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Hikers, Bikers and National Parks


Cyclists have great riding opportunities on the White Rim Trail in Canyonlands National Park. NPS photo.

How big is the deal surrounding efforts pushed by the International Mountain Bicycling Association to expand mountain biking in the National Park System? Apparently the American Hiking Society thinks it's pretty big.

The hiking society recently issued an "action alert" to its members asking them to oppose an anticipated rule change that would make it easier for national park superintendents to allow and expand mountain biking in their parks. Of concern to the society was the prospect that the rule change could loosen environmental oversight of mountain bike decisions in the parks, possibly open wilderness to bike trails, and provide little public opportunity to comment on bike trail decisions.

That alert quickly attracted IMBA's attention, and the bikers quickly responded with an article aimed at soothing the hiking society's concerns.

“Unfortunately, the alert has rippled through the hiking community, causing consternation and confusion amongst the shared-use trails community," IMBA said in a recent release. "Some hiking-based groups have expressed concern that mountain biking will infringe on foot travel, but IMBA remains confident that shared-use trails can succeed in national parks, as they do in countless public land settings around the globe.”

Now, IMBA officials have also said they are not interested in seeing mountain bike trails threading through officially designated wilderness in parks. And yet....while IMBA spokesman Mark Eller told the Traveler in mid-October that his organization was not planning to lobby for a change in the current wording that prohibits "mechanized" vehicles into officially designated wilderness in favor of one that would bar "motorized" vehicles, something a bike definitely is not, IMBA in mid-November applauded U.S. Forest Service "steps" to do just that.

"Mountain biking is incredibly popular in national forests and we believe it's appropriate to clarify the distinction between mountain biking and motorized use. Better policies will foster improved partnerships and riding experiences," IMBA Executive Director Mike Van Abel said November 11. "We're extremely pleased the Forest Service is taking these steps to formally recognize bicycling as low-impact and human-powered. Embedding this information in their employee handbooks will promote better understanding and practices in all 175 national forests and grasslands."

Now, if the Forest Service goes ahead with this wording change, how long do you think it will be before IMBA starts lobbying the National Park Service to follow suit?

As to the current issue focused on the National Park System, IMBA says it wants the Park Service to change its regulatory ladder for authorizing bike trails so as to simplify the administrative process for park superintendents who see cycling opportunities in their parks. Currently, changes can take more than a year to implement, says IMBA.

But that's not exactly the case, according to Frank Buono, a former NPS manager. He says the proposed rule will not improve the administrative process, but rather seriously weaken the currently regulations.

"The proposal will not return control to local managers any more than the existing process. Under the current bicycle regulations, the decision is made locally. A park wanting to permit bicycles on backcountry trails makes its own decision and then undertakes a special rule-making," says Mr. Buono. "The special rule-making (at 36 CFR Part 7) is not a 'multi-year process.' Saguaro National Park did it a few years ago in a single year. The special rule-making ensures a heightened level of public and agency scrutiny that will be missing if the special rule requirement is eliminated."

That said, Mr. Buono maintains that the changes IMBA would like to see would make it 'easier' for IMBA and its local affiliates to have a park manager designate backcountry trails as open to mountain bikes."

"The manager would then simply enter a notation into the park's annual compendium that designate which trails, if any, are open to bikes. The compendium is available to the public, and is announced only in local newspapers, BUT is not announced as open for public comment at all, let alone in the Federal Register," he adds. "IMBA insists that NEPA review would still occur. In truth, NEPA review may or may not. It depends on the diligence of the manager. We know for certain that the NPS does not perform NEPA for Compendia generally. And there is always the dreaded 'categorical exclusion.'"

Mr. Buono, who now works for Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, says the cycling group is correct when it points out that in cases of "significant controversy" the Park Service would still have to undergo the special rule-making process with all its public scrutiny. However, he says park managers might decide that a biking trail designation is not highly controversial and so no special rule-making is necessary.

"After all, the IMBA proposal is aimed at eliminating the special rule-making process (the so-called 'multi-year' bureaucratic nightmare),'" he says. "Under the present regulation - every designation of a trail in the backcountry MUST undergo the public process of a special rule-making. That is the process adopted by the NPS in 1986 and it is the process that affords maximum protection to the parks, their resources and their enjoyment.

"...The present rule does not preclude bikes in the backcountry, it ensures a slower and more deliberate process," he says. "The present rule helps ensure that errors are not made, e.g. inadvertent designation of bikes on backcountry trails in the 12 million acres of recommended and proposed wilderness in the 27 parks where Congress has yet to designate wilderness."

All that said, PEER recognizes bikes as serving a legitimate park use and mode of transport. "They are generally permitted on park roads, parking areas, and trails within the developed zones of parks," notes Mr. Buono. "Several parks permit bikes on backcountry trails under special rule."

However, he points out that "several parks today permit bikes on trails in backcountry in open violation of the existing rules, largely because they have been petitioned by IMBA to allow bikes on trails. IMBA cites these parsk as stellar examples - among them, for example, Big South Fork and Mammoth Cave.

"Not even the NPS Washington Office has a complete list of the parks that are now violating the current rule. How is the public supposed to learn of such designations? Has NEPA been done for all of them? Did any of those parks decide that high controversy compels them to conduct a special rulemaking?" he wonders. "For the latter question, the answer is a flat 'NO.' Yet, these parks serve as the model of what IMBA seeks to implement for the entire National Park System."


I am still going to stand on the platform that thinks that it is time for the National Parks to offer mountain bike trails. I have been hiking on numerous BLM trails, National Forest trails, state park trails that are shared use with moutian bikers and have personally seen that it works -and I am never the one of the bike! It's time, ladies and gentleman.

The NPS should not allow bikes on trails within the national parks. There are so many places that mountain bikers can ride, we do not need to open up the parks to bikes as well. There need to be some places that we can go for slow, contemplative travel on foot, and bikes definitely destroy the experience for hikers. Not only that, bikes cause massive erosion and scare wildlife.

What no one seems to mention is that when bikes are banned, it does not mean that bikers are banned. They are still welcome to travel on foot with the rest of us.

This may not be good for hikers with exclusionary tendencies - - but it IS good for the NPS and the promotion of healthy alternatives to motorized recreation. Expanded appreciation for what the NPS can offer to legitimate trail users, such as hikers, bikers, and equestrians, can only improve the overall NPS mission.

Give the IMBA an open mile into the National Parks they will bring down an mountain with time.

Thanks Marylander and Scott for such reasonable and well worded responses to this story.

I was dismayed at the American Hiking Society's reactionary stance on this issue, and frankly, as much as I love trails, I may not continue my membership due to the AHS's unwarranted and dogmatic position regarding mountain biking in national parks.

This bizarre fear of bicycles in parks reminds me of the horrified response some people have to gay marriage. Reee-lax! So, cats and dogs might start living together. We'll survive it. And so will the slickrock in Arches.

Oh, boy. Here we go again...

The NPS should not allow bikes on trails within the national parks. There are so many places that mountain bikers can ride, we do not need to open up the parks to bikes as well. There need to be some places that we can go for slow, contemplative travel on foot, and bikes definitely destroy the experience for hikers. Not only that, bikes cause massive erosion and scare wildlife.
What no one seems to mention is that when bikes are banned, it does not mean that bikers are banned. They are still welcome to travel on foot with the rest of us.

Say what? Please note that these places are called "National Parks", and not "Pedestrian Parks". There are already many miles of places set aside for "slow, contemplative travel on foot". Why must other human-powered means of travel be denied? Where is the equality? What if hikers are destroying the experience for bikers? Why not have trails designated for single-purpose and multi-use, to give this balance?

Hikers also cause erosion and certainly scare wildlife, not matter how stealthy or careful you might think yourself. The same rationale that you use to demonize Mountain Biking, (to the end of banning it entirely within all the NPS units), could just as easily be applied to foot travel. Trail erosion, trashing the area, scaring wildilfe, loud sounds, illegally entering wilderness areas, etc. can all be attributed to human foot-bound travel. There are irresponsible hikers out there too, to be sure. Must we utilize the "Kindergarten" mentality, where the entire class in punished for the transgressions of a few individuals?

Watch out for what you choose to demonize. For one day, you just may find your favorite pasttime in the crosshairs of groups with the same closed-mindedness that you exhibit, taking your rights to your participate in favorite sport away.

Even hiking...

I'm pretty well resigned to the conclusion that IMBA and the Traveler are going to "agree to disagree" about the benefits of better policies for mountain biking in national parks, but I do want to make sure that we keep the facts straight.

IMBA applauded the USFS for recognizing the need to broadly manage recreation as motorized or non-motorized, and to recognize that bikes belong -- quite obviously -- in the second category. The topic of Wilderness was not addressed in the release that the Traveler cites.

Wilderness legislation frequently makes use of the term "mechanized." Although there are some obvious problems with that terminology -- namely that many types of mechanical devices are commonly used in Wilderness -- IMBA has no nefarious plan to unseat that language.

There are several other problems with the analysis of the proposed NPS rule making given above. But, as I said, at the end of the day there are simply going to be those who think that the national parks could benefit by adopting more shared-use trails with options for mountain biking, and those that see things otherwise. It's good to see that many in the Traveler's readership are willing to speak up for the value of responsibly broadening the park service's recreational offerings.

Ask any number of competent soil scientists what the soil rate of erosion would be if mountain biking were to be totally allowed in our national parks, and if the general consensus DOES show and prove that mountain biking is more harmful and damaging to the National Parks environment: Then would the IBMA be screaming afoul by the AHS. Probably so! I think it would be wise to have a complete and comprehensive soil impact analysis on all of our National Parks before allowing any mountain biking. If the soil scientist say:NO GO! Then what, another snowmobile fiasco, where pollution studies have shown that the fuming gas sleds do create a health hazard to the general Yellowstone environment. No!? I suppose sound science would get trumped again by greed and more of the same gross mismanagement by the NPS. I see the same original sin of greed (from potential biking outlet shops) occurring within our National Parks if the IMBA gets entrenched.

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