Bikes on National Park Trails?
President Bush on a mountain biking trip during a state visit to China. Photo courtesy of whitehouse.gov.
So, the election is nearing and Congress and the president are winding down their agenda. You'd think that would mean there was no news at the federal level that would affect hikers in Washington.
Well, think again.
First, there's a possibility, if a slim one, that Congressman Dave Reichert's bill to add 22,000 acres to the Alpine Lakes Wilderness might pass through Congress before the session adjourns. Read the story on Seattle P.I. reporter Robert McClure's blog. The bill would designate lands in the Middle Fork Snoqualmie area, including the Pratt River Valley. Democratic Reps. Jay Inslee and Norm Dicks of Washington have co-sponsored the bill.
In other news, the Bush administration announced in the waning days of its presidency that it would modify rules to make it easier to allow mountain biking in national parks.
Let's make one thing clear: I like to mountain bike, but I generally use dirt or paved roads. Mountain biking is a carbon-neutral sport, and mountain bikers are important allies in the fight to protect wild lands.
But this rule change raises serious issues. Currently, allowing mountain bikes on a national park trail requires a process that involves environmental review and public comment. This rule change would allow individual park superintendents to simply make the change. Supporters claim this would only apply to "non-controversial" projects. And as my fellow outdoor writer Craig Romano points out in his blog, this rule would not open any wilderness trails to mountain bikes (wilderness trails in Olympic, North Cascades and Mount Rainier would remain hiker-only).
But the current rules, which require environmental review and public comment, (which were put in place during the Reagan administration) are there for a reason. Heavy mountain bike use on a trail can lead to serious erosion. Building trails to mountain bike standards could put new pressures on slim budgets. And on narrow trails where bikers travel at high speed, many hikers are deterred from hiking.
There's no reason the current system can't work to designate trails for mountain bikes. The precedent this administrative action sets is disturbing. Will a similar "streamlining" rule then be put in place for ORVs and snowmobiles, letting these also be allowed without the "hassle" of public comments?
There are some great mountain bike opportunities currently in Washington's national parks. At Mount Rainier, the former Carbon River Road and Westside Road are open to bikes. And places like the Spruce Railroad Trail in Olympic National Park are easily shared by mountain bikers and hikers. These routes were all allowed using the current system.
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