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Mountain Bikes: a Trojan Horse in the National Parks

It is simply difficult for many citizens to imagine that  managers of the any Park system would deliberately introduce to, and promote in Parks,  an activity based on machines and dependent on vehicles.  Across the nation park lands have become increasingly ecologically fragile and isolated, and each day they become more valuable to local and regional residents, as well as other Americans, for their role in protecting natural ecosystems and contributing to social and environmental well being.  Park managers have often struggled meet these goals, yet this Parks Plan amendment appears to be considering forcing off pavement mountain biking, an activity known to be responsible for a growing list of destructive environmental consequences and one inbred with a culture of lawlessness and aggression, into Adirondack Park.

The apparent thrust of the Park plan amendment presents has an ugly side that threatens to deliver a destructive and irreversible  blow to the public and ecological  role that Parks have historically played, and not incidentally, were in part established to play. Parks have through time united citizens from across the state, and in some cases citizens from coast to coast, and faithfully served tens of millions of citizens. Where they have served Americans, they have successfully done so in large part by being stable refuges from mechanization, commercial development and industrialization.  Based on a suspect management “review”, one in which mountain bikes have suddenly achieved their own special category of user, a century of successfully serving  people from across the state is  apparently no longer a high priority – no longer a management standard. Satisfying millions of visitors expecting equal and unimpaired access to most park natural areas, all while serving the dual role as home to relatively intact and protected ecosystems, is now under severe and intense attack from commercial and mechanized interests.

The consideration of mechanized and vehicle access (mtn bikes) strikes not only at Park ecosystems, but equally as dangerously,  it attacks the century long conservation and protection vision and philosophical foundation of  Parks in general.  There have always been extreme activity and commercial interests pounding at the doors of any Parks system, whether they be mining, grazing, or hotelier interests. But the newest breed, equally as dangerous, are mountain bike promoters, dealers and manufacturers. Park management has far too often cowered before these latest pressures, whose proponents sense weakness and incapacity to regulate; and too often senior Park Management has assuaged its failures to protect Parks with cries that compromise is necessary!

Compromise, however, no longer has a place in the conservation and protection of remnant landscapes like Adirondack Park. Compromise is the function of giving away something each time pressure or demand occurs. It works well for commercial, corporate and other special interests but not for the protection of primitive zoned landscapes!

Local and regional residents have already had most of the land in the state compromised by special interest users. After 100 years Parks are only the remnants of insatiable demand and compromise. They are invaluable; and they harbor and, in cases, anchor much of the still ecologically functional landscapes. They are the end result of a century of conservation horse trading.  Now another crack has appeared in the conservation dam.

In danger are still functioning, living ecosystems that have absolutely nothing to gain from compromise. They need all their existing biological and evolutionary parts and processes to stay “alive”.

This invasion of Parks is not happening by accident. It is, in my view, a calculated effort to defer to extremists in local communities, national lobby groups like the International  Mountain Biking Association and their local “tribes”, and often radical chamber of commerce types and collaborating legislators.

America is already seeing failures resulting from managements abdication of legal and moral, social and environmental obligations. In Big Bend National Park, for example, the Superintendent caved in to mountain bike lobbyists from outside the Park [1],  where National Park standards were eroded through complicity with an in-service coterie of people, and ruthlessly authorized introduction of the climate of ecological and social conflict that characterizes mountain biking. Americans must resist  the crushing top-down fist of commercialization and associated extremist activities accelerating ecological decline and fueling disintegration of democratic public participation process.

When conservation management of a Park retreats to the level of  what some might refer to as a reasonable compromise, it is illuminating to look at the money and lobbying trail. A compromise built on blind or willful ignorance of conflict, intense lobbying by special interests like mountain bike dealers, manufacturers and promoters, and an indefensible absence of scientifically sound environmental impact assessment and land and wildlife protection standards, is not a compromise.

It is alarming that the Adirondack Park Agency might consider mountain biking in direct confrontation of decades of sound scientific study showing the acute and costly conflict between machines, their users, and wildlife, including birds and reptiles. After decades of intense effort by the public, with collaboration by some government agencies,  it would be offensive to see planners and managers load additional human use and conflict into delicately balanced ecosystems.

The net results of a mountain bike invasion will be many, all negative. Opening the floodgates, or even partial concession to mountain biking promoters will further aggravate bitter and unjustified conflict about who owns Park lands and who should decide how and to what extent they are protected.

The change that will take over Adirondack Park (or critical parts of it) when mountain bikes begin to run freely will resemble a life altering shroud of social and user conflict.  Contrary to the rote arguments by mountain bikers a decision to slip mountain biking into parts of Adirondack Park  is a decision that will significantly affect the quality of the environment. Gone will be the serenity and satisfaction experienced by citizens that come to watch wildlife and walk in spectacular landscapes in peace; front country and back country solitude will be elusive, if not gone; the delightful anonymity that hikers exhibit, their generally quiet demeanor and friendly yet excited conservations about the grandness of nature, will be over ridden by the high fiving, whooping, and screeching common to some mountain bikers, the constant clutter, thumping and creaking of machines, and the visual spectacle of some people that consider themselves members of “tribes” and often dress in garish garb characteristic of the  Tour de France. No two groups of people could be in greater contrast.

One of these groups, citizens that have enjoyed parts of Adirondack Park for non mechanized and peaceful recreation will lose an often cherished and valued park environment and experience, while another, mountain bikers and their corporate backers, will take over previously natural use landscapes with machines and the bravado that accompanies them.

This cannot be viewed, except in todays perverse commercial and growth dominated agenda, as a success or achievement.

In what stands out as a masterful piece of deception, mountain bikers, their advocates and regulatory ministries almost exclusively hang their hat on only one issue  to “justify” their activities and it is that bikes and bikers have no greater impact on a trail than hikers. They reference essentially one study that began with a crippling bias – it was originally instigated and funded by the mountain biking industry. It focused on whether a bike tire or hiking boot causes more damage to a trail. The result is the farcical equivalent of claiming that the only impact your car has on the world in which it operates is where its tires contact the pavement. It is a magicians slight of hand – like the broken wing display of a grouse leading the dog off the trail – that has hornswoggled land and wildlife managers and, it appears, government environmental analysts.

To make the claim that the physical impact of mountain biking on soils is no greater than the impact of hikers and walkers is not just preposterous, but for any land management agency to hang their “justification hat” on it as thought if were ordained by solid science and evidence, is dishonest.  To dismiss as irrelevant the weight loading on tire surface, the constant shear of rotation movement, and the braking, sliding and skidding of wheels, says a great deal about the ideological spin advocates (and some land managers) have put on this issue. Unwittingly, I suspect, land and wildlife managers and proponents of mtn biking contradict themselves and the “no greater impact” argument by immediately pointing to the need for drastic trail upgrading , including “armor” plating,  necessary to accommodate biking. That begs the question, just which is it, ladies and gents? No impact, or massive trail construction and / or upgrades which lead to a sharp increase in physical trail size and presence, biker use, and subsequent erosion surface?

But this is only a small part of the effort to railroad public perception of bikes and biker impacts and conflicts. By insisting that you and I hold a magnifying glass to the physical impact of bikes on soil (trails) regulators and bikers systematically  ignore and misrepresent the three greatest areas of impacts; 1) conflict with traditional users, and the rapid displacement of hikers, walkers and people interested in the natural world  and  escape from machines and industrialization (is that not what a Park is for?), 2) the vastly extended range of impacts on soil, waterways and vegetation that machines cause, and 3) the broad and often intensive ecological and behavioral [2] zone of impact on wildlife that bikes and bikers impose on the trails and parking areas they use.

This orchestrated misrepresentation by omission is as absurd as arguing that the only thing important about the elephant in your living room is the sole of its foot!

The prevailing  view of industrial and vehicle impacts on landscapes and ecosystem is dependent on a long established administrative / corporate insistence that the non human living world be regarded as an essentially mechanical system lacking the sensory and cognitive abilities of humans when in fact, the mammals, birds and fish that occupy public lands have sensory systems and abilities / capabilities that are in many cases far superior to those of humans. This requires cognitive and reflex capacity, different than that of humans of course, to process (and react to) the information they get from their surroundings, surroundings which increasingly are clogged with human presence.

The displacement effect of newly created or aggravated habitat “pits” that form around mountain biking roads and activities, consisting of lost and degraded habitat security and utility,  will redistribute some, if not many or all, of the members of existing wildlife populations, with ramifications for in-Park and inter-jurisdictional conservation and conflict management. These negative changes will add cumulatively to existing stress on endangered species, populations, individual animals, their habitat and legally mandated conservation and recovery efforts.

Humans have an evolutionary and cultural connection with wildlife, and while much of this is cognitive – a positive mental state of mind about wildlife – there is no question too that the setting – both the landscape and designated management agenda, as well as visual, auditory and olfactory signs – all elicit renewal and reinforcement of cognitive connection and enjoyment.

One of the immeasurably rewarding pleasures gained from walking in, or just thinking about, a Park is not seeing evidence or examples or occurrences of mechanical contrivances, the kinds of things people in North America see on a hourly basis in most of their life. Escaping these stress producing irritants is a major reason people use Parks, wilderness areas, and other more well managed, less industrialized public lands. It is a treat, soothing to the soul and mind, to walk a trail and not see tire tracks, discarded parts of machines, or the high rate of debris vehicle users haul with them, or a bike desepoiling a nearby ridge top. Adirondack Park will be tarnished forever,  losing in the process a great deal of its natural lustre, if vehicle bike tracks begin to desecrate trails.

Walking a trail and seeing tracks of a deer or black bear that might be just ahead of you, or passed by this morning travelling your way, or  wondering if it’s just around the corner, or simply admiring the delicate track of a that deer, brings a surge of pleasure and excitement to many hikers, me included.

In this cumulative respect, the presence of mountain bikes on any landscape is an added threat to the appreciation and conservation of natural cultural resources – resources which are not always carved on a rock wall – and which I believe include evidence of trail use by wildlife, however temporary these signs of the natural world might be. These important signs and indicators are obliterated by mechanization like mountain biking.

The stunning ignorance imbedded in the argument “just let us build a super sized (bike) road – bikers and their industry coyly insist on calling them trails – for bikes travelling at 7 to 20 times the speed at which a hiker walks,  at multiple bike widths, with extreme construction durability,  sometimes through  previously unfragmented wildlife habitat, and then introduce bikers with an anti social “we deserve to have our machines here attitude”, and we “know” there will be no environmental or social impact,  indicates a deep seated attitude of denial, entitlement, and disrespect. Equally as threatening to public lands like Adirondack park and citizens who engage in traditional use of those lands,  is the acceptance of such a fraudulent claim by regulators such as APA.

Decisions to enable off pavement mountain bike use in Parks ignore reality; the daily range of mountain bikes far exceeds that of people on foot (or horseback), it allows bikes and bikers to outdistance and elude the “reach” of law enforcement,  and it ignores the far reaching biker invasion of designated or de facto  habitat security which Parks have at least historically attempted to provide. Mountain bikes represent not only a vastly different kind of human footprint, but they enable major expansion of the human footprint with negative ecological, and wildlife population dynamics and viability consequences.

A recent decision printed in the Federal Register under the heading “Vehicles – bicycles”, is at least honest, although probably by accident, and indicates to me that legally, mountain bikes are vehicles! Its time Park managers acknowledge, in their everyday language and planning documents, that mountain bikes are vehicles, that should be treated and managed like all other vehicles. In  reality, proposals to permit mountain bikes in Parks  represent a seismic shift to give priority to vehicles above traditional – historical foot dependent use by humans.

The reality is that far too many land and wildlife management agencies and people in those agencies, become mired in a chronically under informed vacuum that fails to serve the public interest or meet the serious needs of scientific, intelligent and aggressive conservation responses and actions now desperately required in places like Adirondack; I would like to think APA is not one of them.

The list of impacts and conflicts associated with mountain biking keeps growing, and yet land and wildlife managers frequently behave as though they are without common, scientific or social sense, robotically repeating propaganda and misinformation from the biker lobby. Mountain bikers as a group are disproportionately males, young males. Yet Parks have until recently prided themselves in appealing to the biological evolutionary linkage to the natural world found in virtually all members of society, including females and all age classes of Americans. It is not uncommon, in fact, to see special programs designed to get all people interested and active in the outdoors. Mountain biking does exactly the opposite; the aggression and threats to emotional and physical well being  of walking trail users that bikers present disproportionately drives female hikers, outdoor activists, and young, mature and elderly walkers to abandon trails and areas invaded by mountain bikers. Consequently, many hikers abandon areas sacrificed to mtn bikers, leading to displacement of woman of all ages as they abandon “their” public lands, their hiking trails, their favorite walks and their special areas,  creating a sex aggravated impact.

The threat that bikes and bikers pose to other users and wildlife should come as no surprise. The cognitive “envelope” around a person engaged in a seemingly simply yet demanding manual motor task like riding a mountain bike on a trail is disturbingly  narrow; it consumes most of the participants brain “power”, virtually shutting off input to that individual from visual, auditory and olfactory signals that originate outside that very restricted envelope. In other words, contrary to the proclamations of bikers about experiencing the outdoors and interacting with the natural world, they are virtually in a shroud created by subconscious innate, natural biological and neural demands on their senses; they see little, hear little, and smell very little. They are as distant and removed from “nature” [3] as if they were driving a car! And they are almost as much of a threat.

The tiresome claim that mtn bikers are being “denied access” to any area is another of the baseless and factless arguments common to promoters of the industry;  Almost all bikers are, as trite as it may seem to point it out, in possession of two legs and two feet and (most) are as capable of walking as hikers are. They have never been denied access to wilderness areas, protected areas, Parks. Like every other American, they are welcome to walk public lands under virtually all circumstances, the very, very few exceptions – which apply equally to all users – being resource protection closures!

Public lands and Parks were initially protected many decades ago because visionary people saw great value in public ownership of  exceptional landscapes that “protected (“stored”)  and renewed watershed, biodiversity (including wildlife and natural landscapes), clean air, and refuge for all citizens from the physical and mental poking and prodding of everyday work and survival.

This great vision and the ecological well being of these landscapes began to slowly unravel beginning in the 1960s when public lands began to be viewed as storehouses for extractable resources. Parks, in some cases however, began to segregate themselves from this consumption agenda, establishing themselves in the eyes of the public, as the best of special places and deserving of legal protection separating them from the industrial and mechanical invasion that was degrading adjacent public lands.

By the 1980s the march against public lands was intense, but still Parks, thanks in large part to growing involvement of citizens who had come to realize what was at stake, held the high road against industrialization and mechanization by special commercial interests.

What was gaining momentum inside the bowels of political government and some public service agencies, however, was a culture that viewed public lands as a dumping ground or release valve for new land use schemes that were gaining insider political traction, including off road vehicles, oil and gas exploration and exploitation, logging and the most recent, off pavement mountain biking.

As is now becoming evident, todays regulators and Parks management system is being threatened as are the protection of ecological, legal and social characteristic that have for over a century defined societies view and expectations of Parks. The premise that continued human and industrial consumption of the biocapacity of  public lands (by for example, mountain bikes and bikers) can be “managed” at the impact end (on the trail) as opposed to the decision making “end” (before it starts) threatens dramatic interference with the ecological function of Parks as we know them today.

Parts of Adirondack Park are amongst the few remaining landscapes on which society has committed itself to sharing physical and ecological space with other species. Now this commitment is under severe threat. The growing occurrence of incremental expansionary and consumptive actions are irreversibly degrading Parks, each one taking another bite out of the Parks living systems and each one counter to the traditional role of maintaining ecological function and keeping development and mechanization out of and at a distance from Park Ecosystems. In some sectors of government and the public service, this agenda is misrepresented as “leadership” when in fact what is needed are managers  whose leadership would come in the form of  an in- Park “no growth – no additional activities” agenda.

One of the pressing needs in todays world is the need for some positive social constants, as well as some ecological stability, and Parks have historically played just such a role, helping stabilize the lives of millions of Americans. Parks are intended to act as fire walls against the day to day frenzy of commercial, government, corporate,  and self centered individualism that creates the disparity and stress in todays world.  Changes in orientation of Adirondack Park, in this specific case opening any part of the presently protected Park to  mountain bike vehicle use,  are striking at the century long stability and vision of Parks and creating another layer of tension Americans don’t need and haven’t asked for.

 

Notes.

[1] Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility. 2012.   Big Bend breaks ground on single-track bike racing trail.         News Release, 18 April 2012.

[2] Displacement, harassment, and alienation.

[3]  This cognitive isolation is made even more acute by a helmet,     which not only physically shields the rider from his/her       environment, but provides the rider a sense of anonymity and   consequently immunity, one foundation of aggressive and   lawless conduct.

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