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Forest Service Drawing Line On Mountain Bikers in Potential Wilderness, National Park Service Agrees


U.S. Forest Service managers in parts of Montana and Idaho are working to ban mountain bikes on landscapes that some day could merit wilderness designation, a move that isn't sitting well with the International Mountain Bicycling Association. Over at the National Park Service, meanwhile, officials have no intention of letting mountain bikers access lands eligible for wilderness designation.

“Existing lands that have been determined to be eligible for wilderness, they should not be considered for potential mountain bike trails at this point," says Garry Oye, the Park Service's wilderness and recreation chief. "We wouldn’t want to authorize a use if we’ve already determined that the lands should be considered for wilderness. We wouldn’t want to allow a use that would compromise that future designation. That’s consistent with our policies.”

Since 2005 at least IMBA has been working to expand mountain bike use in national parks. That year saw the organization and the Park Service sign off on a Memorandum of Understanding calling for a five-year pilot program that would explore mountain bike possibilities in the National Park System via pilot projects in three parks. Initially that MOU was aimed at opening more dirt roads and administrative roads to the cyclists, but not long afterward IMBA officials began talking of the need for single-track routes in the parks.

While those efforts led to a study in Big Bend National Park to create a "shared use" trail, one designed primarily with mountain bikers in mind, IMBA officials began working to change Park Service regulations that must be negotiated before a park superintendent can open park terrain beyond developed areas to mountain bikes. As the clock was running out on the Bush administration the Interior Department published a proposed rule to "streamline" the regulatory landscape regarding mountain bikes in national parks, but it quickly drew criticism from groups that feared how much Park Service landscape its passage could affect.

There are places for mountain bikers to ride in the National Park System. Hundreds of miles of mountain biking opportunities exist in the parks, ranging from the classic, 100-mile-long White Rim Trail in Canyonlands National Park to routes through the woods at Mammoth Cave National Park, the carriage paths in Acadia National Park, and even the rail trails in Cape Cod National Seashore. In all, more than 40 national park units off mountain biking opportunities in some form.

But not all public land landscapes are open to mountain bikers. This past Sunday's New York Times ran a story about Forest Service efforts to institute regulations that would ban mountain bikers from hundreds or even thousands of miles of trail that weave through lands that one day could be designated as official wilderness. While many mountain bike enthusiasts maintain that they should be able to enjoy their favored form of recreation on public lands, included those designated wilderness, land managers who oversee lands with wilderness characteristics are trying to prevent compromising those characteristics. And since officially designated wilderness is off-limits to mechanized travel -- even if that mode of transportation is a bike -- the forest managers are perhaps erring on the side of caution by moving to limit where mountain bikers can ride.

"There's no comparison between bikes made 20 years ago and those made today," Dave Bull, the Forest Service's director for recreation, minerals, lands, heritage and wilderness in Montana told the Times. "People are better able to get to places they couldn't reach before without hiking. They're pushing further and further."

Not only are the latest generation of bikes capable of taking their riders farther and farther into the backcountry, but their arrival, some believe, is out of sync with the wilderness concept.

“There is a wilderness experience, a truly backcountry experience, that is part of the idea and the concept behind wilderness," says Michael Carroll, associate director of The Wilderness Society's Wilderness Support Center. "It's preserving a landscape that is similar to the landscape that our fathers and their fathers before them were able to experience. It’s hard to argue that that experience has been preserved when you have heavy traffic zipping by on mountain bikes after you’ve spent two days hiking in.”

IMBA's communications director, Mark Eller, believes that sentiment can flow in two directions.

"Let’s reverse the hypothetical and say you’re in a remote area and you’re a solo mountain biker and you come across a gaggle of hikers," he offers. "Is that going to disrupt your quiet, the solitude on your mountain bike? Probably.”

Beyond that, says Mr. Eller, the debate over appropriateness, and righteousness, of trail use seems to be getting skewed.

“There seems to be the perception of conflict and the realities that people see on the trails are totally out of whack with each other," he said, adding a moment later that, "I have a hard time just categorizing one trail mode as always more pristine and contemplative than other.”

IMBA has worked to build alliances with the land-management agencies, from meeting around the country with officials to sending trail crews out to both repair trails and demonstrate how to build trails that will stand up to bike use. The group has not talked about cutting trails in national park wilderness areas -- though IMBA officials have talked in theory about realigning proposed wilderness boundaries to benefit mountain bikers -- but rather has focused on creating more riding opportunities elsewhere in the parks. With word that the New River Gorge National River is in line for $2 million to expand its network of bike trails, the group hopes to show that shared-use trails can be well-designed and used cooperatively by hikers and bikers.

“That’s what we’re hoping will be a great place for people to look to and see how it can work in a national park," said Mr. Eller, who agrees that not all national parks are suitable for backcountry mountain bike trails. "We think we’re going to be able to show how it can be done when it’s done right.”

While IMBA also has argued that the ban against "mechanized" travel in official wilderness should be reworded to one against "motorized" travel, that might create more of a battle than the group wants to enter in light of the longevity of that provision in the Wilderness Act, which was passed in 1964

“Any time you go back and modify the parent law, or parent legislation, you better do it with some good public debate, and I think that’s what needs to happen if we do need to go back and look at those things that were legislated in 1964," said the Park Service's Mr. Oye. "It’s not our intent to change the Wilderness Act to allow for mountain bikes, and it’s not our intent to compromise future wilderness designations by promoting mountain bike use in areas that” have potential to be designated wilderness.

At the Wilderness Society, Mr. Carroll adds that, “This is the camel’s nose under the tent. That’s been our argument for a long time. There’s no way you can say that they’re not mechanized. They say themselves that they want to see these big loop systems developed, and they say they want to be allowed in wilderenss. For us those things don’t add up.”

A mountain biker himself who enjoys riding the trails around Durango, Colorado, Mr. Carroll said the issue over mountain bikes in wilderness is personally a tough one -- "I've got tons of friends who are mountain bikers. It's a conundrum for me." -- but in the end he believes wilderness lands need the highest level of protection from impacts. With mountain bikes getting bigger and bigger, their impacts are getting larger, as well, said Mr. Carroll, referring to the Surley bike company's "Pugsley" model with its huge, 4-inch-wide tires.

“Protecting the resource, protecting it for what it represents, for the clean air and water, the wildlife, protecting it for future generations ... is the first priority of wilderness areas," he said. "We want to preserve that as a piece of the puzzle in terms of the management of our public lands. It’s not about 'our' use. ... I think it’s (the debate) unfortunate. There are so many people, if they could take a step back from their use and look at the larger resource issues, and the larger context, I wish they could see that this is about the greater good, not just about your specific use.”


Highest Trail:
"What the Wilderness Act does set up is a ban on commercial enterprise"

So why do we allow commercial outfitters to set up tent cities in our Wilderness areas complete with wood fired hot tubs?

But bicycles are an incompatible use?!

There's a big honking hole that you can drive a Mack Truck through. I also think I understand why there was a dam at Lake Aloha in Desolation Wilderness for irrigation purposes.

(c) Except as specifically provided for in this Act, and subject to existing private rights, there shall be no
commercial enterprise and no permanent road within any wilderness area designated by this Act and except
as necessary to meet minimum requirements for the administration of the area for the purpose of this Act
(including measures required in emergencies involving the health and safety of persons within the area),
there shall be no temporary road, no use of motor vehicles, motorized equipment or motorboats, no landing
of aircraft, no other form of mechanical transport, and no structure or installation within any such area.

(d) The following special provisions are hereby made:

(6) Commercial services may be performed within the wilderness areas designated by this Act to the extent
necessary for activities which are proper for realizing the recreational or other wilderness purposes of the

(7) Nothing in this Act shall constitute an express or implied claim or denial on the part of the Federal
Government as to exemption from State water laws.

"What the Wilderness Act does set up is a ban on commercial enterprise"

So why do we allow commercial outfitters to set up tent cities in our Wilderness areas complete with wood fired hot tubs?

But bicycles are an incompatible use?!

The topic at hand here is Forest Service wilderness areas, while I suppose it could also easily extend to wilderness areas under the control of BLM or Fish & Game.

The 1964 Wilderness Act doesn't really set anything up because of any kind of cause-effect relationship regarding wildlife disturbances. It doesn't ban horses, mules, etc. For that matter it doesn't ban people. There would be difficulty in banning dogs. Hunting is still legal in many wilderness areas, including the use of hunting dogs. What the Wilderness Act does set up is a ban on commercial enterprise, roads, permanent structures, and mechanical transport. Bringing along dogs clearly is not a banned activity in the Wilderness Act while riding a bicycle can be interpreted as being prohibited (you guys can argue that all you want).

In fact, wildlife disturbance is specifically allowed in wilderness areas. One can hunt in many non-NPS wilderness areas and one can typically fish in them too.

Abe, good point, though dogs are already prohibited in national park backcountry. And in the front country they have to be on leashes.

Aren't hikers more likely to bring DOGS with them?
And aren't off-leash dogs one of the primary vectors of wildlife disturbance?

If it's a Wilderness area, then let's boot the dogs also.

I'll give up riding my mountain bike in Wilderness areas when hikers give up bringing house pets into the woods.


Kurt - I have a few comments to what you said here: "And, really, I strongly question your contention that some sort of spiritual elitism is driving the divergent views in this and other discussions about wilderness. What is at stake is preservation of the landscape, a measured approach to using it, not a rabid mass consumption of it. "

As a mountain biker I am constantly told that mountain bikes need to stay out of wilderness because we can't possibly be connecting to the spritual power of nature as well as you can on foot. Or as I'm inferring from your comment above, mountain bikes shouldn't be allowed in wilderness because we represent that 'rabid mass consumption of it. " (That sounds a little bit like we're interfering with the zen of your hike.)
Or, we are told that the point of wilderness is to experience nature in as simple a way as possible so you can see more, hear more, feel more. (Okay, I do see more wildflowers on foot, but I just find so much more joy slowly riding my bike on a singletrack on a high alpine trail through dense flowers.) I really feel that the whole spritual elitism you claim doesn't exist is much more at the heart of the argument than you are admitting to. This theme is repeated over and over through Doug Scott's popular book, 'The Enduring Wilderness.'
And, if you truly believe that instead, this is about "preservation of the landscape and a measured approach to using it" then please read all of the comments above which argue those very points and do a very good job of telling you, over and over, that bikes do exactly that: we do preserve the landscape and we do have a measured approach to using it.

As a hiker and a mountain biker, I see no reason why hiking, equestrian, and mountain biking can't share the wilderness. We all love being in nature, which is why we enjoy these activities. I have encountered rude people in each of these camps. Rudeness is not a trait exclusive to mountain bikers as politeness is not exclusive to hikers. I have scene hikers stray from marked trails and fail to leave no trace. The key here is that we try to understand each others concerns, be respectful of others & the land, and work toward shared goals. We have many more shared goals than different ones. As naturalists, we have plenty of enemies of the environment with become balkanized amongst ourselves.

Random Walker,

Thanks for clarifying the origins of the CDNST and addressing the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route.

The GDMBR is a mapped route that roughly follows the path of the Continental Divide from Canada to Mexico. This route is mostly dirt roads, some pavement and very little of the actual Continental Divide National Scenic Trail. Too often the conservation community has stated that being excluded from the CDNST because we have the GDMBR should not upset bicyclists. The “route” is in no way, shape or form a substitute for continued bicycle access to the CDNST. It is not even close to the same experience. Random Walker – you should be happy to enjoy the paved path because it is the same experience as the remote, alpine trail. No issues – right?

Concerning the CDTA’s position statement on bicycles – it really says nothing and commits to even less. It completely sidesteps the issue of continued bicycle access to this national treasure. Even more concerning is the recent removal of references to bicycles in the CDTA’s communications and marketing materials. Why? From where does this mandate originate?

From CDTA position statement - “However, since mountain biking is not a form of motorized travel, the CDTA believes that mountain bikers should have qualified access to the Continental Divide Trail outside of Wilderness and National Parks under certain restrictive guidelines whereby both physical and visual impacts would be kept at a minimum and the Trail’s primitive and aesthetic values are protected.”

Okay – so what’s the problem? It seems that quiet, non-motorized bicycles that have a similar impact to trails as hiking, considerably less that pack animals, fit nicely into this description. Or is it the primitive and aesthetic value thing – fear of lycra or what? Let me tell you – when I see hikers with brightly anodized walking poles or black cowboy hats and pearly buttons, my backcountry day is ruined! Come on?!

“The CDTA recognizes that a foremost concern of managing the Trail must be the immediate personal safety of all users, and mountain bikers will be expected to always share in that responsibility.”

And so? I would hope that ALL users share OUR PUBLIC LANDS with everyone’s SAFETY considered, respected and cheerfully honored. In my extensive experience out on the CDNST, the bicyclists are not the users that have a problem sharing responsibly.

Concerning the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail Comprehensive Plan:

A few observations:

In the original language of the 1978 National Parks and Recreation Act that established the CDNST states “one of the PRIMARY purposes for establishing the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail would be to provide hiking and horseback access to those lands where man's impact on the environment has not been adverse to a substantial degree and where the environment remains relatively unaltered.”

The word PRIMARY is important here. It does not say EXCLUSIVE.

This Comprehensive Plan that was released October 5th, 2009 concludes:

“The Agency is adding the following statements under ``Recreation
Resource Management Along the CDNST,'' Chapter IV(B)(5), in the 2009
CDNST Comprehensive Plan:

Manage the CDNST to provide high-quality scenic, primitive
hiking and pack and saddle stock opportunities. Backpacking, nature
walking, day hiking, horseback riding, nature photography, mountain
climbing, cross-country skiing, and snowshoeing are compatible with
the nature and purposes of the CDNST. Bicycle use may be allowed on
the CDNST (16 U.S.C. 1246(c)) if the use is consistent with the
applicable land and resource management plan and will not
substantially interfere with the nature and purposes of the CDNST.”

In reading through this entire blog and watching the national trends, I believe that the cycling proponents have made a compelling case of the appropriateness of continued bicycle use on our wild PUBLIC, backcountry trails including the CDNST. The presence of bicycles on the CDNST does not interfere with nature any more that hikers or equestrians. Using the argument of potential conflict between user groups to ban one group is no way to manage our public lands. Education, respect and the ability to share is the democratic answer. If it comes down to individual users not wanting to share their (w)ilderness experience with bicycles, might I recommend a trip to any of our National Parks or Wilderness areas that offer thousands of miles of trails leading to millions of acres of bicycle-free opportunities.

Bring bicyclists into the fold and we all benefit from an expanded, invested and motivated conservation constituency. Together we can share for the good of all!

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