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."