A Sordid and Destructive Affair

Citizens around the world, particularly in self described progressive nations, have long been suspicious and distrustful of government(s) that exclude the public from decision making. While they have rarely done anything about transgressions of their democratic rights the public remains, collectively, a powerful force that routinely diverges in its opinions, desires and vision from that of the special interests that lobby government or are welcomed in the government fold because they endorse a given government agenda. In an effort to neutralize, that is “control”, this latent public power and still, at least superficially, mollify those members of the public who take their responsibility as a citizen seriously, federal, state and provincial governments have succeeded in forcing and compartmentalizing citizens into the category of a special interest. The public increasingly finds itself relegated to stakeholder status, in most cases more impotent than many commercial and corporate special interests.

This transformation of public rights is nothing short of a brilliant political takeover by special, almost exclusively, commercial interests. As one environmentally perceptive author states, it easy to “understand the dynamics of power and repression at work” in something like the rise of stakeholder politics. And it is in the area of environmental protection and regulation that this coercive process plays a particularly potent role. A process that reduces the voices of millions down to a dozen or so representatives cannot maintain control unless it picks and chooses who will be allowed to “play the game”. And as dishonest as it is evident, governments appear to “find their principles” when picking and funding stakeholder participants, now insisting on “equal representation”. As a consequence, 33 million Canadians for example, find themselves “represented”, albeit begrudgingly and in limited cases, in Federal government decision making by a hand full of spokespersons from environmental groups while equal or greater numbers of spokespeople for commercial and corporate interests represent the interests of dozens or hundreds of special interest stakeholders.

In the interests of new found “equal representation”, democracy is turned upside down in stakeholder roundtables where 3 or 4 Eco reps find themselves facing 8 or 10 commercial / corporate stakeholders and spokespersons from governments running the process. When Parks Canada held its “public meeting” of hand picked participants to endorse, and at least in their eyes, “legitimize” mountain biking in Canada’s National Parks, they invited 3 Eco “delegates”, provided they were a “Senior representative of an ENGO whose mandate is in line with that of Parks Canada”.[1] These sorry delegates were to represent the Canadian public at a “table” stacked with 37 other people representing interests such as “partners, mountain biking groups and associations, equipment suppliers, companies who manage the activity”.

As if this were not a sordid enough affair, Parks Canada hired the former executive director of the Canadian International Mountain Biking Association as National trails coordinator, who may well have chaired that meeting! Having railroaded the process, it appears Parks Canada willingly subjected itself, the people of Canada, and just as importantly, democracy itself, to a coup d’etat, as the Minister has recently reaffirmed that mountain biking “could soon become part of the menu of activities offered in national Parks”.[2] This is a factually dishonest statement, since biking has already invaded parks like Banff and Jasper.

While this represents a grotesque betrayal of democratic process, what is equally as duplicitous is the eagerness with which certain individuals and environmental groups (including prominent ones such as the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society) abandon the public, ecological science, historical precedents, and legal and due process, and embrace and defend their now favored stakeholder status, encasing themselves as “insiders” in these closed-to-the-public meetings and discussions. While this divisive process has continued to evolve since the 1970s, stakeholder politics now reign as the most democratically erosive and environmentally destructive schemes conceived of by governments catering to growth and expansion agendas of commercial and corporate interests. Governments, particularly corporate friendly ones, have embraced these deceptive processes as a means of excluding the public from participating in what should be legislated public processes, thus divorcing the people from decisions related to the control and management of exceptionally valuable public resources like National Parks.

From within this cesspool of corrupted internal machinations, a non existent public hearing process, and critically flawed and prejudicial public consultation claims, has oozed the latest in what has become a mountain of threats to Canada’s National Parks; mountain biking. True to its secretive political and management culture, Parks Canada has held no public hearings – let me emphasize this; we are talking about never – and commissioned or internally instigated no social impact or environmental impact assessment of the widely know and well documented damages and conflicts generated by mountain biking. Nowhere in the National Park system is the threat greater than in Banff National Park, the internationally recognized flagship of Canadas Park system, where public policy has been hijacked by private sector Chamber of commerce interests with deceptively folksy names such as the Association of Mountain Parks for Protection & Enjoyment.

The fundamental failure of this close-knit alliance between business interests, public lands agencies and hand picked environmental group “stakeholders” is that they aggressively exclude participation by historical and traditional low-impact public lands users each of whom has, and should have, a constitutional right to be heard. As a result there is no voice for the large numbers of citizens who support the historical and traditional culture of National Parks and who oppose the expansion of destructive, divisive and conflict laden commercial exploitation of our public lands.

Contrary to claims by the IMBA (International Mountain Biking Association) and bikers, mountain biking is largely driven by speed, aggression, thrill seeking, idolatry of gear, and competition. In most cases it has as much to do with being in and appreciating the outdoors as would be the Yankees claim that they play baseball because they are outdoor enthusiasts. The mountain biking industry, along with its trade associations (like BikesBelong and IMBA)[3], on the other hand, is driven by corporations and dealers focussed on expanded sales and consumption and it openly fuels biker extremism and aggression. It may also be an arm of ultra right wing elements in society that motivate its attack on environmental laws, wilderness, the protection of public land ecosystems,[4] and public management and ownership of public lands.

Wrapped in body armor, virtually unable to look left or right, hearing impaired (by helmets and riding noise), engrossed in overpowering and surviving the trail and its “obstacles” – labeled in one mountain biker forum as “whoopdeedos” – and pumped with adrenaline and testosterone (75% or more of bikers are young males), bikers engage in an activity that negates each and every one of the benefits of being outdoors, from enjoying and interacting with the natural world, to finding solitude, to escaping from the stress, noise and pressures of modern society. Mountain biking violates every fundamental principle and public vision for which National Parks were established, and until now, managed.

No group of land users, other than motorized off roaders, has been permitted to create wide spread and intense conflict on public lands like mountain bikers have. The behavior of the leaders and promoters of mountain biking is grounded in sensation seeking, competitiveness and hostility, strongly paralleling the behavior associated with reckless driving of automobiles.[5] The industry glorifies aggressive and objectionable behavior, and far too many of the people recruited by this behavior fall into the mold. In addition to forcing a sense of urbanization into natural landscapes, mountain biking sharply escalates dangerous behavior, where wheeled vehicles powered by mechanical advantage, often weighing several hundred pounds (with rider), hurtle down trails at speeds that threaten, intimidate, injure and kill people who at one time were able to walk peacefully, and safely, on public lands.

While there is a cohort of bike users who confine their vehicles to roads like other vehicles, the majority resist doing so. Few things can be more offensive in a natural setting than a mob of biksters and their vehicles “ripping” down a formerly quiet trail or chugging up an open ridge, often while assaulting ones
senses with rainbow spandex obliterated with corporate logos.

Mountain bikers, contrary to the hypocrisy of their motto “share the trails”, have generated more animosity between themselves and legitimate trail walkers and hikers than ever in public lands management history. A group of physicians addressing some of the behavior and impacts of mountain bikers and bikes say it well:

“We as physicians see the shared use of these narrow trails as hazardous to both pedestrians and cyclists. Because these dangers are inherently obvious, as has happened elsewhere, pedestrians would begin to avoid these shared trails, reducing their options for recreation and exercise.” [6]

And that’s precisely what is happening across North America; in Jasper National Park, for example, bikers have now taken control of over 200 km of former hiking and walking trails, driving traditional peaceful users, many of whom have enjoyed these trails for a lifetime, to abandon them.

Mountain bikers and the mountain biking industry have so far waged a highly successful campaign of denial of impacts and conflicts and diversion of the significance of these issues [7] that has pulled the blinders over the eyes of management agencies and fleeced the public. But reality, however slowly, is catching up to this deception.

The incremental and cumulative environmental and social impacts of mountain biking are as obvious as the schnozzola was on Jimmy Durantes face (too old for you? try Kramer of Seinfeld), yet management agencies are sitting around in denial and indifference as if dumbstuck. The physical, behavioral and ecological impacts of bikers that travel as much as 70 km a day are 7 to 10 times greater than those of the average hiker. With weight loadings on tires that are 6 to 8 times greater than those of the human foot, and are further aggravated by skidding, spinning, cornering, and jumping, much of it deliberate, impacts on soils, streams, wildlife and vegetation are exponentially more significant. Yet we continue to have “institutes” and “researchers” robotically droning on that “the available published literature indicates that mountain biking ….. as an anthropogenic disturbance is similar in its environmental effects as other forms of summer season trail use”. [8]

Direct impacts specific to mountain biking, as though ordained by some superior being (or could it be an advocacy think tank), are summarily being dismissed unless compared to some other activity. The operational and ecological reality of cumulative effects, like the proverbial greased pig, appears to have escaped the grasp of land and wildlife management and conservation professionals and agencies who behave as though extensive and growing mountain biking impacts can only be measured when related to those of traditional hiking activity. Fortunately, growing evidence and wiser voices are now being heard regarding the hazards of mountain biking; it should be obvious that the following also applies to the science, management, and prevention of impacts associated with biking: “we should not assume the lack of studies implies safety, nor should we allow the absence of scientific certainty to stand in the way of exercising our common sense.” [9]

Regulation and management that protects citizens (seeking the emotional, psychological and physical rewards associated with outdoor enjoyment), land, water, wildlife and vegetation should be based on extension and inference from existing information, evidence accumulated through scientific process, common sense, and conflict elimination; it is irresponsible and unacceptable to keep passing the buck – in this case approving mountain bike environmental abuse and social conflict – because of (false) claims that a smoking gun has not yet been identified.

The loss of wildlife habitat security, much of it due to fragmentation and fracturing of habitat by roads and trails built for motorized and mechanized vehicles like mountain bikes,[10] is a world wide problem directly linked to critical declines in fish and wildlife population viability and ominous losses of biological diversity. National Parks and wilderness areas were established partly to counter these threats and to prevent landscape degradation commonly associated with private lands and public lands “managed” for extractive consumption and mechanized exploitation.

As the Earth’s life support systems deteriorate in the face of over threshold human populations and industrial use, the value of intact and protected public lands in counteracting these forces has never been greater. When new trails are constructed to cater to bikers, or hikers and the walking public are driven from trails by high speed vehicles (bikes), or “trails” become roads as they are hardened and widened to accommodate speed and all weather biker travel, wildlife displacement and harassment escalate and habitat security and effectiveness are damaged and lost.[11] Mountain bikes and bikers have attacked even remote remnant ecological and biodiversity strongholds because of their extensive reach – even 50 km does not deter them.

Mountain bikers are notorious regulatory cheats and their history of illegal trail construction (and its associated destruction of soil and vegetation) virtually everywhere they descend on a piece of land is legendary, just as is the inability of management personnel and agencies to police biker activity and protect the land and legitimate land users through effective enforcement.[12] It is a massive and thoughtless distortion to imply that these activities are somehow compatible with “unique and treasured protected areas”! [13] Choking budgets and staff reductions imposed on land management agencies are widening the gap between enforcement (protection) and user violations, giving free rein to mountain biker environmental destruction and social conflict. This is not what Canadians or Americans expect of their National Parks or public lands and it is not the purpose for which these unique landscapes were established.

It is increasingly difficult to tell whether Canadians and Americans just don’t care about the destructive onslaught of mountain biking – I don’t think this is the case for many of them – or whether they have been pounded into a state of numbness by government and corporate resistance to public participation; it may also be that they have been so blitzed by incessant commercialization and private sector exploitation of public resources and corruption of public processes that their defenses have simply been overwhelmed and they no longer realize that they have been, and are being, taken to the cleaners.

A significant portion of this retreat is, I suspect, related to the deep and expanding cultural gap in North American society initiated and fueled by specialized activities and occupations and closely linked corporate and commercial interests.[14] This gap consists on one side of special commercial interests like mountain bike manufacturers and dealers who see public lands like National Parks as cash cows waiting to be exploited, and on the other side, the majority of society who have for a hundred years struggled to protect the cultural and ecological integrity of public lands and the rights of citizens and visitors to build and restore their physical and emotional sense of well being through direct and indirect communion with the natural world. Already suffering the consequences of regulatory vulnerability, National Parks management is caving in to the pressure from the Chamber of Commerce lobby and mountain bikers to ignore cumulative impact and “throw the kitchen sink” into the mix of users, and they are doing so without hearing from, listening to or respecting the traditional quiet users and supporters of Parks.

The attempted sweep of mountain biking into National Parks is a not-so-thin edge of a phalanx of privatization schemes wherein National Parks, and all other public lands, have thrown open the doors to ecologically and socially destructive and objectionable user behavior in order to pander to commercial and economic interests. One thing is certain – we, the people, have been out maneuvered by political manipulation and betrayed by national and regional environmental groups flying the flag of stakeholders. North Americans are slowly letting themselves become “customers” (a dangerous downgrade from citizen status), and customers always pay when using a “product”. National Parks, which we still own and once thought we controlled, are no exception. In this case the costs are enormous – loss of ecological well being, loss of a national and traditional common currency or ownership, pride and equal access, loss of public oversight of National Park decision making, and elimination of the legal right to participation in establishing the vision and direction of Park management by any citizen who chooses to exercise that right. Commercial interests, and now mountain bikers, are determined to turn our National Parks into Disneyland replicas.

There exists a last minute antidote to the mountain bike threat. It requires an awakening by citizens across North America, who have a right and responsibility to call for:

1) a Ministerial or Parliamentary injunction (moratorium) prohibiting all mountain biking in all National Parks, (mountain bike vehicle use on roads like other vehicles excepted).

This injunction should remain in place until,

2) any and all citizens who chose to be heard, are heard, via legally mandated public hearings held across the country, regarding whether Canadians are prepared to sacrifice a century long culture and tradition of National Park enjoyment, pride and ecological integrity for an activity that is inherently conflict driven and environmentally destructive, and

3) an independent assessment of the environmental, social, cultural and decision making impact of mountain biking in the National Park context with full public disclosure and comment periods, has been completed.

4) the biased and prejudicial behavior of Parks Canada regarding mountain biking in National Parks has been investigated and made public.

Dr. BRIAN HOREJSI is a widlife scientist. He can be reached at: b2horejsi@shaw.ca.