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."