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Forest Service Open to Allowing Mountain Bikes on Continental Divide Trail, But What About Park Service?


Would allowing mountain bikes on sections of the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail create problems on National Park Service landscapes? Logo via Continental Divide Trail Alliance.

Along its 3,100 miles that wind from the Canadian border down to Mexico, the Continental Divide Trail is one of the most rugged, and in parts one of the most visually spectacular, hiking trails in the country. Now the U.S. Forest Service says the route could be opened in places to mountain bikes, a move that raises a question or two regarding possible impacts to national parks.

From north to south the trail runs through portions of Glacier, Yellowstone, and Rocky Mountain national parks, as well as El Malpais National Monument in New Mexico. In places you need the skills of a mountain goat to negotiate the route, which, by the way, is not entirely in place.

Early in October the Forest Service published its proposed rule changes to the trail's comprehensive management plan in the Federal Register. They took effect November 4. The updated management plan does not magically open the entire Continental Divide National Scenic Trail to mountain biking, but rather provides "that bicycle use may be allowed on the CDNST 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."

Nevertheless, some fear that decision could result in pressure being placed on National Park Service land managers to permit the bikes into wilderness areas as this development potentially opens one more door for mountain bikes to public lands that have long been set aside for hikers and horseback riders.

From the beginning, "one of the primary purposes for establishing the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail (was) 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 Forest Service notes in its Federal Register notice. "The basic goal of the trail is to provide the hiker and rider an entree to the diverse country along the Continental Divide in a manner, which will assure a high quality recreation experience while maintaining a constant respect for the natural environment. ... The Continental Divide Trail would be a simple facility for foot and horseback use in keeping with the National Scenic Trail concept as seen in the Appalachian and Pacific Crest Trails."

While the Forest Service notes that hiking and horseback use are the "primary purposes" for the trail's existence, they are not the trail's exclusive uses, said Janelle Smith, a spokeswoman for the agency's Rocky Mountain Region. Mountain biking could be permissible as long as it doesn't degrade the trail, she said.

“We just wanted to make sure that we’ve got a trail that is sustainable over time. The original intent of the trail was for hiking and horseback riding. That is designated by Congress," Ms. Smith said Monday from her Denver office. "So we needed to clarify that, and as these other uses are compatible with that, those initial uses, then it's really up to those local land managers to either designate a certain area of the trail that would only be for those uses of the trail or make some modification for those multiple uses

“Some trails lend themselves to being able to mountain bike on them," she said.

The Forest Service was lobbied somewhat heavily by mountain bikers to give them access to the trail. Back in 2007 the International Mountain Bicycling Association mounted a campaign among its membership to urge the Forest Service not to close off the trail to their use.

IMBA believes a shared-use philosophy that includes bicycling is compatible with the intent and purpose of the CDT, and that mountain bikers can help overcome these significant hurdles impeding the trail's completion. With 40 million participants, mountain biking is the second most popular trail activity in the country (Outdoor Industry Foundation, 2007). This large constituency helps lobby for public lands funding and donates nearly one million volunteer hours each year to trail construction and maintenance. Mountain bikers can be valuable partners for the CDT.

Among long-distance trails, the CDT is unique in that has generally allowed mountain biking. Unlike the Pacific Crest Trail or Appalachian Trail, mountain bikes are largely welcome on non-Wilderness sections of the CDT. IMBA isn't asking for access to all 3,100 miles, but there are many non-Wilderness sections where non-motorized users can get along and mountain biking should continue.

The group's call was heard. During the public comment period on the updated management plan, a bit more than 8,000 comments were received, according to the Federal Register note. Approximately 7,200 of those comments were received "principally (from) mountain biking enthusiasts, who submitted comments in the form of the same electronic mail," the agency said.

While National Park Service officials working on Yellowstone's winter-use plan, which has drawn hundreds of thousands of public comments, with a strong majority supporting the phase-out of snowmobiles, say public comment does not equate with a vote on the issue at hand, at the Forest Service Ms. Smith said the large number of comments backing mountain biking couldn't be overlooked.

“Certainly, any time we get that kind of response it helps inform our decision," she said. "When it comes to changing some direction that we provide to our land-management agencies, we wanted to make sure that mountain bikers, any user, has access to the public process when final decisions are made on granting access to any part of the Continental Divide Trail.”

Interestingly, a bike route already parallels the Continental Divide Trail.

"The Great Divide Mountain Bike Route is our premier off-pavement route, crisscrossing the Continental Divide north to south," say the folks at Adventure Cycling, a non-profit cycling association. "This route is defined by the word "remote." Its remoteness equates with spectacular terrain and scenery. The entire route is basically dirt-road and mountain-pass riding every day. In total, it has over 200,000 feet of elevation gain. All of this climbing gets the rider into visually spectacular places and incredibly fit shape."

While it remains to be seen which, if any, sections of the trail are opened to mountain bikes, officials in Glacier and Yellowstone are not concerned about riders venturing into their parks.

"We don't have much, if any, concern that visitors might try poaching rides on the CD trail in Glacier National Park," park spokeswoman Amy Vanderbilt said. "Glacier does allow the use of bikes in a few locations in the park (Apgar bike path between West Glacier and Apgar Village as well as all park roads). We even allow bikes on the Sun Road except for two sections west of Logan Pass from June 15 (when pass is accessible) to Labor Day, between 11 a.m. and 4 p.m. (due to heavy traffic and narrow, windy sections).

"Very infrequently, we do have visitors biking where they shouldn't, but our Visitor and Resource Protection staff out on the ground do a pretty good job of making sure that such illegal park use doesn't happen," she said.

While the American Hiking Society generally opposes bikes on hiking trails, officials there did not respond to a request for comment on the Forest Service's new stance on mountain bikes on the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail.


During our most recent vacation to the Desert SW, we stopped for a night in Grants, NM and decided to dine in a local Chinese restaurant. Sitting in the both next to us we noticed a tall, weathered but good-looking European couple who were frequenting the buffet over and over again. They spoke a language we could not immediately identify.

Being curious, we asked what language they were speaking.

"Dutch," came the reply.

"Where did you guys get a tan like that?" I inquired.

"It's a long story."

"Please tell me?" I asked inquisitively.

We soon learned that this couple from the Netherlands were enroute on a massive long distance mountain bike adventure. Their trip had begun in Alaska. Their route was the Continental Divide Trail. Their ulitmate goal was South America. They said that in general it was difficult to do more than 10 miles per day, and that their bikes often had to be pushed and carried when sections of the trail became extremely difficult. I began to appreciate why it was that they seemed to return to the buffet bar for yet another serving.

I didn't ask how they negotiated officially designated wilderness areas along the continental divide, which of course included sections that traverse the national parks, but I assume that the Continental Divide Trail comes through Glacier National Park, Yellowstone National Park, and Rocky Mountain National Park. Mountain biking routes called the "Great Divide" part somewhat from the continental divide itself and often use paved roads instead of trails.

My understanding is that mountain bike use is avidly encouraged in the backcountry of the Canadian National Parks. While proposals by organized mountain biking groups to increase mountain bike access into the backcountry of US national parks, these proposals are receiving quite vigorous resistance from those concerned about keeping designated wilderness free from any form of mechanized recreational use. It will be interesting to see just how this issue plays out over time.

I'm personally partial to any mode of muscle-powered transportation.

Owen Hoffman
Oak Ridge, TN 37830

Glad to see the coverage of mountain biking on the CDT in the Traveler.

However, this passage seems over the top to me:

"Nevertheless, some fear that decision could result in pressure being placed on National Park Service land managers to permit the bikes into wilderness areas as this development potentially opens one more door for mountain bikes to public lands that have long been set aside for hikers and horseback riders."

Does the Traveler really think that Forest Service's position on bikes access for the CDT threatens a change in the NPS position on Wilderness? Even though the FS clearly states in the CDT announcement that they will not alter their position on bike travel in Wilderness?

Neither IMBA nor Adventure Cycling asks that mountain biking be allowed in Wilderness, whether it is administered by the NPS or the USFS. So from where is this speculation about pressure to allow bikes in NPS Wilderness coming? There's no source attributed to the accusation, other than the vague "some fear that ..."

Is the Traveler simply hoping to stir the pot of anti-bike sentiment with a bit of hyperbole?

Mark, no hyperbole.

There are actually folks -- former NPS staffers and park advocates -- out there who are concerned that steps such as the Forest Service is taking could eventually find their way to the Park Service's doorstep. Those concerns might be even more realistic when you appreciate that the four land-management agencies -- Forest Service, Park Service, Bureau of Land Management, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service -- are trying to work closer than in the past on land-management issues. And when you consider that there's a proposal in Congress to expand Oregon Caves National Monument by adding some 4,000 acres of Forest Service lands -- but the Forest Services wants to co-manage the addition through a memorandum of understanding -- then it's not too hard to see how regs between the two agencies could get blurred.

As for IMBA not asking for access to wilderness, let's be candid. Has your organization in the past not tried to convince the Forest Service to change the wilderness prohibition against "mechanized" travel to "motorized" travel so mountain bikes could gain access to wilderness areas? Here's a snippet of a release you yourself wrote a year ago:

With more than 130,000 miles of trails, the Forest Service provides some of the best riding on both coasts, and nearly everywhere in between. "Mountain biking is incredibly popular in national forests and we believe it's appropriate to clarify the distinction between mountain biking and motorized use. Better policies will foster improved partnerships and riding experiences," says IMBA Executive Director Mike Van Abel.

For several years, IMBA has asked the Forest Service to further document its mountain biking policies. While most national forests understand bicycling is a quiet, non-motorized activity, a few have implemented rules rendering bicycles akin to motorized travel. IMBA believes the new revisions to the Forest Service Handbook and Manual-the primary basis for control and management of agency programs-represent an important step in standardizing mountain biking management at the field level.

"We're extremely pleased the Forest Service is taking these steps to formally recognize bicycling as low-impact and human-powered. Embedding this information in their employee handbooks will promote better understanding and practices in all 175 national forests and grasslands," says Van Abel.

And, until that day arrives, is it not also true that IMBA has targeted talks with the Park Service and Forest Service on proposed wilderness boundaries so as not to block some trail access to mountain bikes? Is that not actually what's been ongoing in Colorado with the Hidden Gems effort to gain more officially designated wilderness? Here's a page devoted to that effort, and there's IMBA's logo on the bottom:

No, I don't think this is a case of hyperbole at all. I think IMBA's track record speaks for itself.

Finally, this is not "anti-bike sentiment," a phrase intended to foment controversy and rally the troops. It's just a belief that there should be some places where your feet on the ground provide the locomotion.

And from IMBA's Bicycling and Wilderness: A Mountain Biker's Guide to Negotiating Wilderness Politics

"Wilderness often presents a dilemma to the environmentally conscious mountain biker. While most of us applaud the intentions of the Wilderness Act, we also believe that bicycles are an appropriate, muscle-powered activity that belongs in Wilderness alongside hiking and horseback riding."

Kurt wrote:

As for IMBA not asking for access to wilderness, let's be candid. Has your organization in the past not tried to convince the Forest Service to change the wilderness prohibition against "mechanized" travel to "motorized" travel so mountain bikes could gain access to wilderness areas?

Candidly, Kurt, the impetus behind that request is that the term "mechanized" does more to muddy the waters than to aid management agencies. As you know, there are all sorts of mechanized devices that are allowed in Wilderness (ski bindings, oarlocks, etc.).

Furthermore, it's demonstrably true that the impacts of non-motorized uses are on the same scale, and the impacts of motorized recreation are of a greater magnitude.

Yes, absolutely we will continue to suggest adjustments to Wilderness boundaries to preserve bike access. If the goal is to protect public lands (rather than block bike access) why wouldn't a bike organization suggest other designations that allow for biking?

The NPS, USFS and other agencies are not likely to become confused about what their policies and goals are simply because IMBA suggests boundary adjustments or clarifications of administrative language. We will continue working with our federal partners to find mutually beneficial agreements and improved understanding of how recreation can best be managed on public lands.

(Since I enjoyed the captcha sharing game last time ... mine is "109 doubts" for this post.)

Whenever I read a story about biking here, I can't help but detect some anti biking sentiment in Kurt. It's not rabid like some of the folks we have in the SF bay area, but it's there. There's really no good reason why all these wonderful backcountry trails should be closed to cyclists other than to appease the few hikers and equestrians who make it there and just don't want to share.

" It's just a belief that there should be some places where your feet on the ground provide the locomotion." Does that belief encompass hooves as well?
The issue with this belief is that it's vague and provides the background for resisting allowing bikes anywhere without any kind of reason. Personnally, I have a belief that horse riders should be kicked out of all narrow trails. Does it mean that we should kick out all equestrians. :)

Mark, wish I could take credit for the captcha, but it really is random. Really.

Zeb, the four bikes in my garage say it's not an "anti-bike" sentiment.


The Continental Divide National Scenic Trail through Glacier and Yellowstone National Parks, as well as some BLM and U S Forest Service wild lands traversed by the trail are recommended for wilderness designation by the land managing agencies.

In recommended wilderness areas the CDNST plan requires that potential for future designation be fully maintained (“unimpaired”) So some parts of CDT --wilderness and rec'd wilderness -- will not be available for mechanized travel (mountain bikes).

However cyclists have the opportunity to partner up with hikers, back country horsemen and conservationists on hundreds and hundreds of miles of the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail outside designated and recommended wilderness.

In Montana local mountain bike clubs have proven to be terrific partners, working shoulder to shoulder on the Continental Divide Trail with back country horsemen and women, hikers and volunteers of the Montana Wilderness Association.

Last year we helped the U S Forest Service complete a brand new 7.5 mile section of the Continental Divide Trail between Butte and Helena.

Check out “Continental Collaboration” in Helena Independent Record:

Several years ago nine outdoor and conservation groups representing local mountain bike clubs, back country horsemen, hikers and conservationists crafted a pledge of agreement to protect future wilderness and motorfree back country areas offering quiet trails for mountain bikers, hikers and horsemen.

The agreement covers 240 miles along the rugged Montana Divide and Flints, with unified recommendations for completing and managing the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail.

This unique new quiet trails and wilderness partnership is known as Montana High Divide Trails.

Thank you

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