Rule Allowing Mountain Biking in National Parks No Big Deal

By Beacon Staff

Before I launch once more into the endless mountain biker vs. hiker controversy, I want to reaffirm that I’m still not a mountain biker. I commute around town on paved streets on my mountain bike, but it has never been on a trail.

Even though you could say I don’t have a dog in the fight, I have to ask, why do we have so much heartburn over the proposed rule to allow mountain biking on more trails in our national parks? Is this really worth the stress it creates?

Hikers and mountain bikers agree that they should be natural allies in wildland protection, but of course, this never happens unless hiking groups agree to something less than “big W” Wilderness – i.e. something that’s “bicycle friendly.” Witness the International Mountain Bike Association’s (IMBA) recent success in convincing California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to veto a bill that could have resulted in more Wilderness in several state parks.

Like the National Rifle Association in its success in stopping the erosion of gun rights, IMBA has been extremely effective in preventing new Wilderness bills from passing. I’ve already written au nauseam about that ongoing debate, but now we have a new wrinkle, the proposed Bush administration rule to give national park superintendents more authority to open up selected trails to mountain biking.

Hiking groups will oppose the rule when the administration officially releases it, but I say, for several reasons, they shouldn’t fret about it.

First, the rule won’t translate into a wholesale opening of national parks to mountain biking. It will only allow park managers to open selected trails on a case-by-case basis. In any scenario, the vast majority of trails and many parks in their entirety would remain off-limits to mountain biking.

Second, most if not all national parks with a significant mileage of hiking trails have most of the park designated as Wilderness under the Wilderness Act of 1964 or recommended by the National Park Service for Wilderness, which, in essence, gives the same level of protection. Even with this rule in place, park managers couldn’t open the vast majority of backcountry trails to bicycles unless Congress reversed the Wilderness designation, which has never happened, not once in the 44 years since the Wilderness Act passed.

Third, most trails that could be opened are so-called “frontcountry” routes that probably used to be roads i.e. not the cream of the crop for hikers.

Fourth, everybody seems concerned about the steady decline in national park visitation, so perhaps allowing mountain biking might help reverse the trend and greatly increase the constituency for supporting proper funding of our national parks – something mountain biking groups don’t really prioritize now because they can’t ride there.

Fifth, there are a lot of weak knees around nowadays, but still a lot of interest in staying healthy and fit. As the population gets older, baby boomers like yours truly and President Bush and his Trek “Mountain Bike One” (viola, we do have something in common) have turned to bicycling as a low-impact alternative to running and hiking.

Sixth, throwing this “bone” to mountain bikers might make collaboration on issues that really mater a lot easier. So, hiking groups, in lieu of opposition of silence, how about actually supporting the proposed rule?

I’m sure the rule will go into effect during the last lame-duck days of the administration (along with several other rules as is always the case; i.e. remember the Roadless Rule?). I’m also sure the rule will eventually result in more national park trails opened to mountain biking, but is this a social or environmental problem? Not for me.

I happen to live adjacent to a large city park that has heavy use from both hikers and mountain bikers. Are there conflicts? No. Do hikers hate seeing mountain bikers? No. Do mountain bikers create more erosion or environmental damage than other trail users? No. Do mountain bikers ride out of control and cause safety problems? No.

The same would be true in national parks.

It’s already true, incidentally, in a few parks like Canyonlands where mountain bikers peacefully coexist on some park trails, which are really old Jeep roads. A few years ago, I hiked every mile of trail in Canyonlands, often with mountain bikers on the same trail with zero conflict.

I’ve also hiked almost every mile of trail in Yellowstone National Park, and believe several frontcountry trails such as the route up Mount Washburn could be opened to mountain biking with no safety, social or environmental issues.

Last month, I wrote about the proposed rule to allow more guns and loaded guns in national parks. I said it wasn’t an issue worth our time and energy. Those of us concerned about the future of national parks, we have much bigger fish to fry. The proposed rule to loosen up the authority to allow more mountain biking is exactly the same deal – or I should say, the same no-big-deal.