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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."


As usual on this website, as soon as cyclists are allowed to go ride trails in the national parks, the FUD comes fast and furious. Cyclists are just as entitled to enjoy the trails they pay for as other users. Cycling is an environmentally friendly activity that has no more impact than hiking and way less than horse riding. PEER and all the other bike haters are using all kind of fallacious arguments to oppose opening trails to bikes. The reality is that a minority of people have managed to appropriate to themselves a public good (OUR parks) and are now refusing to share it with another group, hence the FUD campaign. This has nothing to do with relaxing any kind of environmental protection and everything with selfishness.

I dare anybody to prove me wrong.

You’ve heard of Big Tobacco!

You’ve heard of Big Oil!

Now there’s the menace of Big Mountain Bike taking over our precious parks!

But not if we take a defiant stand against this nonsense.

We're PRUDE: Public Retirees Unanimously Denouncing Exhilaration.

We at PRUDE want NO excitement in our parks. They are temples for worshipping nature, not places to have exhilarating experiences. If people want to be exhilarated, they may stay at home and play video games.

PRUDE is proudly affiliated with the New Order Apostolic Congregation Cursing Every Single-Speed (NO ACCESS). The NO ACCESS creed adheres strictly to the teaching of Nolevity 4:12: "They who cast a pedal over a trail commit an abomination; the wrath of the Almighty shall be upon them; surely they shall be banished and driven into exile, yea unto generations."

If you join PRUDE now, we’ll send you an autographed picture of our founders, Ebenezer Squint and Chloe Parboil.

Yours Against Excessive Activity by Young Whippersnappers,

Jasper H. Snoot, President
Hermione (Mrs. Jarvis) Spoutworthy, Secretary

I am 58-years old. I have visited most of the national parks in my life, where I have hiked and camped. In the last year I have taken up mountain-biking mostly for its aerobic qualities after a heart attack. What I have found is that it is a wonderful experience in itself. I am not talking about the downhill daredevil type as seen in competition, but rather the easy trail riding. I am able to enjoy the outdoors much more by riding than just walking. I cover more territory and the workout is more vigorous.

I even do "birding" now from the back of my bicycle. Of course, I have to stop to use my binoculars, but I find that I can go on trails that may be a few miles long in only a couple of hours, and therefore enjoy the wilderness to a fuller extent than if I were walking.

I recommend "mountain-biking" or rather "trail-riding" to almost everyone, as long as you take it easy within your own capacity. When I take vacations now, I search the internet for new bike trails to ride. I therefore supportive of the new proposal to allow mountain-biking in the national parks, and look forward to seeing and enjoying these within the parks.


Mountain bikers: yeah, they can be obnoxious. Here in the Pacific Northwest, it's a transparent excuse to act like a pubescent male with esteem & identity issues. Be loud, crash, let the blood run, dry & crust (maybe smear some on the face). Revert to tribal rituals, in groups greater than two. I don't find them very likeable.

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.)

That bikes create 'user-conflicts', and therefore ought to be banned ... well, no. We have conflicts everywhere. We live with it. We make rules to control the problem. That we cannot tolerate conflicts between different sets of users of the common resource: that's facetious - of course we can.

I do understand that in other parts of the country, mountain biking is done nicely, and that's cool. No intent here to slight those who have their act together.

Mountain-biking could be a great asset to the outdoor & Parks venues, bring in lots of new people, for sure. We have to tone them down a few octaves, have to tolerate a few skid-marks here & there, a stray yee-ha! now & then, but most of all we just have to learn to share the outdoors with people who have a different set of attitudes. This is pretty basic stuff, isn't it?

This may (but may not) be one of those Bush-things that Obama undoes, sooner rather than later.

Interestingly enough, my first reply was not posted. Did I hit a sensitive nerve with the bike hating webmaster? :)


No bike hater here. There are at least four in the garage, and I'm happy to report that on more than one occasion I've actually taken a mountain bike down through some gnarly trails in the Sawtooth National Forest! And I support the White Rim Trail in Canyonlands National Park, have ridden the rail trail at Cape Cod National Seashore more than a few times, and am happy to see that the folks at Mammoth Cave National Park finally followed the rules and developed a comprehensive trails plan (one, by the way, which exposed the tensions between equestrians and bikers. Did you see that post? I don't recall any comments from you.)

But really, you don't think I spend all my waking hours and half my sleeping hours at this keyboard waiting for your comments to come dribbling in, do you?

What I find interesting about one-issue folks such as yourself is that you only show up when there's a single interest dear to your hearts in the national parks, and then you do so anonymously. It makes me wonder if you really care about national parks for their intrinsic values, or simply want more landscape to rip across.

If you find national parks to be such great playgrounds for you and your bike, why don't we see your thoughts on drilling near national parks, on coal-fired power plants and the air pollution they send into and over the national parks, on insufficient budgets that prevent proper trail management in the parks and which deny park superintendents full staffs to adequately perform their jobs? All these issues threaten the future of the parks that you want your bike to be able to access.

What are your thoughts on concealed weapons in the parks, on mass transit options, on climate change, on wildlife issues, on the fees not just to get into parks but to camp in them, to participate in interpretive programs? What do you think about the National Park Service's inability to buy inholdings that threaten the integrity of some parks, such as the 78 historically sensitive acres on which the American Revolution Center would build its museum complex, surrounded on three sides by Valley Forge National Historical Park?

Heck, if you're concerned about your comments not getting cleared fast enough, I invite you to join the Traveler community and create a profile in the system so your comments will get posted just as fast as you can hit the submit button. We'll even allow you to retain your anonymity!

Zeb, I think it's great that you at least view the national parks for something beyond space holders in the urban sprawl. I just wish you'd step up for the parks in the midst of all these issues they're struggling with so the parks will be there -- largely in their current form, if not a better one -- for your kids to enjoy.

As I've said more than a few times before, at the Traveler we invite discussion of all viewpoints out there, even ones the editors might not agree with. (Heck, Mark Eller even answers my phone calls and emails!) All we ask is that the dialog be constructive. Who knows, someone just might see something in a different light.


I'll even tolerate people who cherry-pick their one-issue agenda ... but start slinging the hate-accusation, putting on the hair-shirt and disdainfully looking somebody else's gift-horse in the mouth ... well, no.

It's like hikers & horse-riders & bicycles all on the same path. A few basic rules will give us a decent 80% or even 90% working-solution. Those who find it too confining to work within a few common-sense rules on National Parks Traveler ... well, the pubescent identity issues can arise in any demographic.

Zebulon, you owe Kurt an apology.

Ted Clayton

Agreed. Long day, short fuse, my comment was inappropriate. I sincerely present my apologies to Kurt.

I had a longer reply typed, but an operator error erased it. :) At any rate, I am certainly an one issue type of guy, not that I'm insensitive to some of the other challenges that the national parks are facing.

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