Guest Opinion: The Sustainable Trails Coalition responds

STC co-founder Ted Stroll explains rationale behind organization's strategy

The STC promises that win or lose, at least someone will have tried to help the mountain bike access cause.

The STC promises that win or lose, at least someone will have tried to help the mountain bike access cause.

Editor’s Note: This guest editorial was written by Ted Stroll, co-founder of the Sustainable Trails Coalition, a mountain bike trail access advocacy organization. It is Stroll’s response to a column written by former IMBA board president Ashley Korenblat. The opinions expressed here do not necessarily represent the opinions of or its editorial staff.

The STC thanks Ashley Korenblat for her opinion, but feel she has many misunderstandings about what we’re doing. Let us set the record straight.

1. The STC seeks an exceedingly modest reform. Our desired legislation would continue to let government officials ban bikes in Wilderness and on National Scenic Trails. But they would do it at the local level, based on local input and knowledge.

2. Our proposed legislation would merely restore the regulatory plan that the Forest Service itself had in effect from 1981 to 1984, before it solidified the blanket bicycle ban in Wilderness. It was during that period, specifically June 1982, that the Forest Service told itself, in a little-known internal memorandum, “We can look at these types of ‘vehicles’ [i.e., bicycles] as being primitive, muscle powered, aids to transporting” people in Wilderness. So it allowed local land managers to decide on bicycle access, just as we hope to achieve. Then someone whispered in the agency’s ear and in 1984 it changed its mind and solidified the bicycle ban.

That should allay any reasonable concerns. To be sure, if anyone likes the comprehensive bicycle ban in Wilderness and on the Pacific Crest Trail—no access to a single inch of trail anywhere, anytime, under any circumstances—nothing we say will make them happy.

Those people, however, should be aware that what has been the slow death of a thousand cuts for singletrack access is now turning into death by rapid blood loss. The newly formed Save Montana Trails group states, “over the last five years, nearly 800 miles of trail in Montana have been closed or are at risk of being closed to bikes. During their travel planning, the National Forests in Montana have implemented a new policy that wilderness study areas and recommended wilderness areas will be managed as wilderness when it comes to bikes.”

In the New Mexico episode cited as a success here, we in turn point to this assessment by well-known mountain bike advocate John Fisch. While agreeing about “the redrawing of an existing Wilderness boundary to move a portion which was inside the boundary, outside of it,” John concludes: “IMBA and many other agencies involved with the crafting of this legislation are understandably trumpeting the success of this wonderful compromise. However, not all is rosy in MTB-land. The Columbine Hondo Wilderness contains 75 miles of singletrack which is now permanently off limits to mountain biking. In what is becoming a disturbing trend, IMBA and others rave about ‘compromises’ which are in effect significant net losses. Among the many losses is the Goose Lake Trail, a singletrack route which has been ridden by cyclists for decades. Cyclists will still be able to access Goose Lake legally, but only by taking a jeep road which still exists as a narrow stem protruding into the Wilderness Area.”

To quote Pyrrhus, “One more such victory and we are undone.” Pyrrhus’s army was devastated by the loss of 3,000 troops at the Battle of Asculum in 279 B.C., even though it managed to kill 8,000 Romans, (That’s where the term Pyrrhic victory comes from.) If only traditional mountain bike advocacy had recently achieved as good a ratio of trail preservation to trail losses as Pyrrhus’s lamented ratio! Alas, it’s nowhere close. Just look at Montana. Or, according to John Fisch, New Mexico.

Finally, in response to the doubt cast on the efficacy of our efforts, including a supposed litigation strategy, we are scratching our heads. Who’s suing anyone? Not us. Those of you who have donated to us or otherwise support us can be assured of the following:

These days, any legislative effort is an uphill battle. Even the naming of a post office can be controversial in today’s divided Congress. Moreover, it took eight years to pass the Wilderness Act of 1964. A bill was first introduced in 1956. Although we expect to have a bill introduced in the first quarter of 2016, we have no illusions that it’s guaranteed to become law within months.

But if we cannot achieve our goals—the loosening of the blanket bicycle bans in Wilderness and on the Pacific Crest Trail, and the undoing of recent Forest Service actions that are closing off hundreds of miles of non-Wilderness singletrack to mountain bikers—we think no one can. Here’s why.

1. We have two superb lobbyists. Their energy is extraordinary. They e-mail us on Sunday nights. They e-mail us in the wee hours of the morning. They have dozens or hundreds of connections to members of Congress, their staffs, and congressional committee staffs. They forbid us to report publicly on their progress, but it’s far more advanced than what others may think. Although they are not mountain bikers, their personal commitment to freeing the singletrack, and the amount of time they’re spending on it, well exceeds what we’re paying them, although their services indeed are expensive.

Our lobbyists are finding members of Congress and their staffs saying, in effect, “What? You can’t ride a bicycle in a Wilderness? Never heard of such a thing.” And so we are getting support from these puzzled legislators. From Republicans. From Democrats. In the House. And in the Senate. Stay tuned.

2. The STC’s board members have zero learned helplessness. That’s a well-known psychological syndrome that happens when people are beaten down by their opponents over 20 years. Eventually, they reach only for crumbs. We’re too new to have been beaten down and lowered our expectations to just off the floor.

3. Our donors have been magnanimous beyond all expectations. They have funded our lobbyists for six months and we’re halfway to being able to pay them for the third quarter, which will begin in March of 2016. The STC board is truly grateful.

We have been rebuffed, I am sorry to say, by all of the major bike manufacturers we’ve approached for financial support. One told us that it thinks the current mountain biking institutions are doing wonderful lobbying work and it would like us to go away. Maybe we’re annoyingly asking for lobbying money certain companies would rather devote to getting e-bikes on nonmotorized singletrack.

You have to wonder what those companies will be saying when sales slump after the Forest Service decides every trail in a roadless area in the United States will henceforth be closed to mountain biking, on the grounds that, to quote a Forest Service statement posted on the Save Montana Trails website, “. . . allowing uses that do not conform to wilderness character creates a constituency that will have a strong propensity to oppose recommendation and any subsequent designation legislation. Management actions that create this operating environment will complicate the decision process for Forest Service managers and members of Congress.”

In other words, the Forest Service no longer wants bikes anywhere that might become Wilderness, because mountain bikers will then irritate the Forest Service by asking to be allowed to keep riding where they have for decades. No amount of cynicism can prepare one for attitudes like this.

STC will win or lose, but at least someone will have tried. That’s a first in our community.

About the author: Mtbr is a site by mountain bikers for mountain bikers. We are the best online resource for information for mountain bikers of all abilities, ages and interests.

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  • Tom says:

    Nice response, Ted. Actually, the article stands nicely on its own, regardless of what triggered it.

    For me, the tipping point was when the USFS unilaterally decided to start managing study areas as wilderness. Gloves off.

    Thanks for fighting.

  • Jesse Gutierrez says:

    After reading both comments and looking at each of their web sites, my $$ will go to STC. It makes me think of a quote from D.D.E., history does not long entrust the care of freedom to the weak or the timid. You have to try something.

  • Dimitri says:

    Ted thank you for the well worded reply.
    Maybe a list of politicians with links to access them that the riding population can use to voice our concerns would be helpful. What can the riders do to help clearly point out to the law makers the biased discrimination that STC is trying to reform?
    Mountain biking is an extremely healthy pursuit for a family on so many levels, it floors me there are those that try to criminalize it.

  • Eric says:

    I just made a donation to STC.

    I have read all 3 letters, and my money is going to NEMBA (already a member) and STC (just now made my first donation).

    Kudos to Mr.Keyes of NEMBA for bringing all of this information to light.

  • Daniel says:

    Ms. Korenblat’s original piece, although somewhat ill-informed, was a pretty good summary of the obvious objections to STC’s initiative. But it also made apparent exactly why STC is doing the right thing.

    Whether it succeeds or fails, STC’s efforts have forever moved the dial away from the level of complacency and impotence that the off-road cycling community has lulled itself into over the past twenty years. What Ms. Korenblat characterizes as a more mature, circumspect and effective strategy of gradual, low-level appeal to other stakeholders on a trail-by-trail basis has resulted in a second class mentality among bicycle advocates, not to mention questionable accomplishments. Ms. Korenblat’s “us vs. the environmentalists” view must be abandoned in favor of the conviction that we ARE the environmentalists. Cyclists care deeply about the land and it’s preservation and there’s no reason we should accept any other label. Ms. Korenblat confuses STC’s forcefulness with naivete about the challenges we face, but the time has come for the off-road cycling community to push one tire deliberately into an admittedly uncertain future rather than remain mired in the strategic bog where we’ve barely managed to keep the wheels turning.

    Win or lose, nothing that STC is doing compromises the integrity or legitimacy of the cycling community. As Ted Stroll points out, all STC is trying to do is to ensure that Ms. Korenblat and the rest of us can continue to pursue exactly the type of local, collaborative discussions regarding conservation and trail access that we all favor. The only difference is that STC is trying to remove the stick that has been stuck in our spokes for far too long.

  • J H says:

    I would like to see some numbers regarding potential changes to trails under the proposed legislation tweak. Where I ride the FS and BLM are pretty proactive making trails for us, and/or keeping trails in good shape. We can’t ride in some local wilderness areas, but frankly I am fine with that. I want to conserve portions of our public land in as untrammelled a state as possible, we have 100s of other miles of trails to ride. I imagine in some places, trails in or near wilderness are the bread and butter routes for some folks….so how many of these miles would be affected? I guess from where I stand the issue of whether to allow MTB on Wilderness is a non-issue, and I want to know how big of a deal it really is elsewhere…in terms of NUMBERS not just opinions. Second thing is, say a popular trail gets closed…I imagine most riders will just ride it anyway. I realize this can be very bad for our image in the minds of other trail users (very bad indeed and could hurt us in the long run), but hey just being real, few of us are gonna just stop riding our favorite trail just because the legislation changes. Most agencies don’t have the person-power to enforce the change anyway.

  • Jacob says:

    I have been a supporter of IMBA in the past but have not for the past couple years. No other reason than I don’t see a ton of influence in my area aside from them adopting a local chapter of trail advocates. I kinda look at them as I do the NRA. I support the views but not so much the direction they are taking. After reading up on the STC I will be donating and supporting. I believe there is a fight for us MTB riders and we should get access to trails and think what they want to do is worth a try. Just my humble opinion.

  • Charles Caldwell says:

    And this is why STC is on my monthly donation list now. I think that sometimes years of fighting for a cause can lead to fatigue, and STC is the new energy needed at this time. Also, i’m surprised that the industry companies don’t want to get behind this. Having experienced the UK mtb scene earlier this year, they’re light years ahead of us in terms of people getting into the sport because they have magnificent trails coupled with shops and family activities all built into their “Trail centres”. We have random trails, with shops dozens of miles away . … . . .It’s fine, but that’s not going to advance the sport and capture a lot more hearts in the USA.

  • Shark says:

    Also a supporter of STC here, for many of the reasons mentioned above. You can’t keep doing the same thing year after year, and expect different results.
    The Mountain Bike Community needs to stand up and fight to be treated fairly.
    Sounds like some people are happy to lose amazing established trails in return for “new” replacements, but the IMBA-standard trail cannot replace these amazing trails that are being lost all over the county.

  • Ted Stroll says:

    Thanks to everyone for your words of support. You’ve written so eloquently that I can’t think of much to add.

    I thought of a couple of things, though . . . .

    1. Thanks to many people reading this, we’ve raised about $75,000 through today. Sixty thousand dollars have gone to pay our lobbyists through February 29, 2016. We spent about $1,500 on a brochure we’re handing out in congressional offices. We spent $850 to get our federal tax exemption approved. We did all of the legal work ourselves, but the IRS charges $850 to apply for the exemption, so that was unavoidable.

    Aside from those things, here is how STC has spent your money:

    Salaries: $0
    Benefits: $0
    Travel: $0
    Meals: $0
    Phone calls: $0
    Stationery: $0
    Postage: $0 (we spent $18.11 on an overnight mailing but the post office took two days, so we got a refund).

    Not only that, but STC board members have donated well over the approximately $2,350 that went to the brochure and the IRS. So 100% of your money, minus the 2.9% credit card company deduction if you donated that way, is going to LOBBYING.

    2. Ashley is again raising the point that the environmental community is stronger than we are. No doubt. But that’s beside the point.

    To explain why, recall the old joke about the two campers in the Alaska tent. They hear a bear in the middle of the night. Soon the bear is tearing into the tent and evidently plans to eat the campers.

    One of them starts putting on sneakers. The other says, “That’s stupid. You can’t outrun a bear!”

    The other replies, “I don’t have to outrun the bear. I just have to outrun you.”

    Same philosophy here. We don’t have to be stronger than the orthodox, temperance-movement “environmentalists” who, rather than dealing with real environmental problems, strive to maintain the Exclusive Wilderness Club for their own enjoyment. We just have to find members of Congress who think we, and not they, are right.

    Stay tuned. And thanks again.

  • joe says:

    “Win or lose, but at least someone will have tried”. That’s sounds like the sentiment of someone who doesn’t understand public policy very well. It’s called sausage making, and it takes a very, very long time. I expect better from a dedicated advocate. I’d be careful about sending any money to these guys-maybe they’ll get us some trails but it’s pretty hard to do “small tweaks” to existing legislation without having other stakeholders jumping in. I guarantee the resource extraction industry has way more hot shit lobbyists ready to go than STC.

  • Bike D00d says:

    This reply by the STC shows precisely why they will be successful where IMBA is not. It exposes a candid and realistic viewpoint of the nature of the battle and how it should be fought to best result. It is a fresh and appropriately shrewd approach without the apparent crutches and is thankfully free of moonbat alarmist anecdotes about climate change.

    I know where my money is going.

  • Steve says:

    Ashley Korenblat Sevenoff – I would suggest you accept that some people, although appreciative of IMBA’s efforts, want to go a different route. This is like a bad breakup, where people are moving on to someone new, and you’re just saying how this new person is not as ‘right’ as you and will just hurt us. Maybe we want the excitement of someone new with big ideas and goals? Please try to take the higher road, and just wish these defectors (myself included) good luck in our new relationship, and that IMBA will be there if it doesn’t work out.

    STC – donation coming.

  • Dennis says:

    Ashley has a lot of experience, background and connections. She clearly has mtb passion. I appreciate that. I also have not heard her state she speaks for IMBA directly. It was her opinion and it takes a lot of guts to state her case in this anonymous world of the internet.

    However, after reading both opinions twice I find that Ashley does come across like a career politician. Losing site of what the constituents want instead of just making deals/victories that can be reported to sponsors. I was not part of the mtb battle when sides were drawn and laws written. All I can tell you is right now I want to stop the wilderness closures and open anything we can.

    I will not stop supporting IMBA and my local chapter. They do great work with our trails and the proximity strategy has worked.

    I will now start supporting STC and hope they succeed.

  • JD Svoboda says:

    I’m sorry, but could someone clearly and concisely explain how the STC work directly threatens the Wilderness Act? I don’t get it and I read almost all of this. Is IMBA interpreting any attempt to seek a modification in management as a threat to the act as a whole? That’s pretty damn silly, if so. Or is it perhaps more that the Sierra Club, driven by older folks (me) who mostly hike and hate mountain bikes in wilderness and IMBA just doesn’t want to disagree with them? That’s a load of bull if that is it.

    How often do the local Sierra Club chapters have trail work days? I thought so…

  • Heffe says:

    STC gets my support.

  • JD says:

    STC donations make an EXCELLENT Christmas gift!!!!!

    thanks Ted and STC.

    IMBA – I’ve supported you for years …..time to stop waddling around and take a formal stance – and action. You’ve done some good stuff. But we should have just as much say and clout as the hikers, motor, and sled heads that all get attention by putting their $$$ where their mouth is. As much as it kills me to say this (b/c ethically I wish it wasn’t true) suing the forrest service is the best way to get attention.

  • Abdullah says:

    Donated $50 towards STC.
    If STC needs any help, just ask and we the community will do what is within our power.

  • Mark says:

    Regarding the point made in the article that the bike companies would rather spend lobbying money on trying to get Ebikes on current singletrack. This comment is designed to emotionally alienate the bike companies, to frame them as the enemy and capitalize on the (In my opinion) luddite attitudes of egotistical expert riders threatened by the prospect being passed by a beginner, twice their age, on an Ebike. Surely this sums it up. It seems as if trails are opened most easily when the economic benefit to the local area is recognized by the right people. Ebikes are designed to broaden the appeal of mountain biking and therefore increase sales/profits and the amount of riders. To a large extent, in the vicinity of populous areas where by definition most riders live, it becomes a supply and demand situation. It is a situation linked to the local economy and trails will be supplied to meet demand. This is why your local bike shop gets involved in trail building, group rides and race sponsorship. They want to stay in business and grow! Therefore Ebike access means more riders which means more demand, which means more trails. The bike companies are right. Their very survival is dictated by trail access, so I think dismissing their approach is counter-productive.

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