Wheels of Change
A growing number of Americans are hopping on mountain bikes as a way to connect with the natural world. But do knobby tires belong on national park trails?
In 1861, Major General Nelson A. Miles, a commanding officer in the U.S. Army, was cheering on cyclists from the sidelines of a six-day race in New York City when it hit him: Why not arm America’s military with bikes, too? “Unlike a horse,” he wrote, “a bicycle did not need to be fed and watered and rested, and would be less likely to collapse.”
Five years later, Miles set out to test his idea on a small group of “Buffalo Soldiers”—African-American men tasked with keeping the peace on the frontier and, in some cases, serving as America’s very first national park rangers in places like Yosemite and Sequoia. But Miles’ group had a new mission: to ride custom-made bikes into Montana’s wilderness. Off road. For an insane number of miles.
On August 15, 1896, the 25th Infantry Bicycle Corps set out on a self-propelled, round-trip journey from Missoula, Montana, to Yellowstone National Park—800 miles, to be exact. Packed bikes weighed as much as 76 pounds, and the soldiers’ rations, which ranged from seven cans of beans to five pounds of prunes, added another 120 pounds collectively. At times, the trails got so muddy and the terrain so steep that soldiers had to push their bikes along railroad tracks instead. Changing a flat meant re-cementing loosened tires onto wooden rims—a cumbersome process compared with the five-minute fix we’re accustomed to today. Despite the setbacks, however, Miles hailed the trip as a success and quickly enlisted his team for a longer, tougher challenge: a 1,900-mile trip across the Rocky Mountains to St. Louis, Missouri.
The Buffalo Soldiers’ expeditions are some of the first documented cases of mountain biking in history. And they happened in our national parks, where, ironically, the same activity has turned into one of the most controversial forms of trail use today. As the sport continues to grow in popularity—especially among America’s youth (research shows that mountain biking is the gateway sport to getting more kids outside)—the National Park Service and other land-management agencies are coming face to face with a complex set of questions: Do mountain bikes belong in our national parks, which boast the highest standards of conservation? If so, under what circumstances? And if land managers decide to introduce that use, how will they ensure it doesn’t destroy the resources and visitor experiences that have long defined those landscapes?
A GROWING TREND
Despite national attention during the Buffalo Soldiers’ expeditions, mountain biking didn’t catch on with the public until the late 1970s, after a young Californian named Gary Fisher got kicked out of bicycle racing for having long hair. Eager to shed the road scene, he turned to casual races down Marin County’s fire roads on old “beater-bikes” pulled from dumpsters and supplemented with rugged parts. At one point, Fisher decided he wanted to be able to ride up the hills, too. So, borrowing parts from discarded motorcycles, he began building bikes with wider handlebars, adding front shocks to traditionally rigid forks, and fitting wheels with fat, knobby tires that handled better in the dirt. In 1979, Fisher and his partners started a company called “Mountain Bikes,” and by 1980, they were selling more high-end bikes than any other company in the world. Thirty years later, the sport is still evolving. High-end bike frames weigh about as much as a beagle. Front and rear shocks soften rides over rocky terrain. Special shoes attach to special pedals, giving cyclists an advantage on steep climbs.
So perhaps it’s no surprise that, 150 years after the Buffalo Soldiers took their first pedal strokes, today’s mountain bikers might set a longing gaze on our national parks and think, “I want to bike there, too.”
A MANAGEMENT CHALLENGE
Unless a special regulation has been put in place, current Park Service rules prohibit bicycling anywhere except on paved roads, in parking areas, and “along other designated routes”—a category that varies from park to park. It might sound exclusive, but there are actually 40 national park units that allow mountain biking on trails and dirt roads. Think seaside carriage roads in Maine’s Acadia National Park, Pacific-hugging trails in California’s Golden Gate National Recreation Area, and twisty, wooded trails in Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area in Kentucky and Tennessee. Unfortunately, in some cases, the Park Service approved these trails without using a special regulation or soliciting public input. And that has stirred the debate.
Still, many positive projects have resulted from a growing relationship between the Park Service and the International Mountain Bicycling Association (IMBA)—a nonprofit group that advocates for landscape conservation, trail access, and above all else, good trail etiquette. “IMBA has shown through hard work and cooperative attitudes that they share our passion for protecting and enjoying our nation’s parks,” said Park Service Director Jon Jarvis in a press release. “Bicycling helps draw new visitors—especially younger people—and gives them fun, memorable experiences in the national parks.”
If that sounds like a system-wide stamp of approval, think again. When the Park Service is deciding whether or not to unleash a pack of bikers onto a trail, it has a long list of consequences to consider first—the most obvious being potential harm to natural resources. But the research isn’t as straightforward as you might expect.
Mountain biking can take a toll on the land—a dozen or so studies conducted in the ’90s made that crystal clear. But those same studies also concluded that mountain biking does no more damage to trails than other forms of recreation: One study showed that hikers and cyclists trample vegetation at equal rates; another showed that hikers can have a greater impact on the behavior of wildlife—namely, bighorn sheep and eagles—but bikers are more likely to suddenly encounter bears (read more).
So perhaps bicycles don’t threaten trails any more than activities we consider “low impact.” But when you add bikers to the mix, more people are using the trails, period. And increased traffic causes increased wear and tear.
Is this just another example of people loving the parks to death? Bryan Faehner, NPCA’s associate director for park uses, doesn’t necessarily think so. “The challenges facing the national parks are daunting, in terms of the millions and millions of Americans using them,” he says. “But you can meet many people’s interests at national parks through thoughtful management. So to a large extent, it’s not about too many people—it’s about managing those people and their expectations. This is why it’s so important for the Park Service to ask for input from the public before allowing new recreational uses that might be controversial or even inappropriate, like mountain biking on trails.”
A CULTURAL DIVIDE
But it’s not just about managing traffic. It’s also about bridging a deep cultural divide. Although most trail users are after the same basic experience—a genuine connection with the outdoors—the ways that people choose to seek that experience can cause conflicts. When a mountain biker comes around a turn and spooks a horse or surprises a hiker, tempers can flare. Sit in on a city council meeting in the Bay Area when the community is discussing open space, and there’s a good chance you’ll find red-faced neighbors yelling at each other over who should be banned from the trails.
Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky found a way to break that mold. It started several years ago, when Gov. Ernie Fletcher launched a campaign to boost the state’s adventure tourism. At the time, mountain-biking groups were small and fractured and, in many areas, found themselves at odds with the hiking and equine communities. “There was a lot of tension and distrust,” says Mike Dulin, a landscape architect, mountain biker, and former resident of Louisville, Kentucky. “We don’t have a lot of public open space, so what little land there is can get pretty crowded pretty quickly. In some parts of the state, it had almost come to blows between mountain bikers and horseback riders at some of the public meetings.”
Around the same time, Dulin assumed the role of president of the Kentucky Mountain Biking Association, and in late 2004, he connected with the director of the Kentucky Horse Council and the local affiliate from the Sierra Club who heads up a state-wide hiking club. “We realized we had something in common,” he says. “Despite very limited resources and very limited land, we seemed to be able to talk sensibly about sharing trails.”
They knew they had to sell that message to their user groups, so they formed a group called the Kentucky Trails Coalition and hosted a summit in February 2005. About 50 people showed up, including state and federal land managers. “Those who had traditionally been at odds stayed at odds, but a lot of the newer people understood that there’s power in cooperation,” Dulin says. “Soon, everybody started to buy in.”
In late 2005, the coalition helped some of the locals work through a planning process for Mammoth Cave’s trails, which ultimately led to a plan to refresh an existing trail in the park and build another from scratch with multiple users in mind. Under the plan, equestrians would be granted access to a trail they had used in previous years, and mountain bikers and hikers would share a new, sustainably built trail in another area of the park. Park Service staff at Mammoth Cave took action to finalize the new trail corridor, complete associated environmental and archaeological studies, and secure funding to help offset some trail construction costs. Although everything moved relatively quickly, the final hurdle—the passage of a special regulation authorizing the use of mountain bikes on the new trail—has yet to be cleared. Exactly when mountain bikers will get to ride in Mammoth Cave again is still something of a mystery, but Dulin doesn’t hesitate to call the process a success.
“This project at Mammoth Cave brought out the very spirit of the National Park Service,” Dulin says. “People were so passionate about this parcel of land, and some of them have a lot of history here. But they were able to get past the traditional hot-button issues and find common ground. It’s not like we’re all best buddies who are going out drinking every Tuesday, and we’re not even sharing the trails—the equestrians have their section, and mountain bikers have theirs. But the process of getting to this point was one of respect and appreciation and understanding. It’s a turning point in the way people behave and use their federal land, and that’s something to celebrate as we approach the parks’ centennial.”
ADDING NEW IDEAS TO AMERICA’S BEST IDEA
Cooperation among trail users is an important hurdle, but it doesn’t necessarily mean shared-use trails are appropriate in every park. There’s a significant difference, for example, between allowing mountain bikes in a place like Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area in the Southeast, which was established with recreation in mind, and a more remote park like Glacier in Montana, where much of the landscape remains untouched by humans. Bikes aren’t allowed in designated wilderness, and for good reason. Although wilderness areas and national parks aren’t synonymous, many parks play an important role in preserving large areas where “the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man,” as defined by the Wilderness Act. And most mountain bikers are just fine with that idea. “We aren’t interested in inserting ourselves into parks where the conditions aren’t right,” says IMBA president Mike Van Abel. “Certainly, there are parks that are already overcrowded, or the trails are too rugged, or the terrain is otherwise unsuitable for cycling. But when park staff see an opportunity to include on-trail mountain biking, we’re eager to help them create a new success story.”
Sometimes, however, what park staff view as a good opportunity raises concerns in the conservation world. Consider what’s happening right now in Big Bend National Park, Texas: For several years, IMBA has been advocating for the construction of a 10-mile, multiuse trail in an undeveloped part of the park. Opponents are citing everything from resource damage to rangers who are too busy to manage yet another popular trail in the park. NPCA is raising a red flag, too, given talks of designating part of that land as a wilderness area in the future.
“We’re not against mountain biking in the parks,” says Suzanne Dixon, director of NPCA’s Texas regional office. “We just want to be sure the parks are asking all the right questions and making decisions based on the big picture.”
National Parks Traveler blogger Kurt Repanshek argues another point: “Questions are being raised over whether Big Bend officials are… bending over to placate a special interest group that already has more than 300 miles of mountain biking opportunities in the park,” he writes. In other words, why do we have to give them this trail, when they can just ride down those dirt roads instead?
THE ALMIGHTY SINGLE-TRACK
No one seems to take issue with mountain bikes—or any type of nonmotorized bicycle for that matter—on asphalt or dirt roads open to vehicles. In fact, in many parks, cycling is encouraged as a way to stay fit, cut emissions, and relieve vehicle congestion.
But most mountain bikers are trying to get off the road. It’s noisy. It’s dangerous. And the terrain simply isn’t challenging enough. Instead, the type of trail they covet is called “single-track”—an off-road path that’s wide enough for just one bicycle at a time. It’s the kind of trail that leads to views without buildings, roads, and vehicles—views unmarred by humans. It offers a special kind of rhythm, engages a different part of the brain. It forces you to be present with whatever’s happening in that moment, because when you’re truly focused on the trail, unnecessary thoughts simply fade away.
Although some mountain bikers may be reckless, speedy, and inconsiderate (every group has its bad apples), the majority don’t actually look that different from other trail users: They’re parents with kids, conservationists who work with nonprofits, and volunteers who dedicate entire weekends to restoring trails. And in most cases, the experience they seek isn’t so different from that of a hiker or equestrian. So as tempting as it might be to shoo mountain bikers onto flat, dusty roads, it also risks alienating a group of people that the Park Service might want in its corner: a group that understands what it takes to design safe, sustainable trails; a group that’s really started to prove itself as a valuable conservation partner.
A DESIGN CHALLENGE
This summer, trail construction and design professionals from IMBA’s Trail Solutions team partnered with more than 1,000 Boy Scouts and Park Service staff at West Virginia’s New River Gorge National River to build 20 miles of new shared-use trail. IMBA also worked closely with the Park Service to ensure that the trails were built in a way that wouldn’t hinder the park’s ability to protect several globally rare plant communities and animal habitats, including local species of wood rats and bats.
Their secret? Good trail design. Which promotes not only healthy landscapes but happy trail users, too.
“To minimize user conflict, you have to design sustainable trails, and sustainable trails are just as much about education as design,” says Morgan Lommele of the Subaru/IMBA Trail Care Crew. That’s why she and other IMBA staff and volunteers often host educational meetings and visit trailheads to alert users about whom to expect on the trails, encourage them to communicate and be friendly, and dole out tips on how mountain bikers can help horses feel at ease.
Behind the scenes, there’s another layer of thought that goes into trail design—like “sight lines,” or the ability to see what’s ahead in plenty of time to react. Most people assume that wide, open trails are safer for multiple users, and in some cases, they can be, but here’s a surprising twist: Land managers claim that most accidents occur on wider trails, simply because people can go faster. “On single-track, you have the perception of speed—you think you’re going fast—but you’re not going as fast, because there are a lot of obstacles around you on the trail,” says Lommele.
Basic regulations can help limit conflicts, too. In Tsali Recreation Area in North Carolina, the U.S. Forest Service alternates the days that horses and bikers can use the trails. “Users police each other,” Lommele says. “If you’re mountain biking out there when you’re not supposed to be, you’ll hear the riot act from other mountain bikers, because they want to be seen as a community that respects the law.” A popular trail west of downtown Boulder, Colorado, prohibits mountain biking on Wednesdays and Saturdays, giving hikers a break in traffic. In the city of Golden, just 30 minutes south, trail users are required to travel in the same direction, a practice that helps minimize conflicts around blind turns and on steep, technical terrain.
“Building trails isn’t just about digging in the dirt,” Lommele says. “It’s about knowing who’s going to use the trail, how they’re going to use it, and what their expectations are, and acknowledging that it takes a lot of work to design trails with good sight lines and gradual turns that help prevent surprises. It takes more time on the front end, but it will alleviate more conflicts once users are actually on the ground.”
Fortunately, IMBA has a lot of help. Across the country, its members log more than a million volunteer hours every year. And an increasing amount of that labor has been directed to restoring and creating trails within the national parks.
A LONG ROAD AHEAD
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“As the Park System expands and evolves and our society gets more diverse, mountain biking is going to be the first of other more intense and frankly debatable uses coming down the pike, like ‘mountain boarding,’ or skateboarding on trails,” says Sean Smith, policy director for NPCA’s Northwest regional office. “So it’s good that the Park Service is figuring this out now. The more conversations we have, the more we can educate other groups on how the process works, and the more they can engage in thoughtful comments and thoughtful participation. Because that’s ultimately what the Park Service wants—to craft rules that protect the resources but allow for the most use possible.”
As different debates about mountain biking take shape in parks across the country, a few things are becoming clear: No matter what their mode of self-propelled transportation, most trail users are seeking the same trail experiences. Respect and collaboration are key. And every American deserves a voice in the conversation.
“Not everybody is going to get 100 percent of what they want all the time,” says Mike Dulin. “But we are a trail-loving population—whether we’re on foot, horseback, or bicycles. These parcels are incredibly valuable to the American landscape, and to fight over them is to do the American landscape a disservice. No matter who we are, we’re all after a great trail experience in a beautiful place, but if we’re fighting all the way to the front door of the supervisor, we’re not going to get a damn thing. It’s a breathe-deep kind of lesson. Stop, think about what you have to say, take a deep breath, and strip it down. What are we really after?”
A good question to ponder, next time we hit the trails.
About the author
Amy Leinbach Marquis
Amy Leinbach Marquis, former associate editor at National Parks magazine, is directing a film series about the national parks experience at NPExperience.com.