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Guest Column: Has The National Park Service Found Itself Straddling The Fence On Mountain Biking?


A multiple use trail for hikers, and possibly mountain bikers, is being cut into this landscape near Panther Junction in Big Bend National Park. NPS photo.

Editor's note: Efforts to cut a multiple-use trail for hikers and mountain bikers at Big Bend National Park have generated ongoing debates over whether creating such trails for mountain bikers in national parks is a good thing. Roger Siglin, who long has followed the Big Bend matter, wonders if the National Park Service hasn't painted itself into a corner over this issue.

As someone who opposed the mountain bike trail construction at Big Bend National Park from the beginning, hiked the proposed route when it was first flagged, and recently hiked it with Jeff Renfrow of the Big Bend Trails Alliance, I have several opinions on the issue. I should also mention my 27-year-career with the National Park Service started in Big Bend in 1966, and I have hiked several thousand miles in the park.

As a hiking trail it is pretty innocuous. I would rate it as little more than a short walk, and it will probably will be the least interesting trail in Big Bend when fully constructed. This doesn’t mean it won’t get some use, particularly if combined with a roadside picnic area since there is none near the visitor center at park headquarters.

It could especially appeal to families with hungry children tired of the long drive from the nearest town, assuming park staff at the visitor center promote it. The park concessioner is also planning to update and improve the adjacent gas station and grocery store. Use will still be limited by high temperatures for about six months of the year. But putting all of that aside, I support completing the construction as a hiking trail since substantial money has already been spent and it would be nice if the public got something in return for its taxpayer dollars.

As a mountain bike trail, it is even more innocuous and probably will not attract many mountain bikers since there are better opportunities both on some of the park’s 120 miles of rough dirt roads and hundreds of miles of bike trails to the west in Terlingua, Lajitas, and Big Bend Ranch State Park. The state park is heavily promoting mountain biking on its 300,000 acres, which I supported in a draft public use paper I prepared several years ago.

Some day there should be another 30,000 acres available in the Chinati State Natural Area west of Presidio, again an area where I outlined several good single-track opportunities in a draft public use plan I authored. There is also no good reason the 23,000-acre Elephant Mountain Wildlife Management area 26 miles south of Alpine could not offer mountain biking on tens of miles of old ranch roads and cattle trails.

In my opinion, the primary reason for the mountain bike trail project in Big Bend (now called a hiking trail until a special regulation is promulgated) is to get the mountain biking industry’s foot in the door to build a stronger constituency for opening up single-track hiking trails in the National Park System to mountain bikes. That includes designated wilderness and lands managed for their wilderness potential by the National Park Service. There is a lot of money to be made by the industries supporting bringing mountain bikers to the parks. This is not to imply that individual mountain bikers themselves are not part of the driving force behind this effort.

There seem to be two visions of mountain biking. One is promoted by IMBA -- the International Mountain Bicycling Association -- as providing access to nature in a healthful way with little or no conflict with hikers, if everyone would agree to get along. The other vision is the one you see on most mountain biking websites. They show bikers riding at high speed on single-track trails, some bermed with jumps, wood ramps, and other construction that provide additional thrills and spills.

What the websites don’t show is other trail users who have been driven off the trails by the antics of the thrill seekers on bicycles. This is not true everywhere, but it is becoming increasingly common where large numbers of mountain bikers congregate, particularly near large population centers. To make matters worse, many state and local parks set aside for preservation of plant and animal communities are being damaged by both legal and illegal trail construction.

Big Bend is remote enough and the rocks and prickly vegetation bad enough that the worst problems may be avoided, but it leads to the main question: what is the purpose of national parks?

The first place to look is the National Parks Organic Act of 1916, which says in part “........which purpose is to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.”

Congress has reaffirmed the unimpairment part of the act several times. In general, the pendulum has swung back and forth between those who emphasize unimpairment and those who emphasize enjoyment. Not surprisingly, the recreation industry has emphasized the latter, using increasing clout in the current political climate.

The NPS has often been on the fence between the two extremes, but in general has not built facilities for, or encouraged, the more extreme thrills or adventure aspects of various uses. Instead it encourages activities that allow the appreciation of the natural features, including the scenery at a leisurely pace.

I recently rode my daughter’s downhill bike at Keystone Resort. Going down the marked trail I often thought how nice it would be to see the flowers and decided I would prefer hiking the same route. An opposite view was taken by one of your commentators who describes the White Rim Trail in Canyonlands as boring. I guess there was not enough scenery or flowers.

I could go on and on about why I think single-track mountain biking is wrong in the national parks, but I also think the mountain bike fraternity is its own worst enemy. Just look at the websites if you don’t agree. I also think commentators should have to identify themselves with a brief statement. It should greatly improve the quality of the discussions.

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Thanks, Rick B., for the link to the Alaska moose attacks on mountain bikers. I was in a dowhill mountain bike race in Anchorage circa 1995 whose course descended from Glen Alps to essentially sea level. As I reached a checkpoint halfway down the course marshal asked me if I'd seen a cow and calf. I said no and was allowed to proceed, but people behind me had to stop their thrillcraft and wait because apparently a moose and her offspring had gotten ornery.

Based on that level of experience, I defer to you, Roger! That's most interesting. I don't know if you know this, but all you have to do is post something that contains the words "gun" and "bear spray" and this site tends to light up like a Christmas tree. (See Bob Pahre's comment above.) But perhaps because we're talking about a different topic, that won't happen this time.

When I arrived in Alaska as Superintendent of Gates of the Arctic NP,I found most people scared of bears and carrying guns, big ones on their hips and shoulders.Although used to hiking without a gun in Yellowstone I thought they might know something I didn't. So I started carrying a 12 guage pump shotgun with a pistol grip and the shortest legal barrel. I used it once to sit down on in wet mossy ground. I also used it a couple of times as an ice axe to control my descent on steep snow fields. Then I decided it was ridiculous and carried only bear spray. Many if not most bear attacks happen so fast a gun is not much help. You might have a better chance to spray a bear and as a last resort can spray yourself then you won't care about the bear and it may decide you don't taste good. Seriously bear spray kills no bears and probably saves as many hikers.

On hiking sites you can always get a lively discussion with, "I'm visiting bear country, should I bring bear spray or a gun?" :)

Actually, Bob, in the mid-1990s I rented a mountain bike from a bike shop in Fairbanks, Alaska. When I asked what the two metal hooks on the handlebars were for, the shop employee explained that that was my gunrack. Bears, you know. He was entirely matter-of-fact about it.

Then, on my own mountain bike, I rode out from near Girdwood, Alaska, over a pass (I think it may have been called Jefferson Pass). On the ride I encountered about 25 hikers. As best I recall, all were armed. Some had more than one gun (a pistol and a long-barreled weapon), but as I recall, everyone had at least one. Again, bears.

I can't remember the latest go-round on NPS rules on guns in parks, but I bet that to the extent they're restrictive, they're not obeyed in Alaska except in the parking lot of Denali Nat'l Park and on those buses that take people from the Lower 48 out on park roads.

Mount guns on the front of mountain bikes for hunters in national parks . . . sounds like a winning political coalition! (Kidding again.)

Fortunately, NPT has courteously provided the more disputatious among us with another opportunity for, er, shall we say vigorous debate:


I'm surprised that the foregoing page isn't already larded with comments. But those who eagerly anticipate a robust discussion will, I suspect, not be disappointed for long. :-)

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