Washington, DC — The Bush administration is considering a plan that potentially opens up millions of acres of national park backcountry to mountain bikes, according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). This Thursday, June 19th, National Park Service (NPS) Director Mary Bomar will address the convention of the International Mountain Bicycling Association (IMBA), amidst its lobbying campaign to loosen restrictions on bike access to park backcountry.
Currently, the 84-million acre national park system remains largely closed to mountain bikes on trails. With so much land at stake, IMBA is intensifying its effort to repeal NPS regulations governing bicycles on trails. Today, bicycles are already allowed on park roads, dirt or paved, as well as on trails in developed areas, such as the South Rim Village at the Grand Canyon. This battle is about bicycles on backcountry trails, now used by hikers and horseback riders.
IMBA began its effort to open up national parks trails in 2002. By March 2005, IMBA had a signed General Agreement with the NPS. Apparently unsatisfied with the results of that agreement, IMBA is now asking the Department of the Interior to direct the NPS to repeal regulations limiting mountain bikes to trails only after an individual park follows a specific decision-making process. This process entails notice of a proposed regulation in the Federal Register and publication of a special federal regulation.
When adopting this regulation back in 1987, the NPS wanted increased scrutiny to avoid potential visitor use conflicts and damage to park resources. IMBA argues that this special rulemaking process is time-consuming and burdensome. Instead, IMBA urges that each park may designate trails open to mountain bikes by merely making a written notation in the park’s annual list of designations. IMBA believes that the NPS should not differ from the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management, which IMBA states “allows all non-Wilderness trails to be open unless designated closed.”
“The rationale for special rulemaking for bikes on national park trails of minimizing conflicts and protecting park resources remains as valid today as in 1987,” states PEER Board Member Frank Buono, a long-time former NPS manager, noting that national parks have the highest level of statutory protection of any national system and are not managed for consistency with the national forests or BLM’s unreserved lands. “These rules ensure a thoughtful, consistent review before opening trails to mountain bicycles.”
This Thursday morning, NPS Director Mary Bomar will give a keynote address at IMBA’s 2008 “World Summit” in Park City, Utah. In its news release, IMBA predicts the speech will outline further steps “to consider new opportunities for mountain bicycling on NPS-managed lands”.
While PEER does not oppose bicycles on all trails, it does oppose 1) repeal of the regulations that require a deliberative process for designating such use; 2) constructing new trails that resemble BMX courses, specifically for mountain bikers (as is proposed at Big Bend National Park in Texas); and 3) any weakening of Wilderness Act protections. Approximately half of the national park system is designated wilderness, with additional tens of million of acres recommended or proposed as wilderness. In October 2005, PEER obtained assurance from then-NPS Director Fran Mainella that the Park Service agreement with IMBA would not infringe on any wilderness protections.
“This is not about getting people out of their cars – anything that encourages visitors to get out of their cars in congested park areas is great. But cars do not drive on hiking trails. Bicycles on hiking trails in the backcountry are not an alternative form of transport that gets people ‘out of their cars’ since cars would not be there anyway. Bikes on trails simply establish a new use and do not replace existing motorized use,” Buono added. “We will be listening closely to Director Bomar’s remarks to IMBA.”