A funny thing happened on the way to National Park Service officials approving a multiple-use trail at Big Bend National Park: They inadvertently failed to notify the public.
Back in mid-February John Wessels, the Intermountain Region director, signed off on a Finding Of No Significant Impact for the environmental assessment that was conducted on a proposal to build the multi-use trail at Panther Junction in Big Bend. But someone pushed the wrong button on their keyboard and the FONSI was not made public at the time.
Is that a big deal? Well, you have to consider the history of this trail to weigh in on that question.
Back in 2007 the multiple-use trail was seen as a "centennial project" by Interior officials under the George W. Bush administration. At the time, the International Mountain Bicycling Association was a strong proponent, and 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 have maintained 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.
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.
The trail has been controversial. At the heart of the issue, as opponents to the mountain bike trail have noted, is the mandate the National Park Service was given to manage national parks. While public enjoyment and recreation are certainly key to the parks, resource management is foremost the role of the Park Service.
Questions arose over whether Big Bend officials have been 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.
Against that history, Mr. Wessels signed off in February on the plan to let construction of the trail move forward. Somehow, though, that FONSI was never made public. So when trail work started on the trail recently, opponents were outraged and expressed their displeasure with Park Service officials.
Park Service officials realized their mistake, made the FONSI public, and sent out an apology.
"Because of mistakes and miscommunication on our part, the FONSI was not activated for online public view in the NPS Environment and Public Comment system (PEPC) until April 11," Park Service officials said in a notice to explain the oversight. "We apologize to you for this oversight and for the two-month delay in making the document available and notifying you."
In that notice, officials said the FONSI and related documents could be found at this site.
But while the trail is being constructed, mountain bikers won't be allowed to cruise along it anytime soon.
"The park’s preferred alternative in the EA – to build a new multi-use trail for hiking and mountain biking in an area north of the Big Bend’s Panther Junction visitor center and headquarters – has been selected," Park Service officials noted in their apology. "It is important to note, however, that according to the FONSI and the EA, mountain biking cannot be permitted on this trail, once built, until special Park Service regulations are completed to permit bicycle use on a national park trail.
"As stated in the EA, the NPS must follow a formal federal rulemaking process, which will apply only to this new multi-use trail at Big Bend. That process has numerous stages, including advance notice and publishing of initial analysis, early public involvement, Office of Management and Budget review, Federal Register publication of the proposed rule, a formal public comment period and congressional review, among other steps."
There had been efforts to shorten the process for approving new mountain biking trails in the national parks. A proposed rule published by the Park Service in the Federal Register back in December 2008 was aimed to allow "park superintendents to open existing trails to bicycle use within park units in accordance with appropriate park plans and compliance documents under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), the National Historic Preservation Act, the NPS Organic Act, and the park's enabling legislation, and other applicable law."
However, the Park Service withdrew the proposal in March 2010. But...the Park Service's Office of Regulations and Special Park Uses apparently is still working on the proposed rule change, and it could resurface in the Federal Register later this spring or summer.