Washington, DC — Big Bend National Park has begun clearing a trail for high-speed, one direction mountain bicycle racing and did so before it belatedly posted any public notice. The Park’s “Finding of No Significant Impact” is drawing protest from both local groups, such as Our Texas Wild, and national organizations, such as Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).
Most of the backcountry trail would be single-track – approximately the width of a bike – with one-way traffic moving counter clockwise. This would be the first trail constructed from scratch on undeveloped park land to accommodate mountain bicycles. Horses would be barred from the trail. While hikers would be technically allowed, they would have to dodge speeding bikers.
The groups are challenging both the substance of the plan and the short-circuited process employed to approve it. Among the concerns raised are –
- The pay-for-play aspect where a user group, the International Mountain Bicycling Association (IMBA) and its local affiliate, paid for the cursory Environmental Assessment. The group will help build the trail to its specifications and is even offering to patrol it for the National Park Service (NPS);
- A previous Big Bend superintendent is part of the business operations of the local biking group. The outgoing superintendent pushed the project over the unanimous objection of his own staff, including 20 who filed personal comments opposing the trail; and
- Big Bend already has 200 miles of trails and roads open to mountain biking and there are another 900 miles of bike-accessible trails and roads on state and private lands surrounding Big Bend.
Without publishing a Finding of No Significant Impact (FONSI) or issuing required rulemaking, Big Bend began work on the trail which was announced days earlier on the IMBA website. After public protests, the Park Service admits that due to an oversight, they did not publish the FONSI online or issue a response to public comments. Public comments were finally posted last week, two months after they were finalized and two days after IMBA announced trail construction.
“To create a first-of-its-kind biking trail through pristine public land, without allowing the public to review the FONSI before construction, without going through essential rulemaking process and while allowing an interested group to have behind-the-scenes access, creates a terrible precedent for the National Park System,” said Judy Calman, staff attorney for Our Texas Wild. “This area is included in the Citizen’s Wilderness Proposal and has long been discussed as suitable for wilderness designation.”
Once the FONSI and response to comments finally appeared they were remarkable both for what they contained and for what they lacked:
- The Park Service declared that constructing a racing trail and associated parking lot is the “Environmentally Preferred Alternative”;
- NPS admitted it could not make more of an effort to avoid archeological sites because there are thousands of archeological sites in the Park and it would be impossible to build a mountain biking trail without going over them; and
- While conceding the area is suitable for potential wilderness designation, Big Bend has declined to pursue that option because it would preclude use of mechanized transport.
“Nobody is against mountain biking. The issue is whether national parks should be prostituted to a special interest,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, pointing out that the agency labeling the building of a parking lot as the “environmentally preferred alternative” denotes how warped the decision-making process has become. “Absent a statutory charter, the National Park Service should not be using tax dollars to promote exclusionary recreation.”