by Drew Hanson
A recent solicitation from the International Mountain Biking Association (IMBA) may be helping fill the organization’s coffers but it is creating a stir among their friends in the walking and hiking communities.
National Scenic Trails are open to everyone. We all share all eleven of them. But no one should be allowed to do whatever they want on them. There are rules to using trails just like there are rules to all sorts of other things in our lives. For one, we're not allowed to walk or pedal a bike on controlled access freeways like most interstate highways. The rules protect safety, preserve civility or leave the shared thing in the same general working order for the next person to use. In some places, rules even protect the high quality of an experience.
Unfortunately some advocates pressing to change trail use like to loosely use the word "share" as though adding more types of uses is somehow altruistic. Such slack talk misuses a word we all learn as kids. How something is shared is key. Challenging are the more subtle things about sharing that require leaving the shared thing in the same condition as we found it. If one child borrows a friend’s bicycle but returns it with torn handle grips, that's not good sharing. If I'm riding my bike on a sidewalk, I need to be extra careful to make sure that I could not possibly collide with a child who might run out from behind a parked car otherwise I'm not being a good sharer of the sidewalk.
What if I were to argue, why won’t the rest of you just share a museum like the Guggenheim (in New York) by letting me ride my bike inside? Eh-hem. How would such a ride affect the experience of others? Would that be good sharing?
One online mountain bike advocate recently wrote, “If your children said ‘I was here first!’ and wouldn't share with their friends would you let them get away with it?” A response is that we all teach our children how to share. This means following rules regarding how a toy is used, not wrecking shared toys, not harming others, not intimidating others, etc. If my child finds a toy first, she is taught to share it with others as long as everyone is using it by the rules. Some toys, like handmade or antique dolls, may need special rules. If there are too many demands on the toy and the children cannot work it out, I may need to buy more than one of the same toy so they can play separately.
Regarding the need to sometimes separate trail uses, another online advocate quipped, “separate but equal, didn’t we try that before?”—suggesting Brown v. Board of Education somehow relates to trail use. It doesn’t. No person is being discriminated against by trail use rules any more than is the case with use rules for highways or museums. Anyone may use a public trail, highway or museum, as long as they follow the rules, which sometimes prohibit pedestrian use.
Some mountain bike advocates like to cite a study from the organization American Trails about multi-use trails as proof that mountain bikes can be on hiking trails. But, first, American Trails is an organization that is biased toward high impact trail uses. An article about higher impact uses of the Ice Age Trail appeared in Pedestrian View in September, 2012.
Second, in the 1980s-90s on the Ice Age Trail when mtn bikes were gaining popularity on the segment through the Southern Kettle Moraine State Forest, hikers and trail maintainers accepted the added use. But gradually the greater impact of bikes became more and more apparent. The issues were studied, land managers consumed by the problem, a report completed and in the end it was determined that hiking use and biking use needed to be separated. (They chose to make the old segment of the Ice Age Trail part of a new mountain bike trail system while a new roughly parallel hiking trail needed to be created, but that's water under the bridge.)
The resulting report, "Off-Road Bicycle and Hiking Trail User Interactions: A Report to the Wisconsin Natural Resources Board", Alan W. Bjorkman, Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources-Bureau of Research, May 24, 1996, 124 pages, was quite thorough. An excerpt from page 1 of the report: "Purpose: In the Spring of 1992, the Wisconsin Natural Resources Board authorized a three-year study to describe social, biological, and physical impacts of off-road mountain bike use. This was in response to mounting evidence of physical impact and social conflict on off-road biking trails. This report is the result of three seasons of natural and social science research." In a nutshell, the report documented and quantified various negative impacts (perceived, physical and user conflict) of having mountain biking and hiking on the same trails.
Where bike use has occurred on a segment of National Scenic Trail since a segment was opened to the public, such as the Sugar River Trail portion of the Ice Age National Scenic Trail, and if it can continue to occur safely and without erosion, it should continue. Also, where a large enough land base exists along a National Scenic Trail and where the natural resources can support new trail systems without harming rare things, separate mtn bike trails should generally be a reasonable option.
I would personally advocate for new off-road bike trails in certain areas along the Ice Age National Scenic Trail that might otherwise become ATV trail systems, housing developments, and more (unless the presence of rare things prohibits any other uses). But advocating for the addition of mtn bikes on the tread of a National Scenic Trail will continually put IMBA at odds with others.
Let's be honest, anyone is free to enjoy any portion of any National Scenic Trail provided we all follow a shared set of rules. Divisive efforts that pressure public officials to change the rules that keep National Scenic Trails safe, civil, sustainable and high-quality are misguided.
Active outdoor recreationists like walkers, hikers, bicyclists and mountain bikers need to work together to preserve more places for silent sports, support full funding of the Land and Water Conservation Fund, maintain high-quality experiences and respect the fact that separate trail systems are sometimes needed.