Guest Column: Has The National Park Service Found Itself Straddling The Fence On Mountain Biking?
Editor's note: Efforts to cut a multiple-use trail for hikers and mountain bikers at Big Bend National Park have generated ongoing debates over whether creating such trails for mountain bikers in national parks is a good thing. Roger Siglin, who long has followed the Big Bend matter, wonders if the National Park Service hasn't painted itself into a corner over this issue.
As someone who opposed the mountain bike trail construction at Big Bend National Park from the beginning, hiked the proposed route when it was first flagged, and recently hiked it with Jeff Renfrow of the Big Bend Trails Alliance, I have several opinions on the issue. I should also mention my 27-year-career with the National Park Service started in Big Bend in 1966, and I have hiked several thousand miles in the park.
As a hiking trail it is pretty innocuous. I would rate it as little more than a short walk, and it will probably will be the least interesting trail in Big Bend when fully constructed. This doesn’t mean it won’t get some use, particularly if combined with a roadside picnic area since there is none near the visitor center at park headquarters.
It could especially appeal to families with hungry children tired of the long drive from the nearest town, assuming park staff at the visitor center promote it. The park concessioner is also planning to update and improve the adjacent gas station and grocery store. Use will still be limited by high temperatures for about six months of the year. But putting all of that aside, I support completing the construction as a hiking trail since substantial money has already been spent and it would be nice if the public got something in return for its taxpayer dollars.
As a mountain bike trail, it is even more innocuous and probably will not attract many mountain bikers since there are better opportunities both on some of the park’s 120 miles of rough dirt roads and hundreds of miles of bike trails to the west in Terlingua, Lajitas, and Big Bend Ranch State Park. The state park is heavily promoting mountain biking on its 300,000 acres, which I supported in a draft public use paper I prepared several years ago.
Some day there should be another 30,000 acres available in the Chinati State Natural Area west of Presidio, again an area where I outlined several good single-track opportunities in a draft public use plan I authored. There is also no good reason the 23,000-acre Elephant Mountain Wildlife Management area 26 miles south of Alpine could not offer mountain biking on tens of miles of old ranch roads and cattle trails.
In my opinion, the primary reason for the mountain bike trail project in Big Bend (now called a hiking trail until a special regulation is promulgated) is to get the mountain biking industry’s foot in the door to build a stronger constituency for opening up single-track hiking trails in the National Park System to mountain bikes. That includes designated wilderness and lands managed for their wilderness potential by the National Park Service. There is a lot of money to be made by the industries supporting bringing mountain bikers to the parks. This is not to imply that individual mountain bikers themselves are not part of the driving force behind this effort.
There seem to be two visions of mountain biking. One is promoted by IMBA -- the International Mountain Bicycling Association -- as providing access to nature in a healthful way with little or no conflict with hikers, if everyone would agree to get along. The other vision is the one you see on most mountain biking websites. They show bikers riding at high speed on single-track trails, some bermed with jumps, wood ramps, and other construction that provide additional thrills and spills.
What the websites don’t show is other trail users who have been driven off the trails by the antics of the thrill seekers on bicycles. This is not true everywhere, but it is becoming increasingly common where large numbers of mountain bikers congregate, particularly near large population centers. To make matters worse, many state and local parks set aside for preservation of plant and animal communities are being damaged by both legal and illegal trail construction.
Big Bend is remote enough and the rocks and prickly vegetation bad enough that the worst problems may be avoided, but it leads to the main question: what is the purpose of national parks?
The first place to look is the National Parks Organic Act of 1916, which says in part “........which purpose is to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.”
Congress has reaffirmed the unimpairment part of the act several times. In general, the pendulum has swung back and forth between those who emphasize unimpairment and those who emphasize enjoyment. Not surprisingly, the recreation industry has emphasized the latter, using increasing clout in the current political climate.
The NPS has often been on the fence between the two extremes, but in general has not built facilities for, or encouraged, the more extreme thrills or adventure aspects of various uses. Instead it encourages activities that allow the appreciation of the natural features, including the scenery at a leisurely pace.
I recently rode my daughter’s downhill bike at Keystone Resort. Going down the marked trail I often thought how nice it would be to see the flowers and decided I would prefer hiking the same route. An opposite view was taken by one of your commentators who describes the White Rim Trail in Canyonlands as boring. I guess there was not enough scenery or flowers.
I could go on and on about why I think single-track mountain biking is wrong in the national parks, but I also think the mountain bike fraternity is its own worst enemy. Just look at the websites if you don’t agree. I also think commentators should have to identify themselves with a brief statement. It should greatly improve the quality of the discussions.