Questions are being raised over whether the National Park Service's approach to the multiple-use trail in Big Bend National Park was preordained to satisfy the International Mountain Bicycling Association.
At the sametime, a regulatory flub that had crews working to construct the trail before the requisite paperwork was made public is being criticized by an environmental watchdog.
While the Park Service is calling the path being built near Panther Junction a multiple-use trail suited for both hikers and mountain bikers, Big Bend officials have not even started the regulatory process to allow mountain bikers on the trail.
"This trail has been billed from day one as a mountain bike trail and only secondarily as a multi-use trail. That is the obvious rational for the NPS saying it is building a hiking trail which does not require rule-making, and only after it is done will a decision be made to promulgate a special regulation to open it for mountain bikes," contends Roger Siglin, whose long Park Service career took him from Alaska to the Southwest in positions that ranged from chief ranger in Yellowstone National Park to superintendent of Gates of Arctic National Park and Preserve.
"If a hiking trail were the main purpose, it would be constructed differently to avoid the ups and downs of the current alignment," Mr. Siglin added in an email to the Traveler. "Also, there are many more attractive alternatives that could have been considered on lands classified as potential wilderness and currently managed as such. The area where construction is occurring was not included in that classification because it was once considered a potential source of water for the basin, and also as a potential location if a decision were ever made to relocate the basin development."
Back in mid-February John Wessels, the Park Service's Intermountain Region director, signed off on a Finding Of No Significant Impact for the environmental assessment that was conducted on the proposal to build the multi-use trail at Panther Junction. But someone pushed the wrong button on their keyboard and the FONSI was not made public at the time.
As a result, work on constructing the trail began before everyone heard of the Park Service's decision.
Most of the trail would be single-track – approximately the width of a bike's handlebars – with one-way traffic moving counter clockwise. This would be the first trail constructed from scratch on undeveloped park land to accommodate both hikers and mountain bikes, according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility. Horses would be barred from the trail.
PEER and a local group, Our Texas Wild, are challenging both the substance of the plan and the short-circuited process employed to approve it. Concerns raised by the groups include:
* The pay-for-play aspect of the trail where a user group, the International Mountain Bicycling Association and its local affiliate, paid for the Environmental Assessment conducted during the approval process for the trail. The group will help build the trail to its specifications and is even offering to patrol it for the National Park Service;
* A previous Big Bend superintendent is part of the business operations of the local biking group. The outgoing superintendent, says PEER, pushed the project over the unanimous objection of his own staff, including 20 who filed personal comments opposing the trail; and
* Big Bend already has hundreds of 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.
Mr. Siglin wonders if the trail project was pushed through to prevent Big Bend's next superintendent from reviewing, and possibly rejecting, the project.
"Did Superintendent (Bill) Wellman’s announced retirement effective the end of April create pressure to get the construction well on it’s way to completion prior to his replacement? He has been the major NPS supporter of the project in spite of the documented opposition of his staff," the Park Service retiree said.
"If the special regulation process were followed prior to construction it would have been delayed for several months allowing a new manager to re-evaluate the trail."
Public comments issued on the proposal were finally posted by the Park Service last week, two months after they were finalized and two days after IMBA announced trail construction, PEER said in a release.
“To create a first-of-its-kind biking trail through pristine public land, without allowing the public to review the FONSI before construction, without going through essential rule-making process and while allowing an interested group to have behind-the-scenes access, creates a terrible precedent for the National Park System,” said Judy Calman, staff attorney for Our Texas Wild. “This area is included in the Citizen’s Wilderness Proposal and has long been discussed as suitable for wilderness designation.”
Once the FONSI and response to comments finally appeared they were remarkable both for what they contained and for what they lacked, maintains PEER:
* The Park Service declared that constructing a trail and associated parking lot is the “Environmentally Preferred Alternative;"
* NPS admitted it could not make more of an effort to avoid archeological sites because there are thousands of archeological sites in the park and it would be impossible to build a mountain biking trail without going over them; and
* While conceding the area is suitable for potential wilderness designation, Big Bend has declined to pursue that option because it would preclude use of mechanized transport.
“Nobody is against mountain biking. The issue is whether national parks should be prostituted to a special interest,” said PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, pointing out that the agency labeling the building of a parking lot as the “environmentally preferred alternative” denotes how warped the decision-making process has become. “Absent a statutory charter, the National Park Service should not be using tax dollars to promote exclusionary recreation.”
Mr. Siglin noted that the trail is poorly located for hiking in the summer, because it will be hot and most hikers will head to higher elevations, and not very attractive to mountain bikers because it's only about 2 miles in length and there are numerous other biking options elsewhere in the park and nearby Big Bend Ranch State Park.
"Jeff Renfrow, who works for Desert Sports in Terlingua, told me personally it would not attract many mountain bikers coming to the Big Bend area," said Mr. Siglin.
"If all of the above is true," he continued, "then the remaining rationale for the trail is that IMBA considers it a foot in the door for building additional trails nationwide on NPS lands. It will also build the constituency for changing the law to allow mountain bikes on single-track hiking trails in designated wilderness on all federal lands, which is a stated IMBA objective."