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Opportunity or threat?

Clinton's Forest Service Roadless Initiative perplexes mountain bikers

from the International Mountain Bicycling Association

"Roadless areas can be ideal settings for mountain biking, because they include singletracks, where cyclists prefer to ride. Roadless areas are also prime candidates for Wilderness designation, where bicycling is banned." --Tim Blumenthal, IMBA executive director

How can mountain bikers maintain reasonable trail access and support land protection measures at the same time? This is a question that IMBA's staff, board, state reps and member clubs try to answer every day.

This is also the key question that rises from the October 13, 1999 directive by President Clinton on Forest Service roadless areas. The President directed the Forest Service to permanently ban road construction in non-Wilderness inventoried roadless areas of 5,000 acres or more on Forest Service land. He has also requested that the Forest Service consider permanent roadless designation for areas between 1,000 and 5,000 acres that are contiguous to protected unroaded areas of 5,000 acres or more.

The Forest Service responded by beginning the preparation of an Environmental Impact Statement. The EIS will examine the consequences of the roadless areas designations, and will also assess how roadless areas will be managed. The formal USFS statement said, "This national direction would guide land managers in determining what activities are consistent with protecting the important ecological and social values associated with inventoried roadless areas."

The process is scheduled for completion by December 2000, just prior to the end of President Clinton's second and final term. This initiative follows an interim road-building moratorium that affected many of these roadless areas, which was enacted last February. Overall, this new directive could affect 40 to 60 million acres of the 192 million acres of public land that is managed by the U.S. Forest Service.


Roadless areas can be ideal settings for mountain biking, because they tend to be quiet, exceptionally scenic and relatively uncrowded. Roadless areas usually include singletrack trails, where cyclists prefer to ride, and mountain biking is not necessarily restricted in Forest Service roadless areas. If backed by reasonable but powerful management directives, the roadless area designation could become a viable alternative to Wilderness. On the other hand, large roadless areas are primary candidates for Wilderness designation. Since 1984, bicycle use in federally designated Wilderness has been strictly prohibited.

Motorized trail user groups say the initiative is intended to comprehensively ban their use on millions of acres of public land where they have traditionally enjoyed access. Furthermore, they have asked IMBA to join a coalition opposing this initiative, predicting that bicycle access will be similarly curtailed.

The President did not specifically mention motorized or mechanized (mountain bike) use in his announcement. Nevertheless, many people—mountain bikers included—are concerned about the language used to describe part two of the process, particularly the words about determining the activities that are consistent with the social values of roadless areas. Is mountain biking consistent with the social values of roadless areas? IMBA would say "absolutely yes." Some others, without a doubt, would say "no."

Another perspective comes from the influential Wilderness Society, whose representatives told IMBA in early November that they hope that a significant percentage of this newly protected land—though not all, or even most—will eventually become designated Wilderness. Such designations would of course mean the end of mountain biking in these areas. The Wilderness Society says the President's intention (which they support) is primarily to eliminate new road construction and address the fact that the Forest Service currently receives only one fifth of the funding necessary to maintain its existing 380,000-mile road system. They admit that they would like to see the Forest Service restrict motorized trail recreation in these newly protected areas. They say they see the President's Initiative as an opportunity for Wilderness advocates and mountain bikers to work together.

For IMBA and mountain bikers, the Roadless Initiative is perplexing. If it is successful, additional public land suitable for bicycling will be protected from development, and will remain in a relatively natural state. While Forest Service roads are widely popular for riding, Forest Service trails are even more so...and this proposal wouldn't necessarily reduce trail access for mountain bikers. If the initiative goes no further than permanently designating roadless areas, leaving travel management decisions to the traditional site-specific Forest Service decision-making process, it could be a measure we can support.

On the other hand, the success of this initiative would likely "set the table" for the designation of additional Wilderness. While nearly all IMBA members support most outcomes of Wilderness designation, its comprehensive ban on bicycle access is, at the least, cause for concern.

Independent of this initiative, several dozen new Wilderness proposals are in the works. Some encompass trails where mountain biking is currently popular. New Roadless Area protection, coupled with a possible Forest Service statement about compatible social activities that is critical of mountain biking, could advance new Wilderness proposals that would decrease trail access for off-road cyclists.


The President's Roadless Initiative shows the pressing need for an alternative designation to Wilderness—one that protects land from development, but doesn't comprehensively ban mountain biking. For more than a year, IMBA has been promoting the concept of an alternative designation, which we've been calling an enhanced National Conservation Area or National Recreation Area designation. (See IMBA Trail News, September-October '98 edition; or on IMBA's website: This idea has evoked positive comments from many mountain bikers. The reaction from traditional Wilderness proponents has been mixed.

The latest group to step forward in support of this idea is a new organization called the Wilderness Act Reform Coalition (WARC), which is operating from the offices of the Blue Ribbon Coalition, an Idaho-based group that comprises mostly motorized trail users and has been an outspoken critic of all new Wilderness proposals. WARC is pushing the idea of reopening some of the 104 million acres of currently designated federal Wilderness to bicycle use.

IMBA's NCA/NRA proposal concentrates on lands that have not already been designated as Wilderness, and is not meant to alter the interpretation of the Wilderness Act.


The Wilderness Act Reform Coalition's proposal, which it hopes will garner support from mountain bikers, raises another important question: where should IMBA stand in relation to motorized trail user groups and issues?

IMBA has traditionally taken a hands-off approach on motorized trail use issues. We decided long ago that nearly all of our resources and energy needed to be applied to mountain biking access, education and image issues. We have been asked many times to join coalitions that categorically oppose motorized trail use...and we have declined. We have also been asked many times to join coalitions whose primary constituents are motorized trail users...and we've similarly declined.

Mountain biking is a muscle-powered silent sport, and in that way it is fundamentally different from motorized trail use. Mountain bikers generally have less physical impact on the land than motorized users and less social impact on other trail users. Beyond these points, there isn't consensus among IMBA members on where we should stand in relation to motorized user groups.

Many, if not most, IMBA members are enthusiastic hikers as well as mountain bikers. Some in our ranks enjoy snowmobiling and/or motorcycle/ATV use. Not many IMBA clubs work regularly with motorized trail users. But a few, particularly in the Northwest, have closely cooperated with motorized trail-use groups.

At this point, IMBA stands independently as an association of mountain bikers. We have not joined the forces of those who either want to categorically ban or comprehensively expand motorized use. This is a strategic position, one that is designed to give mountain bikers the strongest, most effective voice in shaping trail access decisions.


As of this writing, IMBA and mountain bikers seem to have at least four options on President Clinton's Initiative:

1. We can support it as a member of a coalition that comprises environmental groups such as the Sierra Club and Wilderness Society, saying that it is an important measure to protect America's forests. By being at the table as a supporter, we could enhance our status when it comes time to discuss trail management policies on these lands.

2. We can support it independently (without joining a coalition), and work to ensure that the measure goes no further than restricting logging and road construction, leaving trail management decisions as local, community-based processes. This could be the best way to make sure mountain biking remains an option in as many of these newly protected areas as possible.

3. We can oppose it independently, saying that the measure will result in too many lost riding opportunities because many (if not most) of these permanently protected roadless areas are likely to become managed as Wilderness without undergoing the essential public and Congressional review processes.

4. We can oppose it as a member of a coalition that comprises motorized trail user groups such as WARC, saying that it usurps the power of Congress and the public to play central roles in shaping public land management decisions.

Regardless of which path we choose, IMBA can continue to promote the idea of a strong legal alternative to Wilderness designation.

President Clinton's Roadless Initiative is just one indication of a trend toward more active, more restrictive Forest Service management of public land. It follows the proposal in Colorado's White River National Forest that would close many bicycling trails.

At the very least, all of these new developments suggest that IMBA—our staff, board, state reps and affiliated clubs—will need to be extra vigilant, connected, and strategically minded about Forest Service issues in the coming year.

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