Washington, DC — As many as 30 million acres of national park backcountry and scenic trails could be opened to mountain biking under rules finalized yesterday by the National Park Service (NPS). The rules empower individual park superintendents to approve conversion of existing trails and backcountry roads to mountain bicycle traffic or to build new trails for mountain biking with little outside review, according Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).
The rules were originally proposed in the dying days of the Bush administration. The move by President Bush, nicknamed the Mountain Biker-in-Chief, seemed to have fizzled when the Obama administration removed the proposal from its regulatory agenda in March 2010. This assumed demise was premature, however. The Obama NPS quietly put it back on the agenda last fall and adopted it yesterday.
By its action, NPS overturned a 25-year old rule promulgated under President Reagan which required a special regulation, with full rule-making, including Federal Register notice and public comment before allowing bike access to new or old trails and administrative roads in non-developed park areas. Reagan officials reasoned that backcountry routes “would have a much greater potential to result in adverse resource impacts or visitor use conflicts.” PEER argues that this fact is even truer today than it was then.
By contrast, the new rules largely cede all decision-making on mountain bike access to individual park superintendents, subject only to a suitability finding and environmental assessment. As a result –
- Vast areas of park backcountry for which there is no wilderness suitability finding could be open to conversion or construction of existing or new mountain biking trails;
- Millions of acres of parks that are proposed or recommended wilderness or otherwise wilderness eligible could be declared open to bike trails upon a waiver of a Management Policy by the NPS Director. These waivers entail no notice or public review; and
- The only areas now off-limits to NPS discretion over mountain biking access are congressionally designated wilderness or scenic trails containing specific statutory limitations.
“Make no mistake, this is a significant relaxation of national park resource protection. It adds insult to injury that it slithered out with no warning on the day after the Fourth of July,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, noting that this move also reverses a 2005 commitment made by then Director Fran Mainella to PEER that NPS will not open trails to bikes in recommended or proposed wilderness areas. “If the Reagan administration was concerned about conflicts with hikers and horseback riders a generation ago think about the conflicts with today’s high-speed bikers racing through park vistas in pelotons.”
A related development is the controversial high-speed, single-track bike trail carved out of the Texas hills of Big Bend National Park. At Big Bend, biking groups funded the environmental assessment for the trail they designed. Fearing this type of political pressure, the Association of National Park Rangers also opposed the rule for fear that there are “too many potential corrupting influences involved in these decisions to leave them up to just one person.”
“Nobody is against mountain biking,” Ruch added. “The issue is whether one form of recreation can shut out all others in national parks that are meant for and paid for by everybody. That is why the old rules were put in place and their abrupt removal is cause for unease.”