By Ashley Korenblat
Editor's note: In its August 15 issue, Bicycle Retailer & Industry News published a column by Ashley Korenblat on the topic of mountain biking in federal wilderness areas. In the September 1 issue, BRAIN will publish an opposing viewpoint, written by Ted Stroll, the board president of the Sustainable Trails Coalition. We are publishing both columns on the BRAIN website today. (Stroll's column)
Mention wilderness to a serious mountain biker and the first thing you will see is fear, because bikes are not allowed in wilderness. The Wilderness Act of 1964 is the first time we as a species decided to put the needs of nature above the needs of man. Today, with climate change looming, there are hundreds of organizations with millions of members dedicated to land protection and maintaining the integrity of the Wilderness Act. Plus, corporate America is getting into the act as companies of all types work to improve their green credentials.
For many mountain bikers, the exclusion of bikes from wilderness is just not fair. Bikes do less damage than horses and horses are allowed. Hikers get the wilderness trails all to themselves, and in some cases trails maintained by local bike clubs can be threatened by wilderness, or preparation for wilderness designation. The Sustainable Trails Coalition was founded to right this wrong by simply amending both the Wilderness Act and the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA), the act that determines how we make changes to our federal land management plans.
Perhaps if the public lands universe was just made up of hikers and bikers, STC might have a point, but it isn’t. Public lands are used by all Americans to meet a vast array of needs: mining, oil and gas, grazing, wind and solar installations, endangered species habitat, timber harvests, to name a few. And there are an equally vast number of laws and regulations that decide who gets to do what where. NEPA has been a great friend to the recreation industry and has led to the protection of many trails.
IMBA has spent the last 28 years working with land managers to open existing trails and build new ones on public lands of all types — not because, at 40,000 members, we were never the biggest or most established group in the room (in fact most of the time we were the smallest), but we worked within the system to build allies and prove the economic and social value of trails. When I served as IMBA’s chair, we considered the arguments put forth by STC and determined that they were counterproductive. Instead, IMBA has spent its resources wisely, working with local clubs to build trails that meet the needs of large numbers of riders across the country.
After serving as IMBA’s chair, I returned to the organization in 2010 specifically to work on bikes and wilderness. I worked on 30 different bills around the country. With the help of local clubs, we cut deals that kept trails open in 29 of those bills. We lost a few trails in one bill, the Boulder White Clouds (which still has some amazing rides, Big Boulder Creek being my favorite). The best deal we cut was in New Mexico, where we moved the boundary of an existing wilderness area to open a 20-mile trail to an alpine lake right outside of Taos. I have taken some heat for compromising, but democracy requires compromise, and those that demand everything often end up with nothing.
Without public lands, there is no mountain biking, and Sen. Mike Lee is no friend of public lands. He supports the state takeover of public lands and votes consistently NOT to fund the Forest Service or the Bureau of Land Management. Lee’s support of the STC bill is part of his larger agenda to undermine the environmental community, undermine the public land agencies, and give states control of federal lands.
Lee is primarily known for his work to balance the federal budget, and since most states are required to balance their budgets, when hard times come, they have to sell assets to cover the shortfall. If Lee’s vision of our public lands prevails, bike trails on federal lands could be taken over by states and then sold for development when the states need cash. To date, the only bills sponsored by Lee that have actually become laws are those that conveyed federal land to cities and towns for development.
Sen. Lee is using mountain biking to poke the environmental community in the eye. The bill is a symbolic gesture that will not pass, and therefore will not open any wilderness trails. The STC has been duped by a false promise. Plus, we are already seeing increased concerns from environmental groups that previously trusted mountain bikers. One wilderness advocate called me to say, “Prior to this bill, we thought of mountain bikers as our partners and were happy to work with them to protect key places and open trails, but with STC’s partnership with Lee, all bets are off and we need to reconsider our position.”
It is too bad that STC has led us into a partisan battle that ignores the complexity of the public land system, burns bridges with strategic partners, and jeopardizes key relationships with both land managers and public land groups.
Meanwhile, IMBA and the Outdoor Industry Association recently had a great victory in Utah. The Utah state Legislature voted unanimously to fund the Governor’s Office of Recreation. Both Republicans and Democrats see the value of the recreation economy and are looking forward to building and improving trails in every county. The recreation economy is taking off across the country and that will lead to more trails for everyone in both remote communities and large cities. Proximity to trails is how companies recruit talent and states recruit companies. The future is bright for mountain biking, but to keep trails open, we need to maintain a bipartisan stance and work with the environmental community, not against them.
Ashley Korenblat is a Mountain Bike Hall of Famer, former IMBA president, and owner of Western Spirit Cycling.