, Conservationists continue to manage the Olympic timber stands properly, and therefore we continue to get away with decorating the hill-sides with handsome clear-cut patch-work quilting.

... Although, we steadily increase the amount of selective cutting on the Peninsula, and this trend may strengthen to the point where it begins to reduce the quality of our hillside artwork ... though fortunately this type of forestry causes the remining trees to become even more valuable, enabling us to work less and hike in the Olympic Park more! We'll learn to live with less-handsome, evenly-forested hillsides. ;-)

The impact on National Parks that mountain biking induces is much higher than hiking or climbing (currently accepted). The disruptions to wildlife and ecosystems testify of this, and should be scientifically assessed. Hiking and climbing are low noise, low energy sports , compared to high speed biking downhill.

Sabine, l'ensemble des enquêtes scientifiques déjà réalisées, et il y en a beaucoup, ne sont pas d'accord. Les vététistes ont le même impacte sur les sentiers que ceux qui vont à pied, tandis que ceux qui utilisent les chevaux (ou bien les motos) peuvent créer des effets fort négatifs sur les sentiers et sur le terrain en général. Voir ce site:

And I apologize if you don't speak French. I'm just relying on your name, which suggests that you may. I study foreign languages and try to use them whenever I can. (Everyone, I just wrote that the scientific evidence is to the contrary of Sabine's opinion; see the referenced website.)

Kurt, if you feel I'm violating a rule of etiquette by writing in another language, let me know and I'll edit this post.

Ahhh, but if we as a nation really begin to focus on biofuels and agree that cellulose is a much, much better fuel than corn, perhaps all the slash from those clear-cuts has a future!

And once that slash enters the system and is converted to inexpensive liquid gold for our ah-toe-moe-beels, folks will look out across those vast, tall, dense forests on the peninsula and see much, much more cellulose still standing that could be converted to biofuel. And since trees are renewable, the lumber companies could garner credits for carbon sequestration to boot (after pocketing subsidies for the cellulose, of course) that they could then sell to the energy companies that are polluting the air with their gas and oil drilling operations in Utah!

That will lead to more clear-cutting, and in the process create a movement to rise up against the tree harvesters and their harvests. Problem solved.

Because there's a thousand years worth of oil-shale?

Because folks see Saudi Arabia in the Rockies?

The Olympic Peninsula clearcut logging plantation system maximizes the CO2 draw-down capacity of this highly productive ecosystem, so we get a 'bye'. ;-)

Nah ... really it's hard to say for sure. It may well have more to do with how the eco-movement works, than anything actually at stake or in the offing.

To have a 'movement', over a sustained time-frame, there has to be new and somewhat novel concerns coming along to keep interest up. If folks will bite on 'energy in the Rockies', then the chicken done got to the other side of the road.

Just to keep the thread drift going, any thoughts on why there's so much uproar over energy development near the Utah parks and not a peep about the clear-cutting that runs near, if not up to, the southern boundaries of Olympic?


No problem with the late-night comments, but the explanation is appreciated - Thanks!

Carsten with an "e" gets lots of good returns.

Mr. Lein's account no doubt addresses the $64 question: Why did it take over 40 years to form Olympic National Park, after everyone knew that the Peninsula was an exceptional habitat?

1.) Because the enormous trees in the lowlands were considered too valuable to have locked up in a Park. The State objected, industry objected, land-owners objected - and Conservation-oriented environmentalists objected.

2.) Even more important than #1, the production of Olympic Peninsula managed timberlands is the heaviest and most valuable of any forestry in the U.S.A. Only a few locales on earth exceed the per-acre timber-wealth of this Peninsula.

Therefore, when late-19th C. Preservation activism began lobbying to make a Park of the whole Peninsula, their goal 'mysteriously' eluded them ... for nearly another half a century ... until the first cut of the old-growth forests was nearly complete and the timberlands had been successfully converted to plantation.

Paradoxically, it is a credit to the principles of Conservation by which the timberlands have been managed, that to this day Preservation-principles still rate these commercialized forests as worthy to be converted into Park. ;-)

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