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National parks to expand mountain bike access

Bike touring along Hermit Road, Grand Canyon National Park. Photo courtesy National Park Service.

Rule change could help expand trail networks

By Summit Voice

SUMMIT COUNTY — In a long overdue update of national park rules, the National Park Service said last week  it will expand bicycle access in parks nationwide, while preserving the agency’s responsibility to prohibit bikes in wilderness and other areas where they would have significant impact on the environment or visitor safety.

“Bikes are a great way to exercise, get healthy, and experience the great outdoors,” said National Park Service Director Jonathan B. Jarvis. “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 rule is available online at www.ofr.gov/inspection.aspx#reg_N. It gives park superintendents the authority to allow bicycles on roads that are closed to the motoring public — like fire roads and roads used by park maintenance vehicles. Bikes are already allowed on park roads that are open to vehicles.

This rule changes the National Park Service decision-making process on bike use   from a regulatory to a planning process, while retaining rigorous environmental compliance requirements and mandatory public comment on proposals to open existing or new trails to bikes.

New trails outside of developed areas will continue to require a park-specific special regulation approved by the director of the National Park Service.

The National Park Service will continue to prohibit bicycle use in eligible, study, proposed, recommended, and designated wilderness areas.

The final rule, 36 CFR § 4.30, will be published in the Federal Register on July 6 and will go into effect 30 days later.

The change drew praise from Colorado Sen. Mark Udall.

“As an avid supporter of outdoor recreation and healthy living, 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. “Colorado’s breathtaking scenery and incomparable mountains are a premiere destination for outdoor enthusiasts. This move could help expand the allure of our parks and create new opportunities for Colorado’s thriving outdoor recreation economy.”

But some critics said the change is an unwarranted relaxation of national park resource protection.

Explaining that the change overturns long-standing concerns about user 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,” said Jeff Ruch, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Ethics.

Ruch claimed the change could give park superintendents the power to build new trails with little outside review.

The new rules were originally proposed toward the end of the Bush administration, then pulled early on during the Obama era.

The 25-year-old rules required a special regulation, with full rule-making, including Federal Register notice and public comment before allowing bike access to new or old trails and administrative roads in non-developed park areas.

Reagan-era officials reasoned that backcountry routes “would have a much greater potential to result in adverse resource impacts or visitor use conflicts.”

“Nobody is against mountain biking,” Ruch said. “The issue is whether one form of recreation can shut out all others in national parks that are meant for and paid for by everybody.  That is why the old rules were put in place and their abrupt removal is cause for unease.”

The Association of National Park Rangers also expressed concern about the rule for fear that there are “too many potential corrupting influences involved in these decisions to leave them up to just one person.”

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