Editor’s Note: This guest editorial was written by former IMBA board president Ashley Korenblat. Besides her time with IMBA, Korenblat was a founding board member of the New England Mountain Bike Association (NEMBA) and the creator of IMBA’s Public Lands Initiative. “I am one of a handful of people who have worked diligently on bikes and Wilderness for over 20 years,” she says. “Not just opining about it, but actually negotiating to keep trails open.” This letter is in part a response to a letter written by NEMBA founder Philip Keyes, which Mtbr reported on here. You can also read the STC response here. The opinions expressed here do not necessarily represent the opinions of Mtbr.com or its editorial staff.
To Mountain Bikers,
If you want to get involved in bikes and Wilderness you need to keep two ideas firmly in your mind:
1. You have no inherent right to ride your bike on any public land anywhere. Just like any other public land user you have to earn that right. So if you want to drill for oil or protect endangered species habitat, you have to prove that your proposed use of public land provides the greatest good to the public. All of the legislation and regulation used to manage our public lands is centered around this concept.
2. Mountain biking has gained access as our numbers grow and as we continue to prove the value of our constituency. NOT by legally proving we have the right to anything.
While I was president of the IMBA Board, we determined that a lengthy legal battle against the entire environmental community would damage the sport of mountain biking in three ways:
Financially — I raised some of the first corporate dollars for IMBA (and NEMBA, by the way) and I learned that you get more bees with honey. Subaru would not have been interested in sponsoring a group such as IMBA if their largest budget item was a legal battle against many of their other customers. (Turns out Sierra Club members buy Subarus, too.) That sponsorship alone has helped make possible untold miles of trail around the country.
Maximizing Mileage — By concentrating IMBA’s efforts closer to where populations exist we brought more trails to more people faster, as opposed to tying up our resources on a few miles of trails in remote areas.
Politically — To build and promote trails IMBA needs political allies. This is how democracy works.
I stand by the decision the IMBA Board made years ago not to challenge the Wilderness Act and strongly recommend you think deeply about it before you support anyone who does.
In a time when more and more people, corporations, and organizations are committed to working on living sustainably in a changing climate, the Wilderness Act was the first time we as a species decided that there should be some places that were substantially untouched by man.
I have spent countless hours pouring over maps of millions of acres in dozens of states looking at bike trails. I make a living by taking people on backcountry bike trips. If anyone in the mountain bike community needs access to remote trails it would be me. But I support the Wilderness Act because it is a critical tool for protecting the surrounding areas where we ride. In fact, the ideal situation is Wilderness on both sides of the trail.
While many of us have had the unfortunate experience of visiting a trail that was recently closed to bikes—few of us (yet) have had the experience of visiting a trail that was destroyed—no longer there at all—replaced by a 30 ft wide gravel haul road to a timber cut or an oil well pad. I have been involved in negotiating the opening of many trails from the the Middlesex Fells in Massachusetts to the Wheeler Peak Wilderness in New Mexico and saving many others from resource extraction, but once a trail has been obliterated you cannot negotiate it back into existence. Trails bordered by Wilderness are protected from development.
The Sustainable Trails Coalition (STC) thinks that if they raise enough money they can hire a fancy D.C. lobbyist and just give the Wilderness Act a little tweak. The massive environmental community and all their supporters won’t even notice. Let’s take a moment to think through this strategy.
Filing a lawsuit: Who do you sue? The Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management What is your suit based on? Their interpretation of the Wilderness Act, which bans all mechanical conveyance in Wilderness? What federal judge is going to rule that a bike is not mechanical or that the BLM, and USFS do not have the discretion to define it in this manner? Again we have never gained access by force but rather by proving the value of including cyclists on public lands.
Passing a bill: Only a member of Congress can introduce a bill. And what congressman will STC recruit to tweak the Wilderness Act? First it will anger more of his or her constituents than it will please. Do the math? What congressional district has more mountain bikers demanding access to Wilderness than members of environmental groups? Second other members of Congress will immediately line up in opposition. Further congress people have corporate supporters of all types who simply have bigger issues at stake, from corporations with green credentials and brands to resource extraction companies—all of whom have other business with Congress.
But let’s expand on the weak legislative argument of STC and let’s say they did find a Congressman or Senator to introduce their bill. To pass a bill you need allies. Democracy works through alliances. Who will they ask to be their ally? What will they have to give to get them? Even if they were willing to allow motorized access or provide for timber harvests in Wilderness areas as part of their ‘tweak’ to the Wilderness bill, neither the motorized community nor the timber folks will join them in their quest, because both these groups are currently negotiating with environmental groups on a multitude of issues. These issues are more important to them than changing the Wilderness Act, so they will not choose to use their clout to help. You are back to square one. Tweaking the Wilderness Act does not benefit enough Americans.
After serving as the chair of IMBA’s board, I returned as staff, specifically to work on bikes and Wilderness through the IMBA’s Public Lands Initiative. Through that work, which is supported and carried on today by IMBA’s staff, we negotiated many wins. Including a recent historic moment in New Mexico. With our allies in the conservation community, we passed a bill which moved the boundary of a Wilderness Area created in 1964 to open a 20 mile bike trail. Repeat: the Lost Lake Trail had been closed for over 50 year and we pushed a bill through Congress that opened it.
Other active bills expand on this win by keeping trails open and creating entirely new trail systems before the Wilderness boundaries can be finalized. Sadly we lost a key set of trails in Idaho, but we kept over 30 miles of sweet single track in that same area and Sun Valley locals already have new trails already in the works. If the loss in Idaho motivates more people to get involved in bike advocacy that is great. But do it with a sound strategic plan, not a misinformed passionate threat.
The STC will not succeed through litigation or legislation. The single minded pursuit of every inch of single track in Wilderness is not in the interest of the public at large. The number of trail miles STC is fighting for is pitifully small and in the face of climate change and the urgent need for environmental progress, there is no chance of winning. Instead our constituency of mountain bikers—who love the out doors, who value health and fitness, and who, as part of the recreation economy, have become a powerful economic force in every state in the Union—will be seen as selfish brats who care nothing about the greater good.
The way to keep remote backcountry trails open is to develop strong relationships with your land managers and your local and national elected officials, while simultaneously working with the environmental community directly. We bring youth and enthusiasm and economic value through recreation assets. Played right, we are powerful far beyond our size—which is why the tactics are so important.
I am currently working on one of the largest public lands / Wilderness bills in the history of the Wilderness Act. This bill is in Utah and it will be bike friendly because bike trails are part of the business fabric of the state of Utah. Outdoor recreation contributes billions of dollars to the state and all of our elected officials know that, so my congressman and the local and national Wilderness groups are happy to work with me to keep bike trails open.
This strategy is available to every state. Access to recreation assets, such as trails, is a key recruitment tool for business. Nearly every county in the country whether urban or rural has a growing interest in trails. This is how we win—by making mountain biking mainstream, not by becoming a radical self interest fringe group with no political allies. By encouraging elected officials to support trails both in the front country and the backcountry, not only will we protect the vast majority of existing trails, but as IMBA and local groups of all types are doing everyday, we will continue to build more.
CEO Western Spirit Cycling
Former President IMBA Board
Managing Director, Public Land Solutions