What is going on with IMBA, the STC, and Wilderness? Hard Questions, Answered



When the news broke that IMBA had testified against a proposed bill, HR 1349, that would remove the blanket ban on mountain bikes in Wilderness areas, the vocal reaction of mountain bikers on social media was swift and fierce. While IMBA didn’t immediately share that testimony on their own Facebook page, many riders heard about it via other sources, including Singletracks. The comments section on a simultaneously-timed announcement of the recent IMBA Epic trail designations turned into a train wreck of negativity.

“Not going to be very many, or any, ‘Epic’ rides left if IMBA continues to support the blocking of human powered bicycling on public lands,” said Aaron Edwards in the #1 upvoted comment, with 76 reactions.

“Imagine how hikers would feel if you supported blocking their access to the mountains? That’s what you are doing in our eyes IMBA. Either have a major change of heart, or simply cease to exist. We are not asking to ride bikes on all of the trails in the wilderness. Just some, maybe just a few. How is ‘none of them’ the stance you support?

“Wilderness mountain biking is wildly compatible with other user groups and accepted throughout much of Europe, Central America, New Zealand, and our cousins to the North, Canada. Time to not fear standing up for something that matters IMBA!”

In response to the outcry, Dave Wiens, the Executive Director of IMBA, released a lengthy statement detailing IMBA’s approach to Wilderness. While some riders appreciated the response and the approach, again, all of the top-rated comments on IMBA’s Facebook page in response to Wiens’s statement took a negative turn.

“‘IMBA’s mission is to create, enhance and protect great places to ride mountain bikes. The word ‘protect’ guided and motivated us and made it imperative that IMBA not be silent on this bill,'” Brad Shelton quoted from Wiens’s statement.

“See how it says ‘protect great places to ride’? You didn’t vote to protect great places to ride, because you can’t ride there.

“Between this and the eMTBs you have completely lost your way,” Shelton concluded, in a comment that received 84 upvotes.

But as I’ve attempted to digest IMBA’s initial testimony and their subsequent statements, some issues still weren’t clear to me. Why did they testify at all? What does IMBA have to gain from this testimony? So, I reached out to IMBA in an attempt to clear up the confusion.

Did IMBA need to testify?

First, IMBA was quick to claim that they don’t actually oppose HR 1349. Instead, they “don’t support it,” as they said in their testimony. “The bill is being actively opposed by dozens of national and regional organizations,” said IMBA. IMBA is dedicating no resources to opposing the bill.

But if they don’t oppose the bill, why did they submit a “testimony” in the first place? Was IMBA subpoenaed or otherwise ordered to submit testimony? In short, the answer is “no.”

“We concluded that as the leading mountain bike advocacy organization at the federal level it is essential for our voice to be present in this discussion and on this bill, and for IMBA to stand independently with its testimony,” said IMBA. “Our most cherished partners are the U.S. Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management, and the National Park Service because they own the lands on which many of us ride and where we hope to ride in the future. A discussion about riding on this federal land would be incomplete without IMBA.”

Despite claiming that they submitted “testimony” on this matter, the STC has noted in an email that a written statement submitted prior to the congressional hearing, without a request from the committee, doesn’t technically qualify as “testimony.” It is possible IMBA will re-submit its statement now that the hearing has been completed.

Did IMBA violate their agreement with the STC?

To many mountain bikers, IMBA’s written statement appears to conflict with a 2016 joint statement in which the STC and IMBA each agreed not to undermine the work of the other. “IMBA, great job back-stabbing the people who are actually advocating for mountain bikers,” said Jordan Scheremeta on IMBA’s Facebook page (41 upvotes). But how does IMBA see it?

“Our statement is well within the spirit of our joint agreement with the STC,” said IMBA. “From the joint statement: ‘IMBA reciprocally respects STC’s approach and does not oppose it, but chooses not to support STC’s legislative reform efforts, partially in order to safeguard and strengthen positive working relationships with other stakeholders.’

“IMBA is not supporting H.R. 1349. IMBA is not opposing H.R. 1349.”

Very few riders or commenters are buying what appears to be political maneuvering on IMBA’s part. For their part, the Sustainable Trails Coalition sees IMBA’s written statement to the congressional committee as opposition to the bill, and a violation of their 2016 agreement with IMBA. “IMBA’s current opposition to HR 1349, which departs from the STC-IMBA agreement of 2016, is giving ammunition to anti-STC members of Congress like Jared Huffman (D-Calif),” said Ted Stroll, President of the STC. Stroll went on to characterize IMBA’s testimony as “[reneging] on [a] solemn commitment to the STC.”

What does IMBA have to gain from this testimony?

Based on IMBA’s statement emphasizing a “collaborative approach to Wilderness,” many commenters are claiming that IMBA has been bought out or coerced by the Sierra Club, Wilderness Society, and others–speculation has run wild. So I asked IMBA point-blank: “What did you have to gain by submitting this letter?” And, “What would IMBA lose if HR 1349 passes?”

“By submitting testimony IMBA was able to educate the committee on its long-time relationships with federal land agencies and its collaborative strategy for protecting mountain bike access from being lost to new Wilderness,” said IMBA. “It also allowed IMBA to bring attention to the issues it feels present the most opportunity for mountain biking: supporting bicycle-friendly legislation like the Recreation-Not-Red-Tape Act and opposing the inconsistent management of recommended wilderness, which has led to unnecessary trail loss for mountain bikers.

“The problem HR 1349 presents is opportunity cost and diminished return on investment,” IMBA continued. “Land managers with Wilderness in their purview could potentially be bogged down in implementing the necessary lengthy analysis of bicycles on Wilderness trails, which will prevent other mountain bike projects from getting attention and moving forward. That’s why IMBA focuses on opportunities outside of Wilderness: because there’s more opportunity for more trail using fewer resources. It’s a better ROI.”

In short, IMBA is unclear on how HR 1349 would be implemented, and they claim that it will cause a large amount of work for land managers and, by extension, local mountain bike advocates and IMBA itself. What they fail to note is that this large amount of work could result in a large increase in mountain bike access: hundreds or thousands of miles of singletrack could be opened to mountain bikes. While nobody is claiming that the work will be easy, is it not worth the effort? IMBA is clear that they think the “ROI” isn’t worth it.

A statement from publicland.org attempts to explain what the implementation of HR 1349 would look like, although at times they too fall victim to common logical fallacies in this ongoing debate. Regardless, here’s one crux statement from the post:

“The real point here is this would create a very difficult management situation for the BLM and the USFS and demand a considerable amount of time working with the variety of mountain bike advocates, hiking and horseback riding groups, planning for trails, development of trails, responding to visitor conflicts, and responding to resource impacts that, with limited staff and time, would be quickly sucked up into protracted and controversial planning that would inevitably end up in court.”

One could argue that it’s the job of the BLM and the USFS to do exactly this, and that’s what we’re paying them to do with our tax dollars. Mountain bikers are tax-paying citizens and equal owners of the public land, along with hikers and equestrians, and require equal, science-based consideration for access to singletrack trails. Also, note that the USFS, BLM, and NPS do not actually own the land as Wiens stated above–they manage the land for all tax-paying US citizens.

What does the opposition say about HR 1349?

Will this happen in Wilderness? No. Photo: BLM

While IMBA declined to comment on the record about any potential detrimental effects that HR 1349 could have to the Wilderness act, the organizations that are actively fighting the bill have said plenty. In their response, IMBA appears to be giving credence to many of these claims, but is attempting to stay neutral. As we’ve already noted above and will discuss in more detail below, that neutral position doesn’t appear to be an actual option. So in this analysis, I’ve been forced to turn to the anti-bike forces to see what they have to say.

Here’s a recent article posted on Wilderness.org that includes some arguments against mountain bikes in Wilderness. Such responses continue to be poorly-reasoned, as we’ve outlined here.

One common complaint in light of the drastic reduction in the Bear Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments is that HR 1349 will open Wilderness up to mining and resource extraction. “Do any of you people that are upset about IMBA not supporting HR 1349 know why?” said Kirk Luedtke on our Facebook page (24 reactions). “It not only opened the door to bikes but also motor vehicles which would have eventually lead to things like mining, fracking and even possible development.

“If this bill goes through, it will be very bad for not only the wilderness areas as a whole but also for mountain biking.”

We have yet to see any evidence to substantiate this claim, and IMBA declined to provide any. Ted Stroll and the STC, of course, deny that this will happen in any way. Stroll characterizes the bill as a “modest, cautious reform,” and in response to worries about degradation of the Wilderness Act and opening Wilderness up to resource extraction, attempted to address this in his testimony.

Refinement of HR 1349

Ted Stroll testifies before the House Natural Resources Committee. Photo: Natural Resources on Flickr.

Some pro-Wilderness mountain bikers have argued that the wording of HR 1349 was too vague to accomplish the ends that the STC hopes to achieve, and that it could be radically altered by congress before it is passed, thus opening up Wilderness areas in an unintended way. While this argument is based on fear, due to the legislative process it is a distinct possibility.

However, during markup by the U.S. House of Representatives Natural Resources Committee, bill HR 1349 has subsequently been “improved” from it’s original language, according to the STC. “People who want reasonable biking access to Wilderness but have been concerned about the old bill’s language should be reassured by the amended version,” they continued.

This is the new HR 1349, as amended December 13, 2017:

« Section 4 of the Wilderness Act (16 U.S.C. 1133(c)) is amended by adding at the end of subsection (d) the following: “(8) Allowable uses. Each agency administering any area designated as wilderness may allow the use of motorized wheelchairs, non-motorized wheelchairs, non-motorized adaptive cycles, non-motorized bicycles, non-motorized strollers, non-motorized wheelbarrows, non-motorized survey wheels, non-motorized measuring wheels, or non-motorized game carts within any wilderness area. For the purposes of this paragraph, the term ‘wheelchair’ means a device designed solely for use by a mobility-impaired person for locomotion, that is suitable for use in an indoor pedestrian area.”. »

The new clarifications introduced into HR 1349 during markup are consistent with the STC’s goals from the start, and should help clarify the intent of the bill. While HR 1349 has made it through one round of modifications without being changed for the worse, the legislative process is lengthy and involved, and the bill could indeed be changed again.

What is the future of HR 1349?

“The next step is to get the bill to the House floor,” said Stroll. “Ordinarily this would go smoothly, but IMBA’s current opposition to HR 1349, which departs from the STC-IMBA agreement of 2016, is giving ammunition to anti-STC members of Congress like Jared Huffman (D-Calif.) who want to keep mountain bikes out of federal lands if the Sierra Club doesn’t approve of it. Huffman referred to IMBA’s opposition at the committee hearing, and mountain biking opponents are invoking it all over the Internet.”

Stroll mentioned that the STC is “[trying] to accommodate IMBA in a way that will benefit both organizations.” If they cannot successfully accommodate IMBA, the bill should still be able to make it to the floor of the House of Representatives, but it may be delayed.

For their part, IMBA says that they “won’t be working on this bill going forward; the testimony IMBA provided was its only action on the bill.” They will continue to monitor the bill’s progress, but “IMBA will remain focused on its priorities. These include supporting the Recreation-Not-Red-Tape Act and opposing the inconsistent management of recommended wilderness, along with ongoing work on many current Forest Service plans to ensure these plans are favorable for mountain biking.”

What will happen to IMBA?

Can IMBA survive the negative response to their position on the Wilderness issue? That remains to be seen.

IMBA Canada, a separate organization, felt they had to release their own statement, saying “The science shows that mountain bikes do not inherently cause greater environmental impact than other forms of non-motorized trail use, and blanket restrictions similar to the ones set out in the Wilderness Act are ignorant of that fact.” (Emphasis added.) It appears IMBA Canada is distancing themselves from the position taken by IMBA US.

The San Diego Mountain Bike Association (SDMBA) has called for the resignation of IMBA’s board of directors. NEMBA and SDMBA have also released a petition on Change.org, “[demanding] that the International Mountain Bicycling Association (IMBA) cease its opposition to HR 1349.” As we discussed back in May, many chapters are leaving IMBA. SDMBA, one of the largest IMBA chapters in the nation, was on the fence six months ago, but chose to renew at that time. Some individuals members are leaving IMBA as well, as highlighted by the thread started on our own forums, “Cancel Your IMBA Membership — Send a Clear Message.”

Finally, Stroll is concerned about what IMBA’s opposition to this bill means for the future of mountain bike advocacy in the United States. “If STC and IMBA don’t resolve IMBA’s reneging on its solemn commitment to STC, I foresee a permanent (or at least long-term) split in the mountain biking community, with most grass-roots mountain bikers, particularly in the West and New England, on the STC side,” said Stroll. “On the other side will be those, probably mostly in non-Wilderness states, who don’t care about the issue but want IMBA’s help with chapter membership management. Those who like IMBA’s generous approach toward e-bikes and think STC is too audacious will also likely stick with IMBA. It will be a terrible loss for both sides.”

A terrible loss for both sides, indeed. What could have been a rallying cry for mountain bikers nationwide may only create a greater divide in our sport.

Stay tuned, as we continue to cover this issue here on Singletracks.com.

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