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NPCA, PEER Voice Concerns Over Proposed Mountain Bike Rule Change In National Parks


Would a rule change allowing greater mountain bike access in national parks lead to more of these scenes? NPS photo.

Mountain bike accessibility in national parks could expand exponentially under a rule change proposed by the Bush administration, according to the National Parks Conservation Association.

While the current regulation largely restricts mountain bike use to designated trails in developed areas, NPCA officials said the pending regulation would, if approved, allow superintendents to "designate bicycle routes on:

1. existing trails within developed areas;

2. existing trails within undeveloped areas; and

3. new trails within developed areas."

"Under the proposal, if any trail designations within these three areas were considered controversial or would significantly alter public use patterns, then the superintendent would be expected to issue a special regulation," the parks advocacy group said in comments on the proposed rule change."

The comments came near the end of the public comment period on the proposed rule change. Also opposing it was Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, the Association of National Park Rangers, the Tamalpais Conservation Club, the Bay Area Trails Preservation Council, Wilderness Watch, Wild Wilderness, the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance, and Grand Canyon Wildlands Council.

In its comments, the NPCA said the proposed changes would increase "the risk for local stakeholder groups to unfairly influence local park decision making" because a park superintendent in many cases would have the final say on opening trails. The current rule-making process requires National Park Service officials at the regional and national levels to review any proposed changes.

Additionally, NPCA said that while "a special regulation issued in the Federal Register would still be necessary for uses of, or activities of a, 'highly controversial nature' or that would result in 'a significant alteration in the public use pattern,' it is unclear what conditions would need to be met.

"Guidelines are needed to both assist the public in making this claim and assist superintendents in supporting their decision," the group continued. "We believe the Federal Register should not be used as a notification tool, as this proposal would do, but rather as a public involvement tool."

NPCA also believes any rule change should include language specifically prohibiting bicycles not only in officially designated wilderness areas but also in areas proposed for wilderness designation by the Park Service as well as areas currently managed as “potential Wilderness.”

NPCA officials also voiced their opinion that while national parks exist for the public's enjoyment, not all forms of recreation are appropriate for the national parks.

"We understand that some bicyclists, especially mountain bikers, would like to have increased access to the parks. However, the national parks do not have to sustain all recreation; that is why we have various other federal, state, local, and private recreation providers to share the demand, and to provide for those types of recreation that generally do not belong in the national parks, or that must be carefully limited," the group said.

"The 1916 NPS Organic Act, emphasizing conservation for future generations, is substantially different from the organic laws of the Bureau of Land Management, the US Forest Service, the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the Army Corps of Engineers, or any other federal agency. The NPS mission is also different from that of state park agencies, or of county or city park agencies. Together, these agencies provide for many forms of public recreation, including single-track mountain bike opportunities—but not all forms of recreation are appropriate in national parks."

Meanwhile, the other groups also urged Interior Secretary Ken Salazar to withdraw the proposed rule change, saying it was "a late lame-duck Bush administration plan to carve mountain bike trails across the backcountry of the national park system."

In announcing their opposition, the coalition pulled from an "action alert" the International Mountain Bicycling Association sent to its members, asking them to file comments in favor of the rule change. In that action alert, PEER officials said, IMBA described what is at stake this way: "…over 170 forests and grasslands administered by the NPS [National Park Service] and a potential 130,000 miles of trails, the move is a mouthwatering prospect for cyclists."

Among the concerns raised by the coalition are:

* Increased User Conflict. Introducing mountain bikes on backcountry trails will drive off hikers, horseback riders and other users, as fast moving bikers, sometimes in large groups, whiz down narrow paths;

* Introduction of Extreme (BMX) Mountain Biking Trails. The wording of the proposed rule appears to endorse, for the first time, construction of trails designed specifically for high-speed, bicycle motor-cross (BMX) racing, to the practical exclusion of other uses; and,

* Aggravation of Maintenance Backlog. High volume biking on backcountry trails will multiply the demand on the Park Service for erosion control to keep unpaved trails functional. The agency already reports a $9 billion backlog in maintenance projects.

"While we endorse the use of bicycles through the developed areas of park units like the C&O Canal in D.C., these proposed rule are designed to facilitate mountain bicycles in undeveloped park areas - the backcountry, far from paved park roads," commented PEER board member Frank Buono, a former NPS manager. "This rule could not only negatively change the backcountry experience for park visitors, but would allow a non-conforming use in proposed and recommended wilderness."

Jeff Ruch, PEER's executive director, added that, "This mountain bike rule is a classic example of special interest influence over management of our national parks. There is no shortage of other venues for mountain bikes that would justify opening up the last, best places within our national parks."


what about the poop! oh my god - why does there have to be so much freaking poop all over the destroyed trails?

horses dont belong on trails and their ... riders should ride around the farm and stay off public land

the biggest issue for hikers being disturbed by mtn bikes is frequency of contact - which is caused by high-use cross country and downhill shuttle trails

high use cross country trails almost always have few to no hikers due to the flatness of land and lack of classic views

the main contention is trails heavily used by both hikers and the downhill shuttle crowd, and the shuttle crowd goes very fast /
there will have to be some compromises in that arena - that is why i say there needs to be some bike free trails for hikers and hikers will have to concede some trails to heavy bike use

Ray. Good points, however, let me suggest the following:
- we are already proposing everything you're suggesting: doing trailwork, proposing odd/even days, etc.
- if mtbers disturb wildlife, then the same should be true of any other user

The issue is that other users just don't want to share, as evidenced on this thread. Then again, why would they? They have their own private Idaho funded at taxpayer's expense.

I suggest that mt. biking can enhance their argument re: mt. bike travel in national parks by recommending reasonable regulations and limits that protect the park resources and character while also being sensitive to the wishes of others to have trails free of mechanical vehicles. This means placing some trails and areas off limits to bikes or timing trail openings to avoid disturbing sensitive wildlife activities (nesting, calving, etc.). Additionally, off-road bikers could accept the responsibility of maintaining trails open to mt. bike travel. Anyone who has done trail maintenance knows this is an important and often difficult chore. Bikers should also reach out to other park stakeholders in search of ways to work together in protecting the parks and respecting each others needs and desires.

A Denver Post article on the same topic has triggered an avalanche of comments there, so on the off-chance that people haven't had their fill of discussions of this issue, I'm providing a link to the debate:

odd-even? are you kidding me? that's something that heavily used urban interface trails under take for things like dogs on leash or mountain bikes/no mountain bikes... how would this play out in the short visitation season in yellowstone?

sorry, but mountain bikes are a different kind of use. the pro side makes them seem like they are harmless and just another user group suffering the snowboarding syndrome, to become accepted and mildly dominant in the future... i don't see it. hiking is much different than mountain biking, the speed issue alone separates them.

i don't see mountain biking over taking hiking in general, the cost alone to get a good bike and all the needed gear far outstrips that of hiking, no questions. i do both, and love mountain biking, but come on.

So, if I understand well, national parks are special and therefore bikes should be kept out (same argument for wilderness). There is obviously no logical link whatsoever. Lee, I admire your wishful thinking, but one has to be realistic. If we want the future generation to come back to the parks, we are going to have to adapt to them. Young kids aren't hiking, but they sure are biking. So, simply wishing that things go back to the way they were won't make them so. It'd be like me wishing to turn back the clock, grow some hairs again and lose 25#. It'd be nice but is very unlikely to happen. :)

As I said, we could come up with inventive ways to share the public land in a way that we can all enjoy it in our own responsible human powered manner. That would bring new users back to the park, so that they don't become irrelevant to future generations.

IMTN, I'm certainly willing to keep an open mind, and have readily pointed to many parks where there already are mountain bike opportunities, and even shared trail efforts (Mammoth Cave).

But I've yet to be convinced that we should just lump national parks along with other public lands and treat them as such.

Is there no place else to ride? Hardly. I've made this point many times over the past three-plus years: The national park landscape is roughly 84 million acres, that of the BLM and U.S. Forest Service hundreds of millions. There are countless miles of trails already open to mountain bikes on the public landscape. It's not that bikers are going without.

Are mountain bikers being denied access to national park lands? No.

Odd-even? Have you ever ridden the slick-rock trail near Moab? Think an odd-even program would work there? Doubtful.

If the Congress in 1916 didn't think national parks should be special places, why didn't they just place the lands under the Forest Service?

Bottom line: Come up with a compelling argument and perhaps I'll agree.

I think this is an excellent dialogue. I wish we could all meet sometime and hash these issues out in a way that might bring about change in trail management in the national parks. There's a lot of wisdom in these posts.

I must say respectfully to Kurt, however, that I perceive from your most recent post that you won't give an inch on the issues we're discussing here. Am I incorrect about that? I was willing to acknowledge in an earlier post that mountain biking can have on-the-trail social impacts that hiking doesn't. But I don't feel any similar give-and-take coming from you, e.g., an acknowledgment that, as Zebulon points out, many concerns can be addressed by well-established management techniques like alternate-day usage, uphill-only, or segregated trails for the first couple of miles. Zebulon has accused you of basically wanting national park trails for yourself as a hiker and you haven't disagreed with him—a state of affairs that evidence law calls an "adoptive admission" (i.e., silence in the face of an accusation is the same as admitting it). What alteration of the national parks' trail rules, if any, would be acceptable to you? Or do you rest firmly on a desire to continue the status quo or restrict mountain biking even more in the national parks?

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