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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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Boy, are you going to get letters on this one!

I am a "mountain biker" and that is in quotes because I avoid mountain biking areas and other mountain bikers. I ride for exercise and cross training. I hate downhill, and I avoid downhill riders who seem to think that yelling "clear!" is the signal to bomb straight down, no matter who or what is in the way, notwithstanding that UPHILL riders have the right of way. In popular areas I have watched trails degrade because these downhillers want to go downhill: not along switchbacks. They forge their own trails, which are then understandably adopted by the next rider, who has no way of knowing it is an illegal user trail.

As a cautious rider (I am old enough that any injury will keep me off the trails for a good long time) I am summarily ordered out of the way by faster riders. "On your left!". Zoom.

As outlined in the article, the majority of mountain bike riders may or may not be thrill seekers who force other users off the trail, impact wildlife, and never heard of Leave No Trace, but looking at websites and the photos in Mountain Biking magazines, advertisers at least emphasize the thrill set. I have politely asked riders who skid on corners for a dramatic, fast turn (and a degraded trail) please to slow down to help preserve the trail and have been cursed at for my trouble.

I live and work in a National Park which is administered as a Wilderness. People constantly ask me if they are allowed to mountain bike, bungie jump, or para-glide. Why isn't there a zip line? My answer is that this is a National Park: not a thrill park. Las Vegas is four hours away: try there.

Canyon Fossil's comments reflect my experiences almost exactly. Through the years of being literally run off trails by more than just a few careening bikers, I have developed a very strong distaste for the sport in general -- even though I know full well that the individuals I've encountered may be a small percentage of the overall population of bikers.

And as Roger points out, there are generally thousands of acres and miles of land adjacent to national parks where bikes are encouraged. The need to preserve unimpaired paramount and should never, under any circumstance, be diluted in any way.

Same old tired argument, there are other trails nearby, so leave us alone. Put another way, we members of the HOHA (hateful old hiker association) love our parks to ourselves, and really really don't want to share with the newcomers. So, instead of debating rationally, we are going to wax poetic about how cyclists are just a bunch of dangerous thrill seekers. It's rather pathetic.

Roger would rather hike to look at the pretty flowers than ride a bike, and frankly Roger wants everybody else to do exactly the same when going to the national parks. Because, the only pure and correct way to enjoy the parks is to follow Roger's lead, because Roger knows best what's good for everybody else. :) :) :)

The White Rim is boring because it is nothing more than a 100 mile fireroad. I'm pretty sure that the visuals are off the chart, but then again I'd much rather do the 8 mile ride on rocky/loamy single track in the mountain that I just finished an hour ago in the Sierras than spend hours riding on a fire road.

I would like to point out another flaw in Roger's reasoning. It's one we see all the time. It's the boogeyman about how the deep pocketed bike industry is getting its way and forcing Washington to open the parks to those pesky mountain bikers. This is so easy to debunk. IMBA's budget is probably a few million bucks a year. Compare that to the Sierra Club (chief HOHA) and other various so called environmentalist groups whose budget dwarf IMBA. Or compare that the commercial equestrian outfits that manage, in only a few months, to get Congress to overrule the NPS. Meanwhile, for all its might, the biking industry keeps on losing the Wilderness access debate, year after year.

I just got home from an awesome downhill mountain bike ride. I haven't even showered yet. The trail I rode is in the Moab, UT area and attracts thousands of mountain bikers every year. There is every kind of challenge on the trail from extreme slaloms to nearly impossibe climbs and unbelievably steep slickrock that can actually be ridden on a bike. And that's what the trail is all about: the ride. And that's what most mountain biking is about. But national parks are about scenery, wildlife, geology, history, pre-history, lakes, glaciers, rivers, etc., etc. There are plenty of places to get thrills mountain biking, and national parks shouldn't be on the list. And if you wanted to talk about hikers sharing trails with mountain bikers, talk to my wife. She doesn't much like being told to clear out of the way for some testerone poisoned biker.

Roger is right. Put mountain bike trails somewhere else.

Bill Foreman, Moab, UT

I have a few questions to ask Roger, if he would be amenable to helping me to understand his perspective. Here they are:

1. You propose that mountain biking is too problematic for the national parks but suitable for nearby state parks. If mountain biking is too problematic in the one, why should it be allowed in the other?

2. You refer to the mountain biking "industry" as a large and influential presence and state that "[t]here is a lot of money to be made by the industries supporting bringing mountain bikers to the parks." Can you point to any empirical evidence for these propositions?

3. If the purpose of the Organic Act is to keep the national parks unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations, why should people be allowed in them at all?

4. You mention, I think accurately, that "[t]he NPS . . . encourages activities that allow the appreciation of the natural features, including the scenery at a leisurely pace." Why is it bad for it to experiment with activities that are more energetic and challenging but still environmentally benign?

5. Do you believe that the fact that these debates appear so regularly on NPT and a thousand other websites is evidence that mountain biking is not going away, just as cell phones, abortion, contraception, China, marijuana, raw milk, accessible pornography, the Internet, racially mixed and same-sex marriages, nuclear power, inexpensive air travel, school integration, the shift from manufacturing to knowlege-based employment, freer trade, and globalization are not going away no matter that some people wish them to, and thus it's inevitable that federal agencies will adopt more generous policies toward mountain biking despite the rearguard battle now being fought?

6. Do you think that hiking alone has a sufficiently broad constituency to ensure political support for wildland preservation? If yes, what would be your guess about:

(a) The average member's age in the Sierra Club, PEER, the Wilderness Society, Wilderness Watch, the Pacific Crest Trail Association, and like-minded groups?

(b) The percentage of members of the Sierra Club, PEER, the Wilderness Society, Wilderness Watch, the Pacific Crest Trail Association, and like-minded groups who are over age 65?

(c) The absolute numbers and percentages of people under the following ages who are interested in the mission of the the Sierra Club, PEER, the Wilderness Society, Wilderness Watch, the Pacific Crest Trail Association, and like-minded groups:

(i) 40

(ii) 45

(iii) 50

(iv) 55

(v) 60

(vi) 70?

(d) The absolute number and percentage of kids who are interested in hiking?

7. Do you view the demise of the rather anti-bicycle Continental Divide Trail Association as an ominous portent of demographic trends?

8. Does this debate take place in countries other than the United States? If so, which ones? If not, why is the United States unique in having it?

9. Since you imply that mountain biking has salutary aspects but note, I think reasonably, that it has a social impact greater than zero, what would be your suggestion on managing it in the national park system?

10. Do you think that the overall utility to society of other things like automobile ownership should be measured by the "thrills and spills" that are a staple of automobile advertising?

11. You refer to "the recreation industry['s] . . . increasing clout in the current political climate."

(a) What is it about the current political climate that gives it the increasing influence you allege?

(b) If there is such a trend, is the National Park Service not wise and prescient to adapt to activities like mountain biking that seem to be rising in popularity?

(c) If it is wise to do so, why is the trail in Big Bend National Park not a good place to start, and what would be wrong with IMBA's helping the National Park Service to "build a stronger constituency for opening up single-track hiking trails in the National Park System to mountain bikes"?

Thank you.

Though I'm getting on in years and may already be a hate-filled curmudgeon, I do enjoy biking. In fact, my son and I biked this morning for a couple hours in a regional park (mix of paved and dirt). Out here on the prairie, we don't get to do high-thrill downhills. We pedal. We say "good morning" to the hikers and joggers and they say "good morning" back. We also use cute little bells to warn people we're coming. And we don't seem to have user conflicts.

I'm a hiker first, but I don't mind bikes. I do mind *some* bikers. This issue is a conflict between users -- bikers don't have unlimited rights, and shouldn't, if their actions infringe on the rights of others. The downhillers seem to infringe the most. The proposed Big Bend trail isn't congenial for the offenders, so I don't think we'll see them there and any conflicts will be minor. (So will use, I expect.)

Bikers get an angry response on NPT and other sites because many hikers have stories of rude bikers infringing on their rights. Too many rude bikers, and too many stories.

Maybe there are stories of rude hikers yelling "clear." Or rude hikers who stand their ground and force bikers off the trail and off a cliff. I haven't heard those stories.

When the biking advocates manage to convey respect for other users, I think they'll get more respect back.

It's worth a try, guys.

I would be glad to respond to some of imtnbks questions. But he also knows I can't answer most of them, and doubt anyone can without nationwide surveys. But before I try to answer them I think his bio should include more info on his interest in the issue. Is he a paid member of IMBA or some other mountain biking group. Does he have a financial interest in mountain biking?

Roger Siglin

Thank you, Bill Foreman. You summed it all up very well.

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