Editor's note: Mountain biking in national parks can be a controversial topic in some corners, with supporters and detractors debating whether there's enough space on trails for both hikers and cyclists. At the International Mountain Bicycling Association, Communications Director Mark Eller sees mountain biking and national parks as a great match. Here, to counter views that mountain bikes should be banned from park trails, he explains why.
If I were a standup comic, I'd call this a tough room. Penning a pro-mountain bike essay for the National Parks Traveler website feels about as comfortable as delivering zingers in a boardroom meeting, but I'll give it a try.
I wouldn't bother trying this if I didn't respect the Traveler's audience. For several years, I've read Kurt Repanshek's articles about mountain biking in national parks and engaged in the ensuing debates on the comments section. I get to do this from my work desk as the communications director for the International Mountain Bicycling Association (IMBA) — a role that I often point out when I post as "Mark E." Hearteningly, I'm usually not the only commenter who speaks favorably about mountain biking, and many of these discussions have been both civil and enlightening. On the Internet!
I think it's fair to describe Kurt and some Traveler contributors as concerned about the possibility of expanded opportunities for mountain biking in national parks (I considered terms like "hysterical" and "apoplectic" but l'll go with concerned.) In particular, the notion of bicycling on narrow, natural-surface trails sets off alarm bells.
The group I represent has long advocated for the idea that mountain biking is an appropriate activity for just those kinds of trails. IMBA holds a partnership agreement with the National Park Service and is the largest member-based mountain bike organization in the world, with 80,000 individual supporters and programs in more than 30 nations. We have published two books and hundreds of web-based articles on topics like trail design, recreation management and ways to encourage volunteer stewardship. IMBA's network of more than 700 grassroots chapters and clubs records nearly one million hours of volunteer service on public trails every year.
From my seat, that makes us a strong partner for national parks. IMBA only works with NPS units that invite us to help them plan or build trails — if park staff requests assistance, we're happy to help. If a park has no interest in adding shared-use trails we do not try to insert ourselves into their planning efforts. We have no plans to demand that "extreme" (or whatever derogatory terms you've read) mountain bike trails get built on Yosemite's Half Dome or down the middle of Yellowstone. Really.
Now, what about the trail in Big Bend?
Back in 2005, when IMBA signed its first partnership agreement with the NPS, Big Bend was called out as a potential site for a pilot shared-use trail project. A vast park with huge amounts of backcountry terrain, Big Bend offers many miles of dirt roads that are suitable for mountain biking. Heck, they are suitable for hiking too, but mountain bikers are like hikers in that we generally prefer an intimate interaction with the natural world that a trail provides.
At the invitation of the NPS, IMBA helped plan a short trail near the Big Bend Visitors Center. Over the years, the idea picked up steam, clearing regulatory hurdles and gaining support among park staff and in the local community. Although just a few miles in length, the trail will provide a welcome chance to stretch the legs after the long car trip that's required to reach Big Bend. On its own, the new trail won't lure many mountain bikers to the park. However, there is other good riding nearby (including the Fresno-Sauceda Loop, an IMBA Epic ride) and it will be a nice addition for walkers and, eventually, bikers (especially families with kids who might not want to tackle long-distance rides on the park's isolated dirt roads).
The Big Bend trail project is underway, but its future is uncertain. As the Traveler has documented, NPS regulations require a lengthy process before anyone will be allowed to ride a bicycle on the trail — a fact that has not prevented IMBA from supporting the project. My group has sent veteran trail specialist Joey Klein to Big Bend again and again, allowing him to consult with NPS staff on the trail layout and construction. We have done this in a spirit of partnership, in hopes that a successful trail at Big Bend will promote a better understanding of how mountain biking can enhance national parks.
Several web pages on the NPS website address the topic of partnerships. The partnerships landing page opens with these words: "Increasingly partnerships are essential and effective means for the National Park Service to fulfill parts of our mission and foster a shared sense of stewardship that is so crucial for our future." Mountain bikers want to see better and more widespread opportunities to ride on NPS-managed lands, and we believe a partnership approach is the best way to get there. We don't demand that singletrack trails should be opened in every corner of every park — far from it. Where park staff sees an opportunity to work with IMBA and its local affiliates we will take them up on it, moving ahead on a case-by-case basis. We firmly believe that mountain biking, and IMBA, can be good for national parks.
I'll close with a top-ten list (always a reliable shtick). Sincere thanks go to Kurt and the National Parks Traveler for allowing me to post this.
10 Reasons IMBA and Mountain Bikers Make Great Partners for the NPS
1. Prolific Volunteers: IMBA members conduct almost one million hours of volunteer trail building each year and advocate for public lands. With more that 700 bike clubs and chapters, chances are an IMBA group near you stands ready to volunteer at your park.
2. Relevancy: Kids love to mountain bike and opening appropriate trails to kids is a great way to help make parks relevant to today’s recreating public. According to the Outdoor Industry Foundation, bicycling is one of the most popular outdoor activities for kids.
3. Professional Trail Design: IMBA’s team of professional trail designers has vast experience. From Parks Canada to U.S. facilities managed by city, county, state and federal agencies, IMBA has helped create some of the world's most popular trail systems.
4. Bicycling is Already Popular in the NPS: Mountain biking is already successfully managed in 44 national parks and more superintendents are considering places that might be appropriate for mountain biking. IMBA partnered with a half dozen parks in the last two years to build and repair trails.
5. Savvy Fundraisers: Mountain bikers rise to a challenge and our community is known for writing grants, holding fundraisers and working to make sure public lands, facilities and trails have proper funding.
6. Gets Visitors Into Natural Settings: Bicycling allows park visitors to smell, feel and fall in love with the natural world. Parks are meant to be experienced and bicycling is one of the best ways to get people out of their cars and engaged in a nature-based experience.
7. Building the Recreation Economy: Bicyclists spend money on food, lodging and might not even take up a parking space. Adding mountain biking as a park amenity builds on the activities offered by the park and lengthens visitors stays, building gateway community economies.
8. Where Can I Ride My Bike? How many cars or RVs visiting parks right now already have bikes on top? The demand for cycling is growing, and IMBA has a wealth of experience and success stories that show how it can be managed as a low-impact recreational activity.
9. We Wrote the Book: IMBA literally wrote two of the best regarded books in the world on the art of sustainable trail building and managing mountain biking. Complimentary copies go to NPS staff at their request.
10. We Play Nice in the Sandbox: IMBA clubs and chapters know the importance of reaching out to other trail user groups, getting unlikely constituents involved in parks and realize the diverse constituency that embraces national parks.
Mark Eller is the communications director for the International Mountain Bicycling Association.