Washington, DC — A recent agreement between the National Park Service and mountain biking interests may inadvertently throw millions of acres of proposed wilderness open to bike trails, according to a letter released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). The Wilderness Society and PEER are asking the NPS Director to clarify that wild lands eligible for wilderness designation are off-limits to bike trails.
On April 21, 2005, NPS Director Fran Mainella announced a “General Agreement” between her agency and the International Mountain Biking Association (IMBA). While in some respects that agreement is an improvement over the haphazard way that some parks allowed bicycle use on park trails, the agreement makes no provision to protect millions of acres of park backcountry that is recommended or proposed as wilderness. Already, mountain bicycle groups have proposed a new 25-mile trail through recommended wilderness in Voyageurs National Park.
During the past 15 years, the President has recommended that Congress designate more than 5.5 million acres as wilderness across nineteen parks. Outside of Alaska, the NPS or the Secretary of Interior has proposed more than 2.5 million acres be designated wilderness in nine parks.
“By this oversight, the Director of the National Park Service throws into question the undisturbed quality and serenity of vast tracts within 28 national parks,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, noting that bicycle trail designation on lands proposed or recommended as wilderness would create a constituency that would likely seek to prevent wilderness designation. “In the name of partnership, the Park Service may actually be prescribing a formula for bitter conflict and recrimination.”
Unless the agreement is clarified, if a park established bicycle use within recommended or proposed wilderness, that use would be immediately halted only if the land was eventually designated as wilderness by Congress. The Wilderness Society and PEER are asking NPS Director Mainella to inform the regional office and parks that recommended and proposed wilderness lands are off-limits to bicycle trail designations under the NPS-IMBA agreement.
By contrast to the confusion about proposed wilderness, the agreement did clarify that parks may allow bicycles on “administrative roads” outside of developed zones in parks without publishing a special regulation. Administrative roads are roads in parks that are closed to public motor vehicle use but routinely used by NPS vehicles for administrative purposes. NPS must still comply with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), however, and accept public comments prior to designating administrative roads outside of developed areas as open to bicycle use.
“Of course, anything that encourages visitors to get out of their cars in congested and developed park areas is great but bicycle use on park trails is not about getting visitors out of cars – cars do not operate on hiking trails,” Ruch added. “This is about allowing mechanical transportation on backcountry trails that are now open only to foot or horse.”