Mountain Biking is Not a Crime|
Monday, March 27, 2006
Have you ever dreamed of ripping down some singletrack in the Grand Canyon? Wish you could go off-road on your bike in Yosemite? Canít understand why people can drive their gas-guzzling SUVs into a National Park, get out at a vista point, look around and then drive away, while you, on two tires and propelled by your own momentum, are verboten?
The issue of mountain biking in National Parks is not nearly as black and white as it all sounds, but distill it down to the basics and thatís how it feels. Much of the ban on bikes in National Parks has to do with the Wilderness Act of 1964, which states that bikes, among other "mechanized" modes of transport, are not allowed on lands designated "Wilderness." The act was designed to offer maximum protection to the land. The National Park Service currently manages 84 million acres of public land, more than half of which are designated Wilderness Areas, meaning much National Park Land is completely off-limits to mountain bikers.
But what about the other 40 million acres? Last May, the International Mountain Biking Association (IMBA) signed a five-year agreement with the National Park Service (NPS) to make mountain biking more accessible on non-Wilderness lands within the Park system. Some National Parks already allow mountain biking on some dirt trails, including Mammoth Caves National Park in Kentucky, Redwoods National Park in California and Hawaiíi Volcanoes National Park. The IMBA/NPS partnership is relatively simple and complimentary. IMBAís goal it to create and maintain mountain bike access throughout the world. The National Park Service was created to manage lands and preserve them for the public. But pollution caused by drive-through visitors is having significant negative effects on the Parks. Promoting biking is a great way to get visitors out of their vehicles. Through the agreement, IMBA will work with Park managers on a park-by-park, case-by-case basis, identifying potential trails to open to mountain bikers. When a site is deemed mutually beneficial it then has to undergo a rigorous environmental evaluation to assess the potential impact of opening the trails to riders. IMBA will provide NPS with technical and volunteer assistance, taking advantage of already established and successful IMBA programs like National Mountain Bike Patrol, which assists and educates trail users to maintain safe trails, and Subaru/IMBA Trail Care Crews, which travel around the country leading trailwork sessions.
Three pilot programs are planned for 2006: D.C.ís Fort Dupont National Park, Big Bend National Park in Texas and Cuyahoga Valley National Park in Ohio. Jeff Renfrow of the Big Bend Trails Alliance, which is working with land managers at Big Bend National Park says that there is no definite timeline when and if trails at the Park will open, but that the process is underway. Land managers there plan to launch a National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) evaluation to assess potential affects of mountain biking on the trails in late this spring or early summer. Renfrow says "The N.E.P.A. process is about stripping away the emotion and focusing on facts when evaluating the suitability of a mountain bike trail in Big Bend National Park." During and after the NEPA process, there will be room for public comment on the matter. The evaluation process is long, though, so it may be more than a year before a decision regarding biking at the Park can be made.
Fort Dupont already has eight miles of trail open to mountain bikers, but they are need of repair to make them environmentally sound. Dan Hudson of Mid-Atlantic Off-Road Enthusiasts (MORE) says, "The Fort Circle Trail is a great resource for trail users on the east side of town. There are segments where erosion has become a concern. MORE is excited to help repair and protect this valuable resource." Work is already scheduled to commence this spring.
The Cayahoga Valley project is probably the most tenuous of the three. Bill Carroll, deputy park superintendent told the Plain Dealer that Park officials want to investigate whether itís possible to build new trails for mountain bikes or add mountain bike riders to existing hiking and horse trails as part of the parkís trail master plan. The problem is the lack of money. Carroll said the park has requested $165,000 over two years to update the master plan. If the request is not approved, the plan cannot move forward.
Even if these pilot projects are ultimately successful, both organizations will still have to overcome opposition to mountain biking in National Parks. Not long after IMBA sent out their press release announcing the NPS agreement, environmental groups like Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) and the Wilderness Society were up in arms. Their concern? That the agreement with NPS puts Wilderness areas in jeapardy. In a letter to the Director of the National Park Service, PEERís Executive Director Jeff Ruch and The Wilderness Societyís Deputy General Counsel Leslie Jones voice their concerns, particularly that the language in the IMBA/NPS agreement does not clearly protect current, recommended or proposed Wilderness areas. They believe that allowing bicycling within parks would "perversely create a constituency of users that would likely seek to prevent eventual wilderness designation. For a park to establish bicycle use on former roads or on trails within recommended or proposed wilderness, a use that would be immediately halted upon eventual designation, violates common sense."
While a careful reading of the IMBA/NPS agreement doesnít seem to support the environmental groupsí concerns--land managers have the ultimate say in which trails and roads are open to mountain bikes and IMBA has stated that it is not trying to reverse any Wilderness designations--the PEER/Wilderness Society concerns are not entirely unfounded. IMBAís ultimate goal is to protect mountain bike access. Wilderness designation, as it currently stands, prevents that access. So IMBA seeks alternatives to Wilderness designation that still offer environmental protection to lands. They propose National Recreation Areas, National Conservation Areas and National Scenic Areas. When mountain biking trails arenít part of the mix, IMBA supports Wilderness designation. The organization isnít against land protection, but doesnít feel the timing is right to take on the Wilderness Act as a whole. Instead, "we act as good faith negotiators," says Mark Eller, IMBAís communications director, "protecting more access by offering alternatives. Our stance is more nuanced, but more successful."
So whatís the deal? Why is mountain biking demonized? There have been very few impact studies to determine the level of environmental damage that mountain biking causes on new or established trails. But itís a commonly accepted belief that mountain biking causes more damage to trails than hiking or equestrian use, yet there isnít scientific data to support such claims. In fact, recent studies, including one by the United States Department of the Interior "Assessing and Understanding Trail Degradation" states, "Thurstan and Reader (2001) found no significant differences between the vegetation and soil impacts from hiking and mountain biking, though they speculated that behavioral differences between the two groups could contribute to the belief that mountain biking has led to trail degradation problems."
Still the opposition to mountain biking continues. What it really all may come down to, then, is a matter of image. Like oft-maligned skateboarding, mountain bikers have earned a bit of a reputation as inconsiderate of other trail users. Changing that image, supporting trail care crews in your area and encouraging more research and compromise mean better access. With a little work and community support, there may come a day when a ride in the wood might just include your favorite National Park.