Wheels of change


By Heather Hansen, Red Lodge Clearing House

Many people who’ve hiked or run on mixed-use trails have experienced that moment when, lost in your mind, a mountain biker comes tearing down the slope from behind, scaring the spit out of you. I’m not fond of that particular sensation but, while I’ve been on umpteen trails over many years, I can count on one hand the number of times that has happened (and I live and play in Boulder, epicenter of fast-moving, sporty things).

Last week the National Park Service issued its final rule expanding biking opportunities on trails, fire routes and maintenance roads in national parks. Various stakeholders have been scuffling over this issue, it seems, since the wheel was invented, but certainly since this proposal was introduced four years ago. Since then, the original concept has evolved quite a bit, appeasing some trail junkies, but not all.

Some of the comments I’ve seen misinterpret, or misunderstand, what the final rule actually allows. Here are several main points:

This rule does not open up every hiking trail in national parks to bikes. The final rule authorizes park superintendents to open existing trails to bicycle use under specific conditions, and in compliance with applicable law. Construction of new trails for bike use outside currently developed areas would require a special regulation.

Wilderness is not in jeopardy. According to the final rule: “The NPS will continue to prohibit bicycle use in eligible, study, proposed, recommended, and designated wilderness areas as required by NPS policy.” This is a good chunk of some western parks—over 90 percent of Rocky Mountain National Park is “designated” wilderness, and a little over 2 million acres of Yellowstone's total 2.2 million acres are “recommended” wilderness.

An environmental review will be done for every trail under consideration. The rule complies with the National Environmental Policy Act, and requires that either an environmental assessment (EA), or an environmental impact statement (EIS), be done on the potential impacts of bicycles on a trail. Furthermore, a specific “finding of no significant impact for a bicycle trail(s) is required.” Importantly, there will be no use of categorical exclusions for opening trails to bicycles.

The superintendent of the park in question will make the access determination, but does not have the only (or final) say. If a superintendent receives a finding of ‘no significant impact’ and decides to open a trail to bicycles, the respective regional director must approve the decision, in writing.

Public input also will be accepted both in the scoping phase, and in response to the EA or EIS. If you don’t regularly comb the Federal Register for such notifications you can either bookmark Red Lodge Clearinghouse, which keeps track of such public comment opportunities or contact the parks you’re interested in and they will add you to a mailing list of people to keep in the know.

The Park Service is not going to unleash cyclists on trails and never look back.

“Monitoring for resource impacts is a key component of this requirement,” says the rule. Those records are generally available to the public on request. If unforeseen problems arise on a trail that allows bikes, closures or use limits may be established. This, presumably, includes monitoring the effects of an increase in the sheer volume of increased users of a particular trail, including any commercial use authorizations.

The NPS is also considering certain time restrictions to balance usage. A popular loop on a preserve near where I live allows access to bikes except on Wednesdays and Saturdays. This works well, and offers an option for hikers who want to avoid bikes altogether.

While most of my misgivings about the initial ‘bikes in parks’ rule were assuaged by the requirements outlined in the final rule, I was left with one major question: Do bikes on trails inherently cause more damage than traditional users? So I looked at seven studies that specifically tested the ecological impacts of mountain bikes, and none found that the damage done was any greater than hiking boots. Most showed that the adverse impacts of horses and pack animals were the most profound.

This is a good reminder to purists who argue that our parks have not been preserved for the use of mechanized equipment, and that bikes will obliterate others’ unadulterated interface with nature. I used to complain a lot about poop on trails, left by horses, mules or llamas and then, during one particular hike, I found myself excitedly examining a fresh pile of bear scat. My hypocrisy realized, I was forced to accept that horseback riding is a reasonable use of those trails, and I have not whined about it since.

I might not choose to have bikes on national park trails, but the prospect has some significant upsides. First, at a time when our natural places are being assailed or, at the very least, woefully underfunded, an ally like the mountain bike lobby is a good one to have. Combining forces with such a juggernaut might allow us to better protect wild lands from real threats. Second, ever noticed that kids like to ride bikes? Let’s encourage them, and their revenue-generating parents, to visit national parks in order to do that. It may even foster in them a life-long bond with that, and other, natural places.

We will soon be 7 billion strong on this planet. National parks are like anywhere else; there will always be some ignoramuses there, but that’s not most people. What goes a long way in making our coexistence tolerable—and even enjoyable—are ethics and etiquette, both of which hinge on awareness. I promise to advocate for bike use on trails if cyclists promise not to sneak up on me while I’m hiking. I’ll pack out my TP if you keep your drained tubes of Power Gel tucked safely into your pockets. And, when we meet on the trail, I’ll smile and agree it’s a new, beautiful day, and we are both lucky to be there.

The new rule goes into effect on August 6.

Essays in the Range blog are not written by High Country News. The authors are solely responsible for their content.

Heather Hansen is an environmental journalist working with the Red Lodge Clearinghouse /Natural Resources Law Center at CU Boulder, to help raise awareness of natural resource issues.

Images of bikers in Arches and Canyonlands National Parks courtesy the National Park Service.

Sign image courtesy Arizona State Parks.

Image of horses in the national parks image courtesy the National Park Service.

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