The very purpose and role of national parks is being drawn into question over a proposal by Big Bend National Park officials to cut a dual-use mountain bike trail into a hillside near Panther Junction.
In some aspects, the proposal underscores the gist of a Traveler column from last month, one in which we broached the subject of the popularity of having a national park nearby but the often-resulting opposition to many of the rules and regulations -- and even restrictions -- that come with such an entity on the landscape.
At the heart of the issue, as opponents to the mountain bike trail note, is the role national parks were created and the mandate given the National Park Service to manage them. While public enjoyment and recreation are certainly key to the parks, resource management is foremost the role of the Park Service.
Against that mandate, questions are being raised over whether Big Bend officials are holding to that mandate, or bending over to placate a special interest group that already has more than 300 miles of mountain biking opportunities in the park.
Big Bend officials are preparing an environmental assessment into a roughly 10-mile-long network of trails that would be cut into an undeveloped part of the park. Part of the project would include parking for a trailhead and a picnic area near the Panther Junction Visitor Center, and a second trailhead near Grapevine Hills Road.
While the park describes this trail as an added recreational outlet for park visitors, members of the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees see it as little more than a "promotion of the mountain bike industry" and a move that facilitates "the regrettable trend toward parks becoming venues for extreme sports."
This project did not arise overnight. Indeed, back in 2007 it was seen as a "centennial project" by Interior officials under the George W. Bush administration. Back then, the International Mountain Bicycling Association was a strong proponent, and had promised to come up with half of the $12,000 cost then estimated for the project.
The proposed loop trail would start near the visitor center at Panther Junction, cross the Chihuahuan desert and wrap Lone Mountain while providing sweeping views of the Chisos Mountains, the southern-most mountain range in the country.
While Big Bend officials say the trail is simply another recreational outlet for park visitors, they do note that it's part of a deal IMBA struck with the National Park Service years ago to explore more mountain biking in the park system.
The purpose of the proposed project is to provide park visitors a trail-based recreational opportunity in an area of the park where none currently exists. The proposed action is in keeping with a 2002 Memorandum of Agreement between NPS and the International Mountain Biking Association that encouraged identifying mountain biking opportunities in the national parks, including new trail construction in appropriate areas. The primary objectives of the proposal are to: 1) create new recreational opportunities for park visitors, and 2) provide a trail-based recreational opportunity in the vicinity of Panther Junction.
That arrangement with IMBA is part of the issue cited by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility in their objections.
"The project is a collaboration between the south Texas national park and a private mountain biking group, raising disturbing “pay-to-play” questions about user groups carving out park lands for special purposes," the group said in comments it filed with the Park Service.
Most of the backcountry trail would be single-track – approximately the width of a bike, with one-way traffic moving counter clockwise. Horses would be barred from the trail.
“Big Bend calls this a ‘multi-use’ trail but it is clearly designed for high-speed, high-thrill biking. Any hikers foolish enough to venture on this path risk tread marks across their backs,” said PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, noting that the EA dryly concedes “some visitors might not enjoy their experience sharing the proposed trail with mountain bikers.”
“We are not anti-mountain biking," said Mr. Ruch, "but are concerned that scarce public dollars may be diverted to promote exclusionary recreation scratched out of national park backcountry.”
In their comments on the proposal, members of the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees said Big Bend officials seem to be "pursuing an agenda not supported by law, policy and common sense."
"The mountain bike trail construction proposal for Big Bend NP raises serious questions regarding the purpose of National Parks. Through law, Congress and the courts have clearly established that resource protection must always come before visitor enjoyment," Rick Smith, who chairs the coalition's executive committee, wrote to the park. "While there may often be a tug of war between those who place enjoyment first and those who place preservation first, the law clearly states which of the interests has priority.
"Further, NPS Policies articulate this legal precedence into coherent direction for the agency to place resource protection as the primary role of the agency in managing our parks," he added. "In the case of this EA we believe that single-track mountain biking may be enjoyable for the participants but we do not believe it is necessary or appropriate for experiencing the value and purposes for which national parks are set aside by Congress and construction of a single use trail certainly does not conform to the resource protection deference over public enjoyment the park must honor."
Carving this stretch of bike trail, wrote Mr. Smith, "provides no additional means of appreciating park wilderness beyond that available on existing backcountry roads, particularly on roads with very low speeds and levels of vehicular traffic."
"There is nothing about single-track mountain biking that adds a unique opportunity to appreciate the natural and cultural resources of this national park. On the contrary, the rough, rocky terrain combined with hazardous vegetation detracts from that opportunity. In addition there are hundreds of miles of single track opportunities on nearby private and state lands where mountain biking is being actively welcomed and promoted."
PEER's other concerns include:
* This would be the first trail constructed from scratch on undeveloped park land to accommodate mountain bicycles. A pending rule change, also supported by IMBA would open millions of acres of national park backcountry, including recommended wilderness, to mountain bike trails;
* Big Bend already has 200 miles of trails and roads open to mountain biking and there are another 900 miles of bike-accessible trails and roads on state and private lands surrounding Big Bend;
* This trail would be expensive to maintain and vulnerable to high erosion. Yet Big Bend, like other national parks, has a sizeable backlog of maintenance needs on existing facilities, and;
* While the proposed trail is not in designated wilderness, the project would likely preclude the land from ever being designating as wilderness.
“The plan at Big Bend is without precedent in the national park system,” added Mr. Ruch, who is urging members of the public to send comments to Big Bend National Park before the comment period on the park's Environmental Assessment runs out April 2. “This is part of the steady degradation of our parks into settings for thrill sports rather than preserves for enjoyment of natural and cultural features.”
Currently, bicycles are allowed on park roads, dirt or paved, as well as on trails in developed areas, such as the South Rim Village at the Grand Canyon. Backcountry trails are generally reserved for hikers and horseback riders. IMBA began its campaign to gain access to national parks trails in 2002.
A copy of the park's environmental assessment is attached below. To voice your opinion on this project, head to this site.