IMBA defends stance against amending Wilderness Act

'Answer to challenge facing MTB community not to change bedrock conservation law'

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IMBA defends stance

“Public lands are being threatened at an unprecedented level,” says IMBA. “And it’s imperative that public land users come together to protect these cherished places and offer our voices in this critical dialogue.”

In an effort to both explain and defend its stance against a bill that’s aim is in part to amend the Wilderness Act in order to gain access for mountain bikes on designated Wilderness lands, IMBA executive director Dave Wiens posted a statement on the national advocacy organization’s website over the weekend.

Acknowledging that the decision to submit written testimony against passage of H.R. 1349 was highly unpopular with some in the MTB community, Wiens pointed to the current political climate and IMBA’s overarching mission to protect public lands.

“With regard to amending the Wilderness Act, we simply do not think the answer to our challenges is to change a bedrock conservation law, especially right now,” read the statement. “Public lands are being threatened at an unprecedented level, and it’s imperative that public land users come together to protect these cherished places and offer our voices in this critical dialogue… Ultimately, IMBA believes that there are better, more effective ways to get lost trails restored.”

Reading between the lines, it’s clear Wiens is in part alluding to President Trump’s recent executive decision to significantly reduce the size of Utah’s Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments. IMBA also pointed to the work its done building relationships with federal land management agencies, and the possible impact support of this bill could have on those relationships.

“We consistently hear that there is little appetite in any of the federal land agencies to amend the Wilderness Act,” it reads. “The moment IMBA crosses that line, we lose our seat at the table that we spent decades working to earn. Major access gains in every corner of the country would be jeopardized if the federal agencies no longer see IMBA as a viable partner.”

Check out this Mtbr forum thread for more discussion on this very heated topic.


As for H.R. 1349, the bill has a long way to go. Following introduction in the House of Representatives, it was referred to the House Committee on Natural Resources which in turn referred it to the Subcommittee on Federal Lands. From there it still must be voted on by the House and then passed on to the Senate for another vote. Finally it would come to the president’s desk where he could sign it into law.

Below you can read the full unedited IMBA statement, which was originally posted here. It also includes an extensive Q&A section with answers from IMBA to the most common themes that have recently surfaced in the mountain bike community.

Questions addressed include: Why did IMBA offer written testimony on H.R. 1349; why is maintaining relationships with federal land management agencies so important to IMBA; did IMBA violate its agreement with STC; are IMBA’s positions influenced by funding from the outdoor industry or other organizations; how IMBA is dealing with Wilderness at a national level; how IMBA is dealing with Wilderness at a local level; and is IMBA doing anything to expand trails and trail access. You can also read the complete H.R. 1349 here.

Dear mountain bikers,

This past week, IMBA took a stand that was unpopular with many mountain bikers when we submitted written testimony stating that we do not support HR 1349, a bill that would amend the Wilderness Act by reversing the ban on bicycles.

We’d like to discuss this further with our members and the mountain biking community. IMBA takes seriously our role as the recognized national leader and a powerful voice for mountain biking. It is a monumental responsibility, especially during this politically divisive time. We considered the responsibilities of our leadership role, and our mission, in our submitted testimony on HR 1349. 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. We reaffirm our position today and below.

Core to IMBA’s mission is being a catalyst for trail development all across the country—both close to population centers and in the epic, backcountry locations that define mountain biking for so many of us. This speaks to (among other things) public health and wellness, community economic prosperity and engaging youth. IMBA is positioning mountain biking at the highest levels in the United States as a solution addressing some of today’s most timely and important topics.

A foundational element of our mission is our dedication to land protection and to working for new and creative ways to protect lands for mountain biking. We honor and recognize the fact that we are one of many user groups sharing our beloved trails. Collaboration and partnership are paramount to progress. Our organization has built and nurtured cherished working relationships with land management agencies over our 30-year existence. These partnerships have consistently delivered results, and IMBA will continue to respectfully work within the framework of these partnerships to further mountain biking.

IMBA’s mission does not include amending the Wilderness Act and never has. In 2016, IMBA’s board of directors reaffirmed our position on this issue, which is to respect both the Act and the federal land agency regulations that bicycles are not allowed in existing, Congressionally designated Wilderness areas. This does not mean that we are content with the present situation on these vital and revered public lands. HR 1349 has raised this topic to a national level.

How did we get here? Beginning nearly 30 years ago, a group of mountain bikers—organized as IMBA—found their way into U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and National Park Service planning processes and meetings: processes that the pioneers of the conservation movement in the 1960s and 70s realized they could influence.

With a several-decade head start, the conservation organizations were less than thrilled to have two-wheeled, human-powered lovers of trails and public lands showing up and working hard to insert the voice of mountain biking into important conversations. Through our partnerships with federal land agencies (the decision makers), IMBA has made and continues to make an impact on trails and access to public lands.

Over three decades of work, IMBA has earned the trust of land management agencies and incredible progress has been made; IMBA has been an integral part of opening up untold miles of trails to mountain biking; and IMBA has helped protect large tracts of our precious public lands. These efforts and partnerships have been, and continue to be, core to IMBA’s world.
Believe me, I would like to see mountain bikers regain access to some Wilderness trails as much as anyone. However, we feel strongly that HR 1349, while addressing an important aspect of land protection reform (bicycles in Wilderness) is not in the best interest of mountain biking long-term.

IMBA has great respect for any movement that gets more mountain bikers engaged in advocacy and in learning all aspects of complicated issues. Wilderness and land protection have always been difficult. Add in today’s political climate, and it becomes exponentially more difficult. This is not black and white and it’s far from over – no matter the outcome of HR 1349.

We know that mountain bikers won’t always agree with our approach, and may choose not to support us. That’s okay. IMBA will continue to work for the long-term gains of mountain biking, just as we have for three decades.

We are paying attention to your responses. Below, you’ll find answers from the IMBA team to the most common themes that are surfacing in the conversation online and in the media. This post will be updated as other important and relevant questions emerge. We invite you to read on and to check back for updates. Also, we plan to release a survey during the upcoming week as an additional way for your voice to be heard.

Thank you.
Dave Wiens, IMBA Executive Director

Here’s what we’ve learned and what we want you to know

IMBA understands that we have to be more connected, give you more information and listen more actively. And we pledge to do this, particularly with reaching out and asking you to comment on certain issues that we’re dealing with. It’s almost impossible for IMBA to please everyone all the time and, ultimately, what we’re trying to do is further mountain biking for as many people as possible in the best way that we can.

Dave and Eric Melson from our government relations team are going to Washington, D.C., to advocate for the tribe of mountain bikers in meetings with the Forest Service, and we’ll let you know how it goes. In the meantime, let us know what you think by leaving us a comment on this post. If you keep it positive, we’ll do our best to answer your questions. And we’ll add content to this blog as good questions come in, because we do want to get information out. We want you to understand what we’re doing.

IMBA is not—and never has been—the kind of organization that utilizes just one tactic, funnels all of its resources toward a sole effort or hyper focuses on a single issue. Our mission, our history and the diverse communities we serve means that we’re working every day to help solve complex problems and engage with unique opportunities in all 50 states.

When IMBA started in 1988, mountain bikers were rapidly losing what little access there was. Three decades later, there are more than 100,000 (known) miles of trails open to mountain bikes. It doesn’t mean we never lose access or are able to grab ahold of every opportunity, but the overall gains for mountain biking have been outstanding. IMBA looks forward to the next 30 years and the next 100,000 miles of trails.

Why did IMBA offer written testimony on HR 1349?

We are the International Mountain Bicycling Association. We are the experts in mountain bike policy because we’ve been at it for three decades. We constantly track bills that are both good and bad for mountain bikers and submit testimony to Congress, often. Whenever we can elevate mountain biker interests or speak out against things that would hurt us, we are doing so at the highest levels of government. A discussion about riding on federal public lands would be incomplete without IMBA.

But with regard to amending the Wilderness Act, we simply do not think the answer to our challenges is to change a bedrock conservation law, especially right now. Public lands are being threatened at an unprecedented level, and it’s imperative that public land users come together to protect these cherished places and offer our voices in this critical dialogue.

Mountain bikers deeply appreciate the experience of riding in an undeveloped landscape. Mountain bikers and the recreation community depend on public lands and thoughtful conservation. This legislation divides the recreation and conservation community in an unproductive way.

We carefully considered options on submitting testimony. We concluded that, as the leading mountain bike advocacy organization with a broad and diverse mission statement, it is our responsibility to represent the greater mountain bicycling community on legislation that directly affects us. 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.

If you read our testimony, you’ll see that we raised a number of important issues with the committee, including the importance of having mountain bikers involved in conservation discussions. We also highlighted the significant problems we’re seeing at the U.S. Forest Service and ways IMBA has been a valuable partner. Ultimately, IMBA believes that there are better, more effective ways to get lost trails restored.

Our most cherished partners are the U.S. Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the National Park Service because they manage the lands on which many of us ride and where we hope to ride in the future. Maintaining positive and productive relationships with these agencies is critical to IMBA’s mission and work.

Why is maintaining relationships with federal land management agencies so important for IMBA?

IMBA has had official partnerships with the Forest Service, National Park Service and BLM for more than two decades. Our relationship with the Forest Service goes back the farthest: In 1994, IMBA signed a five-year memorandum of understanding with the Forest Service that encouraged the agency to promote mountain biking throughout its 191-million acre (at the time) system. In 2000, IMBA signed a cooperative agreement with the BLM.

These ongoing, 23 and 17-year partnerships have allowed IMBA to provide education, fight for access and demonstrate the value of mountain biking at the highest levels. Our partnerships are the bedrock on which IMBA and its chapters and supporting clubs across the country have built trails and gained access over the years.

In the southeast, for example, IMBA partner Southern Off-Road Bicycle Association (SORBA) has a longstanding formal agreement with Region 8 of the Forest Service. That MOU is directly based on IMBA’s many years of good faith efforts to cultivate productive relationships with the Forest Service. The partnership has allowed SORBA to make major access gains for mountain bikers across the Southern and Southeastern U.S.

We consistently hear that there is little appetite in any of the federal land agencies to amend the Wilderness Act. The moment IMBA crosses that line, we lose our seat at the table that we spent decades working to earn. Major access gains in every corner of the country would be jeopardized if the federal agencies no longer see IMBA as a viable partner.

To be clear, IMBA is not afraid to stand up to the agencies when we believe major losses are pending and a bad precedent is about to be set. In 2001, an IMBA-led campaign was directed at the BLM to stop that agency from lumping mountain bikes in with motorized trail users in its new management plan. IMBA and mountain bikers spoke, and the agency listened. Currently, we are critical of the way the Forest Service is managing recommended wilderness in some parts of the county, which has banned mountain biking from several hundred miles of backcountry trails.

IMBA’s relationships with the federal land management agencies matter to everyone who rides on federal lands in all parts of the country. This includes U.S. Army Corps of Engineer properties in Pennsylvania (like the famous host site for Dirt Rag Dirt Fest); to BLM parcels in Oregon (like the home of Sandy Ridge: a technical, bike-only trail system designed by IMBA); to BLM lands in California (like the home of the Sea Otter Classic, the trails of which are in a National Monument that IMBA advocated for); to Cuyahoga Valley National Park (a 33,000-acre property near Cleveland that opened trails to mountain bikes in 2015 following efforts of IMBA and local mountain bike groups).

Did IMBA violate its agreement with the STC?

IMBA and the STC do not have a formal agreement or, as commonly mentioned, a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU). Instead, IMBA and the STC released a “joint statement” in May 2016. The statement is very clear that IMBA and the STC respect each other’s convictions and efforts to get more mountain bikers engaged in advocacy, but it did not shy away from acknowledging that the two organizations have unique missions and different forms of governance.

While crafting our testimony, we carefully consulted this joint statement and feel strongly that we have not put forth anything that is not already present in the joint statement.

Since IMBA and STC’s joint statement was issued, we have been encouraged by regular dialogue between our organizations, including our approaches to this bill and the congressional hearing. STC was the first organization to see our draft testimony well before it was finalized and submitted.

IMBA’s position in its testimony (which was a response to “what does IMBA think of this legislation?”) simply says that we do not support the legislation. The wording was pulled directly from the joint statement that the STC signed and shared with IMBA.

The joint statement reads as follows: “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.” And our testimony reads as follows: “IMBA is not supporting H.R. 1349.”

Nothing contained in our testimony is a deviation from our mission, our methods or our statements. IMBA’s stance and efforts to work for more mountain bike trails and access without touching the Wilderness Act itself have been public for a decade or more. And while there are countless organizations aggressively opposing H.R. 1349 with money and large-scale activations of their members, IMBA is not one of them.

There is actual news in our testimony: as mentioned above, IMBA is making headway in our effort to change how recommended Wilderness is managed by the U.S. Forest Service. We’re attempting to re-gain access to nearly 1,000 miles of trails lost to bikes in Montana, and prevent the potential loss of thousands more, through this high-level effort. We’re making significant progress and you can read more on that below.

Are IMBA’s positions influenced by funding from the outdoor industry or other organizations?

Corporate support does not influence our policy decisions. IMBA works with corporate partners that support the work IMBA does to further our mission to create, enhance and protect great places to ride mountain bikes.

Over the years, we have had many generous partners fund specific programs, events and positions, but all of this work ladders into our mission. We would not consider a corporate funding source that is not in alignment with our mission.

In 2017, IMBA received only 13 percent of its revenue from corporate supporters, including zero dollars from conservation-focused organizations. There are no agreements or arrangements with companies or advocacy groups to financially support IMBA for its position on H.R. 1349 or any other legislation.

How IMBA is dealing with Wilderness at a national level?

There’s something called “recommended wilderness” that the U.S. Forest Service can create on its own and that requires no input from Congress. The Forest Service can manage these areas as they see fit, and that management is inconsistent across the country. In some areas (notably Region 1, which includes Montana, North Dakota and northern Idaho), recommended Wilderness is being managed as actual Wilderness, banning bicycle use, despite there being no reason for this.

IMBA strongly opposes this, which is why it made up a large part of our testimony. We have seen 800 miles of trails closed by these bureaucratic actions in recent years, so we’re taking this issue straight to the Secretary of Agriculture and the Chief of the Forest Service. We recently sent them a letter regarding our opposition to this management style and why we think it should be changed. We heard back from the Secretary of Agriculture and he connected us with the Chief of the U.S. Forest Service for further discussion on this topic. If we are successful, IMBA could restore hundreds of miles of trail access and directly prevent the loss of even more.

IMBA is also one of the leading supporters of the Recreation Not Red Tape Act—bipartisan legislation that would not only make it easier to develop new trails on public land, but that would expand the number of areas where mountain bike trails are allowed.

And finally, when we see Wilderness (or other land designation) efforts coming together that could impact trails, we make sure that mountain bikers are at the table. And when mountain biking voices aren’t heeded, we fight to defeat that legislation. IMBA opposes Wilderness-designation proposals that hurt trail access for mountain bikers. Nothing has changed here. IMBA has been and continues to lead the fight for trails and access for mountain bikers.

How IMBA is dealing with Wilderness at a local level?

By proving to be truly collaborative partners, IMBA has shown that there are ways to get Wilderness boundaries altered to restore lost trails. Where we aren’t able to be directly involved in these negotiations, we do our best to support out partners on the ground. Here are three recent examples:

In New Mexico (Columbine-Hondo Wilderness), we worked with local mountain bike organizations and moved a 1960s-era Wilderness boundary to allow mountain biking. It set a powerful precedent that we can successfully legislate a modification to a Wilderness boundary. IMBA will work to use that tool wherever possible.

IMBA also crafted a bill currently in the U.S. Senate called the Blackfoot-Clearwater Stewardship Act that preserves bike access to 30 miles of trails in Montana, while also protecting additional acres of land. The local mountain bikers were supportive of this collaborative proposal because the other option, had mountain bikers not been involved, was a total loss of trail access for bikes.

Also in Montana, during negotiations over the Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act, mountain bikers and IMBA recently fought the expansion of a local Wilderness area that could have eaten up 270,000 acres and closed it entirely to bikes. Because mountain bikers got involved, the Wilderness proposal was shrunk to only 67,000 acres, and the other 208,000 was given a bike-friendly land protection designation, instead, thereby preserving a significant amount of access.

Is IMBA doing anything to expand trails and trail access?

Yes. Check out our Dig In campaign, which is fundraising far and wide for 68 trail projects in 31 states. Those shovel-ready, IMBA chapter-led projects represent 500 new miles of new singletrack, 140 miles of trail maintenance and 10 new bike parks within reach of millions of mountain bikers.

IMBA is also partnering with federal agencies to produce state-of-the-art trail building guides dedicated to what mountain bikers want (see the BLM’s Guideline to a Quality Trail Experience, developed with IMBA); we’re fighting for legislation that will dedicate more public land to recreation and mountain biking (Recreation Not Red Tape Act); we’re hosting advanced trail building schools all across the U.S. for land managers and volunteers (15 in 2017); and we’re actively building trails at the request of local mountain bikers in multiple communities.

In Johnson City, TN, for example, IMBA is building a new trail system in conjunction with the local IMBA-SORBA chapter and local Trek retailer. This week, the project was awarded a significant amount of additional funding from the city council expressly because IMBA is a leader on the project.

In Athens County, OH, the Wayne National Forest approved yesterday (Dec. 8) the construction of the Baileys Mountain Bike Trail System to include 88 miles of bike-specific trail. This wouldn’t have happened without IMBA’s advocacy, our local chapter’s efforts and the collaboration of the many partners that we brought together to speak with one voice, promote the vision, educate the Forest Service and ultimately enjoy this major win.


About the author: Jason Sumner

An avid cyclist, Jason Sumner has been writing about two-wheeled pursuits of all kinds since 1999. He’s covered the Olympics, Tour de France, MTB world champs, and dozens of other international cycling events. He also likes to throw himself into the fray, penning first-person accounts of cycling adventures all over the globe. Sumner, who joined the Mtbr staff in 2013, has also done extensive gear testing and is the author of the cycling guide book "75 Classic Rides: Colorado." When not writing or riding, the native Coloradoan can be found enjoying life with his wife Lisa and kids Cora and Tommy in and around their home in the MTB Mecca of Crested Butte.


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  • tyrebyter says:

    Nonsense. The Wilderness act doesn’t need to be altered; it already permits bicycles. The current prohibition is an administrative decision, not the law.

  • TonyRider says:

    I like IMBA’s response. Instead of shortsighted decision (domain of current administration) to get quick fix (and crash later) they seem to follow long term strategy. As much as I’d like to go for a ride next weekend, it’s about preserving our access throughout foreseeable future. And environmentalists are the least of our concerns, no need to make artificial divides.

    • b88888 says:

      this makes no sense…. IMBA’s strategy is to keep putting out fires and fighting individual access battles over and over. How exactly is that a “long term strategy”?

      Environmentalists and NIMBYs are they reason this “artificial divide” exists in the first place. The text of the Wilderness act does not prohibit bicycles, but they used their influence to force an administrative ban on mtbs. Now every time they want to protect a new area as Wilderness it threatens mtb access, and it pits them against mountain bikers – this divide is of their making.

  • Steve says:

    I’ve been mountain biking 100 times this year and backpacking once into wilderness.
    Keep wilderness bicycle-free! And then please kick out the horses……
    Steve
    Mountain biker since ’82

  • T Arnold says:

    It is time to seriously consider the relevance of IMBA in advocating for access for Mountain Bikers. Having invested countless hours over the past five years to fight for trail access for all non-motorized users, I am thoroughly discouraged by IMBA. I’ve waited to cancel my membership to see how Dave and IMBA listen to our responses. I’ve surveyed many forums and MTB sites and a large majority (more than 85%) seem to disapprove of IMBA’s stance. Unfortunately IMBA doubled down on their position rather than reconsidering.

    As a result, I will not renew my membership and plan to move the advocacy groups I work with toward breaking away from IMBA. I had hoped we could reform IMBA from the inside out because it’s a bad thing to separate and divide our advocacy. Please join me in encouraging people to leave IMBA and let’s find better ways to use our dollars to benefit the MTB community. IMBA no longer seeks to represent our sport or their constituents.

    Tony

  • John says:

    I see way more perspective and concern in that memo about keeping your relationship with the government than your members. Who do you serve IMBA? The BLM? eBike manufacturers? The level of apparent tone deafness and inability to properly address the concerns of people who choose to support IMBA will be your undoing.

  • LetsBeHonest says:

    T Arnold “It is time to seriously consider the relevance of IMBA in advocating for access for Mountain Bikers.” Absolutely correct. IMBA has become tragically irrelevant; riders no longer support or believe in their ability to advocate for their interests. Do we burn it down and rebuild from the ashes, or do we launch a better organization? But it is critical to understand this: IMBA never has been a membership organization. Consider that the Board of Directors is self-elected (no member voting, nominations or input process). There is no process for “members” aka dues payers to provide input on policy making, i.e. e-bikes, bikes in Wilderness, etc. There are no task forces or committees for “members” to serve on to accomplish anything. IMBA is designed, on purpose, to be tone-deaf to dues payers. Surely mountain bikers deserve better?

  • Plusbike Nerd says:

    From my point of view the dividing line is motorized or non-motorized. Any activity that doesn’t involve motors, hiking, biking, horse riding, etc., belongs in wilderness areas. I don’t think the original framers of the Wilderness Act intended to exclude mountain bikes. Mountain bikes just didn’t exist then. IMBA has lost its way. IMBA is more interested in playing politics than doing the right thing.

  • Rabob says:

    Bike restrictions were not part of the original wilderness designation.

    IMBa doesn’t want to lose that REI $$$$$.

    I canceled my membership and gave money to Sustainabile Trails Coalition instead.

    ACT NOW OR BE STUCK WITH THE STATUS QUO FOR ANOTHER THREE DECADES

    I for one do not want to wait around for IMBa to decide “when the time is right”

  • GuyOnMTB says:

    And… IMBA is on the losing side this time, but the MTB community achieved a win.

    IMBA left looking unsupportable.

  • GuyOnMTB says:

    I will give the STC another $100 in January.

  • Craig C says:

    Sorry, IMBA. It’s not me, it’s you. Maybe you could hook up with the Sierra Club?

  • alex m says:

    Where is the substance? Please cite specifics in the bill that you disagree with. I haven’t heard that yet.

  • Bob says:

    “IMBA takes seriously our role as the recognized national leader and a powerful voice for mountain biking. ”

    Unless you changed your organization’s name to the Sustainable Trails Coalition, you’re neither. Go home IMBA, you’re drunk.

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