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


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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Ultimately, permissible activities have to be decided on their own merits, and how they comply with the parks stated goals.

I think Segways on NPS trails would be fine in principle, for the reason Kurt mentions: i.e., they are quite low-impact. Low social impact, low environmental impact. So why not? If they make a trail too popular, then you limit access by daily permit. Might save a bunch of knee joints.

I hear you Zeb, but you know how that slippery that slope can be...;-) I'm sure an argument can be made that Segways make no more, and possibly less, impact than a bike, so why not?

Kurt, I'm only talking human powered contraption here. :)

Responding to Ed A and others — I stay away from the national parks. They come across to me as overpoliced, overregulated, overcontrolled. Gun-toting rangers, magistrates and jails, no-parking signs, tow-away zones, $20 entrance fees, and concessionaires with airport prices or higher for food, drink, and (sometimes run-down) lodging. Not to mention the honky-tonk towns and settlements that spring up on their outskirts. The whole scene is to be avoided, and one can only hope that no more national parks are created in any areas with wildlands worth visiting, lest they be ruined.

Even remote Big Basin National Park, where I climbed Wheeler Peak (13063') in 2010, is swarming with federal employees driving around in big pickup trucks. It's bureaucracy run amok. I preferred the area when it was the modest Lehman Caves National Monument.

I bet it's not fun to work for such a regulatory octopus either if you have much of an independent spirit. Didn't this site have an article on that topic recently?

So, given that that is the big picture as far as I'm concerned, the notion that the parks will be impaired or somehow diminished by letting an individual superintendent decide that a bicycle may be ridden on some remote trail somewhere seems laughable. How is someone sitting at a desk in Washington who last rode a Schwinn in 1964 going to be able to decide this issue?

So if IMBA has worked to ease the staggeringly bureaucratic process regarding trail access—I don't know if it has or not—then more power to it.

Zeb, what about Segways? Get a motorized version with heavy off-road tires that can handle multiple-use trails. Would those be OK. No pollution. No increased footprint. Akin to hiking like the Jetsons!

Enjoy the road less traveled with the Segway x2. It's rugged, tough, and designed to take you places.

With the x2, you can chart your own course. Its innovative design moves you over a variety of terrain, be it the grass in your backyard or the gravel and dirt in your favorite off road spot. Deeply treaded tires, scratch resistant fenders and higher ground clearance give you a smooth, stable ride, and the durability you've come to expect from Segway. And with the unmatched performance of Segway's LeanSteer technology, your body will anticipate and conquer the trail ahead.

Ron, I don't buy the slippery slope argument. Adding bike riding, which is really akin to hiking on a bike, is congruent with the park's objectives.

Other activities should be judged on their own merits. And frankly, there is no link between hunting and cycling (unless of course you carry your firearm on your handlebars...).

Zebulon makes a valid point, the NEPA rule making process can appear to be a never ending process. Unfortunately it sometimes is used to make a predetermined decision and that can complicate things. The attorneys on this website can correct me if I am wrong, I am certainly no expert, but basically, all the agencies are required to do is correctly complete the rule making process, once that is completed, the agency can make the final decision. Citizens can only litigate on process. The agency must comply with law and policy however. My objection to opening National Park trails to "trail bikes" is based on the issue of introducing a new recreational activity that currently is not allowed. The pressure on our park managers to expand visitor uses of parks is enormous, from trail bikes, to dogs, to hunting, to carrying firearms, permitting marathon runs, well the list is quite lengthly. I can remember once a gentleman who requested a permit to ride an elephant from Devils Postpile to Tuolumne Meadows. Another citizen had a pet mountain lion. Could go on and on. I have nothing against mountain bikes, I just do not think we should add another level of recreational activity to already high visitor use levels on the National Park trails. National Parks are the most protected of our public lands, they simply cannot maintain this status and still accommodate all the citizens and their recreational choices at the same time.

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