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.
“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.