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Park Service slammed for new bike trail at Big Bend NP

The Chisos Mountains in Big Bend National Park. PHOTO COURTESY NATIONAL PARK SERVICE.

Watchdog groups raise conflict of interest issues and fault the park planning process

By Summit Voice

SUMMIT COUNTY — A simmering controversy over a new mountain bike trail in Big Bend National Park boiled over again earlier this month, as the park service started work on the trail before publishing a formal Finding of No Significant Impact or issuing required  rule-making.

Conservation groups are stewing over the project, which will create a trail in an area previously identified as potential wilderness. They also see a potential conflict of interest on the part of a former park service official now involved with a local mountain bike advocacy group.

In fact, the first public announcement on the start of construction came from a mountain bike advocacy group. National Park Service officials admitted that, due to an oversight, they did not publish the FONSI online or issue a response to public comments.

The comments were posted in early April, two months after they were finalized and two days after the International Mountain Bicycling Association announced the trail construction.

Proponents have touted the trail project a model of collaboration between federal land managers and user groups, as the mountain bike group paid for the environmental study (as is common with ski area expansion projects on national forest lands) and worked closely with park managers to design the proposal.

According to IMBA, the addition would create a  great trail system for hikers and mountain biking. The organization said in a blog post that hiking and bicycling are compatible uses, and that the impacts of mountain biking and hiking are about equal.

The organization also touted the economic benefits of expanded mountain bike opportunities and said the new trail will complement existing riding opportunities, including the challenging Fresna-Sauceda loop.

Mountain bikers will help build the trail and have even offered to patrol it.

But the new trail has riled up watchdog groups like Our Texas Wild and Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, who don’t like the cozy relationship between the agency and mountain bikers.

“To create a first-of-its-kind biking trail through pristine public land, without allowing the public to review the FONSI before construction, without going through essential rulemaking process and while allowing an interested group to have behind-the-scenes access, creates a terrible precedent for the National Park System,” said Judy Calman, staff attorney for Our Texas Wild. “This area is included in the Citizen’s Wilderness Proposal and has long been discussed as suitable for wilderness designation.”

They are challenging both the substance of the plan and the short-circuited process employed to approve it.  Among the concerns raised are –

  • The pay-for-play aspect where a user group, the International Mountain Bicycling Association (IMBA) and its local affiliate, paid for the  environmental study;
  • A previous Big Bend superintendent is part of the business operations of the local biking group. The outgoing superintendent pushed the project over the unanimous objection of his own staff, including 20 who filed personal comments opposing the trail; and,
  • Big Bend already has 200 miles of trails and roads open to mountain biking and there are another 900 miles of bike-accessible trails and roads on state and private lands surrounding Big Bend.

After reviewing the decision document and the public comments, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility director Jeff Ruch said it appears the park is selling itself out to a special interest.

He questioned the park service finding that construction of a bike trail and parking lot can be the “nnvironmentally preferred alternative.”

The watchdog group also questioned the agency’s findings that it could not make more of an effort to avoid archeological sites because there are thousands of archeological sites in the Park and  it would be impossible to build a mountain biking trail without going over them, and for declining to pursue that option because it would preclude use of mechanized transport.

“Nobody is against mountain biking. The issue is whether national parks should be prostituted to a special interest,” PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch said, describing the park’s decision as resulting from a “warped” decision-making process.

“Absent a statutory charter, the National Park Service should not be using tax dollars to promote exclusionary recreation,” he concluded.

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10 Responses

  1. Bob, it’s clear what side you’re on here, and I don’t fault you for that, but I’m not sure what the angle is. PERI dispatched a remarkable amount of inflammatory untrue invective at IMBA, mountain bikers, and any supporter of this collaborative effort years ago. The issues they brought up were addressed and the assertions debunked.

    Secondly, the inference you make that a tiny group who struggles with funding every day just to be able to keep up with their own efforts somehow is on par with the massively funded ski areas and environmental groups. To equate these groups ability to influence policymakers or agencies requires suspension of logic.

    The environmental groups like Sierra Club and local organizations funded by them and others enjoy access to hundreds of thousands of members and hundreds of millions of dollars in funding. IMBA is but a sliver of their size.

    A better comparison would be between the ski industry and environmental groups like Sierra Club.

    I tend to agree obviously with these groups when they’re up against industry for resource extraction or development. However, Big Bend has been a collaborative effort–despite the efforts of PERI to sow discord and fear.

    There simply is no evidence other than their own fearmongering and desire to keep legitimate users out of a trail that would actually be improved through collaboration. When articles like these are written with the whispering tone about some sort of subversive process, we just get back to the same anti-biking stance that is spread by a subset of the environmentalists who make unfounded claims about the impacts of biking–which has been proven to be less so than that of groups of campers, equestrians and hunting, to name a few.

    You might want to take a look at more objective resources to balance out the article.

    • Dave, I’m actually on the side of good planning and fair decision-making. I have nothing against mt biking, especially at Big Bend NP.

      As to the timing, the press release about the start of construction came out a couple of weeks ago. I waited to run a story until I had a chance to thoroughly read at least parts of the environmental study and the decision notice.

      Based on that, as well as some off-the-record comments by rangers at the park, I’m pretty convinced that this was not a fair analysis and the decision was pre-determined.

      The timing of the start of construction was a monumental SNAFU — how would you feel if VR started working on the Peak 6 expansion before the final record of decision and associated documents were made public.

      As for the analogy, I still think it’s a pretty good one. IMBA can’t be hurting that bad for money if they were able to pay for an EA.

  2. Tranqulity, serenity and quiet grandeur contribute much to the charm of Big Bend National Park. Mountain bikes–mechanized vehicles, even though human powered–shatter that tranquility, and therefore are inappropriate in a site that is a candidate for Wilderness protection.

    • Ha-ha!! The tranquility is being “shattered!” Oh my, the other frequent complaint of anti-mountain bikers is that they were “surprised” by trail users that they did not hear.

      Which is it?

      Hey hikers, take your headphones out of your ears and learn to share.

      Ed

      • Ed, mountain bikes “shatter tranquility” not through loudness but through the suddenness of their appearance. Trails for bikers and others should be separated–“multi-use” is a myth–so that non-bikers intoxicated by the awesome grandeur of the Chisos Mountains need not be in constant fear of being rudely awakened from their oblivious reveries.

    • I am a ‘Trail User’ meaning I ride, hike, run, and ski on trails. I have the least impact while on skis, and next would be my bike. I basically float through the environment with minimal impact and stay on the trail (particularly while riding). When hiking there is usually conversation with others, lots of stopping and dwell time at various locations, and lots of poking around off-trail.

      I observe the least amount of wildlife while hiking as the critters become uncomfortable with the amount of time I am in close proximity. They tend to move on well ahead of me. When I am on a bike they tend to freeze and watch me go by.

      What shatters my tranquility is very loud speaking/yelling individuals or screaming kids – not bikes. Its weird to me how loud some people can be when out roaming around.

      • Right on, Bruce! Loud-speaking/yelling individuals and screaming kids bug me, too. Far better to hike alone. Your biking style sounds to my liking: quiet, considerate, with none of the “yahoo!!” element.

  3. [...] Park Service slammed for new bike trail at Big Bend NP by Bob Berwyn                summitcountyvoice.com Watchdog groups raise conflict of interest issues and fault the park planning process SUMMIT COUNTY — A simmering controversy over a new mountain bike trail in Big Bend National Park boiled over again earlier this month, as the park service started work on the trail before publishing a formal Finding of No Significant Impact or issuing required  rule-making. [...]

  4. The attacks on the Big Bend trail project contain numerous errors, as this IMBA news release points out: http://www.imba.com/news/big-bend-attacks-unfounded

  5. With the decline in NP attendance and the continuing trend of young people to stay inside and play on their computers, it seems to me conservation groups should be pushing outdoor activities hard, not trying to stifle interest in the outdoors. More NP users will create more opponents to the push to sell off public land.

    Remember the potential next president’s quote “I don’t know what the purpose is” of public land. If bicycle riders discouraged to visit public land, perhaps they will join a private lands bicycle club (like George W. Bush’s ranch) and join those who are lobbying for the sale of Big Bend and other national parks.

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