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IMBA has announced a new “assertive stance” to fight what they view as wrongful trail closures without due process in places where they have an active IMBA chapter, during their press conference Thursday. However, IMBA has reaffirmed that they do not support mountain biking in Wilderness areas, and in no way do they seek to modify the 1964 Wilderness Act:

“IMBA’s board renewed its longtime position that amending the 1964 Wilderness act is an unnecessary means to achieve our mission. Therefore, IMBA’s board will not support any effort and will not support any organization that attempts to amend the 1964 Wilderness Act. There are downstream negative and unintended consequences that make such an effort politically unviable. IMBA will not expend its hard-earned political capital on such a risky and unnecessary endeavor, when so much more access can be achieved on 90% of public lands that are not currently protected as Wilderness.”

In plain English, IMBA does not support the efforts of the Sustainable Trails Coalition, and does not agree with 90.5% of mountain bikers who believe that mountain bike advocates should be actively pushing for access to Wilderness.

However, in a somewhat contradictory claim, IMBA states that while they do not support amending the Wilderness Act and seeking to get bikes allowed in Wilderness Areas, they do believe that bikes are compatible with the intent of the Wilderness Act: “Bicycling is a human-powered, low-impact, quiet form of travel and healthy outdoor recreation compatible with wild places and the intent of the Wilderness Act.” (Source) So, if IMBA was answering our survey questions, they probably would have answered “No” to the question of whether or not mountain bike advocates should be pushing for access to Wilderness trails, they would have answered “Yes” to whether or not mountain biking is compatible with Wilderness ethics, and when asked if mountain bikers should have access to some or all Wilderness Areas, they would have written in an answer of, “we believe some of the mountain bike trails currently in Wilderness should not be in Wilderness.” See below for a discussion of redrawing Wilderness boundaries.

Instead of working to open Wilderness to mountain bikes, IMBA’s reasoning is that they can achieve much more progress by working on current and ongoing trail building projects on non-Wilderness land.

Riding the 401 Trail in Crested Butte, Colorado. Rider: Caren Villaroman. Photo: Dinno Domingo.

Riding the 401 Trail in Crested Butte, Colorado. Rider: Caren Villaroman. Photo: Dinno Domingo.

When I asked, “What would you say to the 90% of mountain bikers that think we should be trying to open Wilderness to bikes?” Mike Van Abel, IMBA’s President, responded,

“I didn’t actually take the survey, so I don’t even know the questions that were asked. The response did not surprise me at all. We know the aspirations that mountain bikers have and the experience that they want, and what better experience than a wilderness or wilderness-like experience, being in a landscape that gives us, as mountain bikers, the solitude, the adventure, the sense of freedom–all those benefits that most of us know quite well. So I was not at all surprised by the response that you got.”

Note that Singletracks.com informed IMBA of the release of our survey data prior to the press conference, and that we even supplied IMBA with the questions that we asked, along with all of the data that we received in response.

Based on the press conference, it is clear that above and beyond their “assertive stance” to fighting trail closures, IMBA will not be taking any action to help bikes gain access to Wilderness Areas, contrary to the wishes of the vast majority of mountain bikers. That said, IMBA believes that there is plenty of room for mountain bikers to support more than one advocacy group. As Heather Cooper of IMBA wrote,

“We also want to encourage supporters to recognize that there is room in the public policy arena for you to support multiple organizations. If you are aligned with other mountain bike advocacy organizations’ vision, strategies and tactics, please support them. If you plan on mountain biking long term, IMBA values your loyal support too!  This is a win-win for all.”

For more information on what IMBA is willing to do, read on.

IMBA’s Assertive Stance to Fight Trail Closures

IMBA has reaffirmed that they are ardently against the closure of trails that are currently open to bikes:

“It is unacceptable for government agencies to arbitrarily, without proper analysis and empirical evidence of adverse impacts, close access to trails currently enjoyed by people riding bicycles. Further, we will seek to reopen trails via our national support of local chapters when those local trails were arbitrarily closed to bikes.”

The key point is the second sentence: IMBA will be seeking to reopen trails that have been arbitrarily closed, and will not take those losses lying down.

One of the key tactics that IMBA plans to use is the redrawing of Wilderness boundaries to move idyllic mountain bike trails outside of the Wilderness. They successfully accomplished this in New Mexico in 2014, which was a landmark case regarding the modification of a Wilderness boundary. However, some analysts didn’t share IMBA’s enthusiasm, noting that mountain bikers gained 10 miles of trail but lost 75 miles of trail in the redrawing process. IMBA plans to use this same strategy in the future.

The Possibility of Legal Action

However, perhaps the biggest announcement was that the IMBA board has given IMBA staff approval to launch legal action regarding the closure of mountain bike trails in the Bitterroot National Forest in Montana and Idaho, due to the Forest Service recommending that area as Wilderness.

“We are currently pursuing and doing our due diligence for the possibility of legal action in the Bitterroot National Forest in Montana and Idaho. Should we decide to go forward with legal action, we will ask the court whether the US Forest Service properly applied NEPA, and other environmental laws, in their determination that bikes are incompatible with and diminish the wilderness character of a landscape.”

It’s important to note that the areas in question are not currently Wilderness or Wilderness Study Areas, but simply national forest areas that the local Forest Service is recommending as Wilderness. However, the Forest Service has already chosen to ban mountain bikes from these trails, and quite probably without due process and environmental analysis: this is where the possibility of the lawsuit arises. It’s important to note that IMBA has not yet decided whether or not to engage in legal action. While IMBA staff has received board approval for legal action, they are still assessing the ramifications of that action, and the likelihood that the courts would rule in their favor.

IMBA is not known for filing lawsuits, so even the possibility of legal action is a significant change in strategy. IMBA has only tried to fight the loss of mountain bike access with a lawsuit one time: in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area in California. IMBA lost.

One thing is clear: 2016 could prove to be a pivotal year for mountain bike trail access, with both IMBA and the STC pushing substantial advocacy agendas. Stay tuned as we continue to cover this topic in the months (and years) to come.

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# Comments

  • bitterroot

    Just one bit of clarification regarding the Bitterroot National Forest. The trail closures include 178 miles of trails in both Wilderness Study Areas and Recommended Wilderness. The Sapphire WSA was not included in the recommended wilderness as of the last Forest Plan and only half of the Blue Joint WSA was recommended for wilderness. In both of the WSAs and in other trails being closed the local IMBA chapter, Bitterroot Backcountry Cyclists has an established history of trail use and trail maintenance. More info at http://www.savemontanatrails.com

    • Greg Heil

      Hi bitterroot, thanks for the clarification. It’s a complicated issue, no doubt! Based on IMBA’s press conference, it sounds like the lands that they’re interested in filing the law suit about are the Recommended Wilderness lands… IMBA made it sound like they wanted no part of dealing with the WSAs… I may need to re-listen to some of the Q&A, but that was my takeaway.

    • bitterroot

      You are right it is complicated, as the WSAs and recommended wilderness overlap so you have parts of WSAs that are also recommended wilderness, WSAs that are not recommended wilderness, and recommended wilderness that is not part of a WSA. Management of these lands is covered under different regulations to a degree. The WSAs by the Montana Wilderness Study Act of 1977, and the recommended wilderness I don’t recall off hand. And just to reiterate, all are outside of congressionally designated wilderness.

      Regardless of how they are being categorized, the effect is the same; unjustified trail closures.

  • FattyHeadshok

    This is simply a ridiculous argument. With a movement in congress by one particular political party to “sell off the federal lands to states and commercial interests” one of the arguments for this movement is that no one uses these lands and the localities and corporations could do a better job. Well…. If you don’t allow bikes then no one is going to use them anyway. It’s a rare few that will hike that far or ride horses that deep into the wilderness. But the popularity and capability of a mountain bike is the ideal way to let the citizens see what we as a country have to offer. This all stems from the “Mtb’s are just a bunch of obnoxious scofflaws” view perpetrated by the likes of elitist hikers and equestrians that feel like we’re going to ruin their world. Every mtb should be on board with wilderness access. Hell we’re the ones that by a large margin build and maintain the trails. Not being on board with this agenda brings into question your identity as a “Mountain biker”.

  • swerverider

    Really IMBA? REALLY? Wow…Talk about out of touch with your membership… WE make up your membership – you should be doing what WE want. Jus’ sayin’

  • KJAustin

    I’m going to be the contrarian here. I grew up in Montana, so I’m not some city slicker, although I live in one now…

    Regardless, there can be some drawbacks to additional human activity in wilderness on wildlife, etc. I believe the majority of bikers would be respectful, but we’ve all experienced the disrespectful few that can ruin it.

    Now that I’m in Texas, this issue doesn’t impact me so much, but I can sympathize with those that have been impacted. It just doesn’t seem so cut-and-dried as most proponents make it seem.

    And, yes, I believe I can still call myself a mountain biker and not fully support Wilderness access.

    Greg, I know you’ve written on this topic before and mentioned the overwhelming view of “us,” but was that a scientific poll with a margin of error or an unscientific poll of readers who chose to respond?

    I like a healthy debate, but when one side claims to be superior, or the only “true” mountain biker, or threatens that “we should be doing what we want”; it leaves a bad taste and reminds our current state of devisive politics.

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