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Guest Column: IMBA Is A "Strong Partner" For The National Park Service

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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.

Howdy Partner,

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.

The occasion for this piece is a recent dustup about a trail at Big Bend National Park, but first let me say a few things.

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.

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Comments

Excellent perspective on the whole story! I really feel strongly as well about getting children in the wild outdoors...on foot, on bike, in a canoe.....the more ways we can teach our children to be stewards the better chance Mother Earth will have! Its also important to note that with some parks that are slowly losing staff and revenue, could actually get back in the ballgame by simply allowing mountain bike use. Its fairly clear to many that bikes - human powered, non-polluting, obesity fighting, cheap, and efficient forms of transportation and outdoor recreation could save our world.


Thanks for the well written opinion. I cherish our National Parks, and I very much enjoy mountain biking. The two are not inherently incompatible. The key is to fit the trail to the park, not the other way around. Done right, mountain bike trails are a plus to the park. Done wrong, they detract from the experience of others. IMBA does an excellent job in promoting a healthy outdoor activity in a sustainable manner. When I visit a national park, I want to experience wilderness, wildlife and solitude. That does not mean I do not enjoy driving on a park road as well, and I look forward to riding my bike on trails designed for that purpose.


Thanks for the well written opinion. I cherish our National Parks, and I very much enjoy mountain biking. The two are not inherently incompatible. The key is to fit the trail to the park, not the other way around. Done right, mountain bike trails are a plus to the park. Done wrong, they detract from the experience of others. IMBA does an excellent job in promoting a healthy outdoor activity in a sustainable manner. When I visit a national park, I want to experience wilderness, wildlife and solitude. That does not mean I do not enjoy driving on a park road as well, and I look forward to riding my bike on trails designed for that purpose.


I know that my perspective on this is very limited, because the only interactions I've had with cyclists on trails have been locally in the mountains around Ogden, Utah. Many -- perhaps even most -- of my encounters with bikes on trails have not been good ones. But that may be because the people riding on these trails are city folks. Many of the worst seem to be teenagers. Perhaps those who make the extra effort to travel to a national park would be different. Hopefully.

I guess what worries me most about bikes in national parks is the idea that somehow pressure is on to allow riding anywhere on any trail. I might be much more accepting of the idea if I could be assured that bike use would be carefully planned and regulated.


Absolutely, Lee. IMBA's philosophy is that mountain biking benefits from good management. Many trails and park areas are not suitable for mountain bike access. But there are also lots of great opportunities to add our activity to national parks. With good planning, trail design, signage and all the other strategies that IMBA has become well versed in when it comes to shared-use recreation I know that mountain biking can (and does) make a good addition to NPS properties.


Thanks for the thought-provoking piece. Like many, my first reaction is I don't want mountain bikes on the trails in my favorite National Park - the Smokies. I can see them in some other parks, but not "in my backyard." After all, the Smokies are surrounded by National Forests with ample mountain biking opportunities, right? Then I paused to consider the many individaul trails in the Smokies. Many of them allow horses, so why not bikes? Several trails are old roadbeds that are wide enough for both hikers and bikers. Maybe there is room for compromise after all. I'll try to keep an open mind on the topic from now on.


Volknitter — so gratifying to read your comment! With a considered, reasonable approach I'm hopeful we can find a path (preferably singletrack) forward.


Like Lee, many (most?) of my interactions with bicycles in multi-use areas have been negative. And I'm not talking about whether they disturbed my commune with nature - a purely subjective view that would be irrelevant to this argument. I label them as negative because I feel like if I hadn't been at peak attentiveness my saftey would be compromised. Getting nearly impacted (or in two cases, actually impacted) isn't fun. In fairness, I don't encounter the fat tire corwd much. It's suburban and near-rural trails where I encounter problems, which has, possibly unfairly, colored my opinion of whether I want to see a bike on a National Park trail.

The funny thing is, I have some friends who are avid cyclists (of the road variety) who tell horror stories about vehicles that are akin to my complaints about bikes. "Don't they realize they're driving/riding a fast, heavy piece of equipment that could smash a bike/person?" My cycling friends will also tell me the reckless riders I encounter aren't true cyclists but just yahoos (my euphemism for the word they really use) who shouldn't be on bikes. Well, that's fine, but there seem to be an awful lot of yahoos out there.

I'm sure I'd have a positive interaction with any IMBA members on the trail. But how many of the bikes I'd encounter on any given NPS trail would be said responsible folk? I guess my concern isn't with the mountain bikers that I see debating here on the Traveler, it's with the ones who aren't. I understand why the IMBA feels maligned and marginalized in this crowd. I've experienced the same with some of my hobbies. I just don't enter the discussion anymore in the same way I don't complain about crazed bike-riders to my cycling friends. "Those aren't real cyclists" doesn't keep me from feeling unsafe. Stopping reckless behavior will.

Mark, I have read your reply to Lee:

"With good planning, trail design, signage and all the other strategies that IMBA has become well versed in when it comes to shared-use recreation I know that mountain biking can (and does) make a good addition to NPS properties."

Call me cynical (really, everyone does...it's ok), but I don't think this accounts for the self-centered and reckless nature of many humans. Do people really think signs apply to them? Let's just say I have a lot of faith in the IMBA's intentions and abilities, but little in Joe Q. Public. The fact that Kurt gave you this space and you took the time to stand in the lion's den does go a long way toward making me feel guilty for not having a more open mind, though. In the long run there are much worse things that can happen to the parks than mountain bikes. When the next President wants to sell parcels of national parks for mineral extraction, we'll be squarely on the same side, I think.

Thanks for taking the time to write this column. For what it's worth, my imaginary vote on this issue has gone from "no" to "present".


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