New rule expands mountain bike access in national parks
Written byPHIL TAYLOR, Greenwire
The National Park Service today issued a final rule that would expand mountain biking opportunities on trails, fire routes and maintenance roads, a move designed to increase recreational access. However, the rule drew sharp criticism from one environmental group that warned it could spoil primitive backcountry.
The final rule, published in this morning's Federal Register, would allow bicyclists to pedal beyond the paved roads, parking lots and designated routes where they are currently allowed -- a move that could invite conflicts with hikers, horseback riders and wildlife watchers.
Today's rule, which updates a regulation imposed under the Reagan administration, allows park superintendents to designate new bicycle routes more efficiently through the park planning process rather than through promulgation of special regulations.
"Bikes are a great way to exercise, get healthy and experience the great outdoors," said NPS Director Jon Jarvis in a statement last night. "This new rule gives park superintendents greater flexibility to determine where bikes can be allowed in a park and additional authority to shut areas where cycling is jeopardizing visitors or park resources."
The new rule, which takes effect in 30 days, would not allow bicycles in designated wilderness areas, where mechanical transport is banned, or on lands eligible, studied, proposed or recommended as wilderness, the agency said.
While the agency already manages bicycle trails in dozens of park units, including the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, Saguaro National Park, Grand Teton National Park and Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area, some critics have argued that bicycles can tarnish recreational opportunities for hikers and horseback riders.
Tempers have flared, for example, in Big Bend National Park in Texas, where mountain biking advocates are proposing construction of a 10-mile, multi-use trail in an undeveloped part of the park, a move some warn would damage resources and preclude the area from becoming wilderness.
But the Park Service insisted today's final rule will strengthen environmental protections, in addition to improving public notice and participation. Park superintendents must give the public at least a month to comment on environmental assessments, and categorical exclusions -- which shorten environmental reviews -- will not be allowed for new or existing trails.
New trails outside of developed areas will continue to require a park-specific special regulation approved by the agency's director.
In addition, superintendents must evaluate the suitability of existing trail surfaces and soil conditions for accommodating bicycle use or prescribe a sustainable trail design for the construction of new trails. Maintenance costs, safety considerations, conflict-avoidance strategies, resources protection and alternative transportation systems must also be considered.
Concerns, support voiced for new rule
Today's rule stems from a 2008 draft proposal by the George W. Bush administration that drew criticism from parks advocates including the National Parks Conservation Association, which argued at the time that the 1987 regulations have worked fine.
Ron Tipton, the group's senior vice president of policy, said this morning that NPCA supports some additional mountain bike access to national parks, and he credited the agency for better defining where and how that would take place.
But Tipton criticized the agency's refusal to allow additional public comment before the rule was finalized.
"Generally speaking, mountain bikes do only limited damage to trails," he said. "Their impact is light, and the research shows that."
The bigger issue, he said, is conflict with other users, such as hikers and horseback riders.
But parks advocates could support expanded mountain bike access on former roads and fire routes in Shenandoah National Park, for example, where bicycling is currently only allowed on Skyline Drive, Tipton said.
"There are also going to be proposals from mountain bike advocates that we're not going to support," he said.
Others painted today's rule in bleaker terms, accusing the agency of approving conversion of existing trails and backcountry roads and the construction of new trails for mountain biking with little outside review.
"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," said a statement by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility. "This assumed demise was premature."
Jeff Ruch, the group's executive director, said the special regulation required under the Reagan rule required a full rulemaking, including a Federal Register notice and public comment, on the grounds that backcountry routes "would have a much greater potential to result in adverse resource impacts or visitor use conflicts."
"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," he said. "Make no mistake, this is a significant relaxation of national park resource protection."
But Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.), who chairs the Energy and Natural Resources Committee's national parks subpanel, today said the rule maintains rigorous environmental protections and could bolster tourism in gateway communities.
"I am quite pleased that the National Park Service has streamlined the process to make mountain biking available in our national parks without compromising the values that make our parks the envy of the world," Udall said in a statement this morning. "This move could help expand the allure of our parks and create new opportunities for Colorado's thriving outdoor recreation economy."
The Park Service notice cites a Forest Service study in 2005 that concludes the net economic benefits of mountain biking generally exceed those of either hiking or horseback riding.
Mark Eller, a spokesman for the International Mountain Bicycling Association, said mountain biking remains one of the most popular trail sports.
"We look forward to working with park staff on a park-by-park basis to see where there are more opportunities," he said, applauding the new rule. "This is going to help us expand, hopefully, to new parks that are interested in working with us."
Eller added that there are almost no published studies suggesting mountain biking has a heavier impact on trails than hikers or horseback riders. Impacts to the environment are determined more by trail design than by the type of use, he said.