Mammoth Cave National Park opens trails to mountain bikers|
Gary Sprung - IMBA
Thursday, August 19, 1999
The National Park Service went one step further in welcoming bikes on trails when Mammoth Cave National Park (Kentucky) inked an agreement this year with the Bowling Green League of Bicyclists to open 12 miles of trails. The park will evaluate the effects of bicycling on the narrow, overgrown roadbeds during the course of a two-year trial.
Mammoth Cave National Park (MCNP) occupies 60,000-acres of former farmland in south central Kentucky. While the main attraction may be below ground at 350 miles in length, it's the world's largest cave the park offers good recreational opportunities on 70 miles of trail.
Most of the park's trails were once narrow, unpaved roads built early this century to provide automobile access to farms and small communities. During the 1920s and 1930s, a private association and the state government acquired 600 farms and Congress opened the National Park in 1941. With park status, the roads became unnecessary. Thick, Eastern hardwood forests have been reclaiming the routes and fields.
National Parks in the United States allow bicycling on paved and some dirt roads, but prohibit bicycling on narrow trails unless a park superintendent creates a special regulation. In March, MCNP Superintendent Ronald Switzer and Jeff Rose, president of the Bowling Green League, agreed to try the experimental trail opening. Their objectives include improvement of the trails, education in appropriate use of bicycles, and demonstration of "exemplary sustainable conservation practices in bikeway use and maintenance."
The project maneuvered through potential bureaucratic obstacles with relative ease. Vicki Carson, MCNP information officer, explained that an environmental assessment was not required, "because we're using a disturbed area. We weren't creating new trails... This agreement where
[cyclists] will bring in crews to work on the trails is wonderful. It's more than we could do ourselves."
Park managers seem confident that the bicycling project will succeed. Project coordinator Henry Holman commented, "The work they do I think helps their credibility not only with the park, but also with other trail users." He will work with the Bowling Green League to reroute certain sections that are too steep, and to perform maintenance.
Holman expects little user conflict, but said that is the main issue at hand. "Mountain bike use is a relatively new issue for the National Park Service," he explained. "There has been a lot of opposition from other user groups. I think that's the primary issue that we end up dealing with. Our Science and Resource Management Division is monitoring the trail and the number of users. Over a couple years we will develop site specific information that will allow us to assess whether we have an acceptable level of conflicts or an unacceptable level.
We've opened the trails for a trial period of at least a couple years and we'll see what the effects really are. After that, we'll be in a position to make decisions about the future, not only for the trails now open, but potentially others." Holman continued, "What I have found through reading is most conflicts are not physical where somebody is forced off the trail or a horse is scared. Most are goal conflicts.... People have very dearly held opinions about what the parks are for and what the trails ought to be like and who ought to be there and what they ought to be doing. Mountain biking is facing an uphill battle about what is suitable use of trails. It's now become generally accepted that horses have more impact on trail tread than bicycles, yet horses are accepted because it's a traditional use. Mountain biking is not a traditional use, so this will be a continuing process.
"I think that in the future, bicycling will be more accepted in parks," Holman continued. "I've worked for Park Service for over 25 years and I think I've seen a progression in attitudes about trails. In most parks we have more users and more user types. We're having to do more trail maintenance with less money. So when we fix a section of trail, we have to fix it right to last a long time. We're paying more attention to the physical structure of trails.
"The real key to sustainability of trails is where you put them. It's not the use on the trail that is the primary cause of environmental problems. It's how trails are laid out. The evidence of that is pretty clear. On trails all over the country some segments are perfectly fine and other segments have problems, yet both segments received the
same use," he said.
"In the end, we will have better trails and that means all the users will be better satisfied with their visit to the park. When a trail is in good condition and you avoid the places that create these environmental problems, then you've eliminated some portion of the problems that people see as inappropriate from other user groups," Holman concluded.