Monday, July 13, 2015

An in depth look at the Mountain Biking on the PCT issue

Some interesting things came out of a recent story call “The Daily Bike: A Look at the Ban on Wilderness Mountain Biking” in the Adventure Journal Newsletter. First of all Mike Van Abel, the International Mountain Biking Association’s President gave this quote regarding Mountain Bikes in the Wilderness:

“So if we, as a society see that as unjust, then we should change the law, but the political reality is that most people—including a lot of IMBA members—do not see the law as unjust.”

This plays right into what I’ve been saying about the “Bikes on the Pacific Crest Trail” issue. I feel that the majority of mountain bikers are happy to have the PCT be a hiking and horseback riding trail as it was intended.

Further down in the comments for the article, Mark Eller, IMBA’s Communication Director writes

“IMBA has lawyers on staff and has consulted with top-tier law firms that specialize in land use. Their recommendation has been, and continues to be, that a lawsuit designed to end the ban on bikes in federal wilderness would be unwise.

Why? Because we could, and probably would, lose the suit—there is no law the federal agencies are breaking when they decide to restrict bike access on lands they manage. A defeat in federal court would establish legal precedent and pretty much seal the deal.

That does not mean that IMBA has given up on this issue. The key, we believe, is to focus on a political and social remedy, not a legal one.”

To me it would seem to be really hard to find a “political and social remedy” if as Mike Van Abel suggested that a lot of IMBA’s own members do not find the law as unjust.

IMBA has basically admitted that they are on the wrong side of the law.

So, why is IMBA doing this. Well, it seems that they are just using the “Bikes in the Wilderness” issue as a ploy to get other projects approved. Here is another comment from Mark Eller:

"Obviously this has not changed their minds on bikes and wilderness, but it continues to yield good results in other areas, like an increasing number of federal properties that are managed with mountain biking in mind.”

And officially, IMBA doesn’t support Bikes in the Wilderness, which makes it even more odd that they support bikes on the Pacific Crest Trail. Mark Eller recently wrote the following in a email to me:

“We will continue to work with our agency partners on the PCT issue, with the viewpoint that their are non-wilderness segments of the trail that are suitable for shared-use including bicycling. Mountain bikers successfully share trail systems with hikers and equestrians across the nation and around the globe. There is no reason why this could not be the case for segments of the PCT.”

I wrote back to Mark

"How about the law, isn't that a reason. The law clearly indicates that the PCT is a hiking and horseback riding trail. And according to the forest service who researched it, Bikes have never been allowed on the PCT."

Here is the the Federal Code (36 CFR 212.21) governing the PCT:

"The Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail as defined by the National Trails Systems Act, 82 Stat. 919, shall be administered primarily as a footpath and horseback riding trail by the Forest Service in consultation with the Secretary of the Interior. The use of motorized vehicles may be authorized by the Federal Agency administering the segment of trail involved when use of such vehicles is necessary to meet emergencies or to enable landowners or land users to have reasonable access to their lands or timber rights."

As you can see from the Federal Code, it specifically mentions the PCT being a footpath and horseback riding trail. It doesn’t mention anything about mountain bikes. So, just from the fact of exclusion, you’d have to say mountain bikes were never intended to be on the PCT. But Mountain bikers say that the word “primarily” means that mountain bikes can be on the trail. But, I read the law as saying the exceptions meant by the word “primarily” are that Motorized Vehicles can use the trail in cases of emergency and to access land for timber harvest, etc. Again, mountain bikes are not mentioned.

Mountain Bikers point out that the Continental Divide Trail has the same language in its Federal Code and it allows mountain biking. Well, that’s because the CDT’s Advisory Council had changes made to the CDT’s Comprehensive Plan that is more friendly to Mountain Biking. The Pacific Crest Trail didn’t include any language like that in its Comprehensive Plan.

In 2009, the following change to the CDT’s Comprehensive Plan was approved by Congress.

"Bicycle use may be allowed on the CDNST (16 U.S.C. 1246(c)) if the use is consistent with the applicable land and resource management plan and will not substantially interfere with the nature and purposes of the CDNST"

The Pacific Crest Trail does not have that language in its Comprehensive Plan. But even if it did, I still believe Mountain Bikes should not be allowed on the PCT. If you read it, it says mountain biking could occur where it “will not substantially interfere with the nature and purposes of the CDNST.” Mountain biking would more likely interfere with the purposes of the Pacific Crest Trail than the Continental Divide Trail. That’s mainly because of the population of the States involved with each trail. If you add up the population of the CDT States, (New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming and Montana) it adds up to around 8 million people. If you add up the population of the PCT States, (California, Oregon and Washington) it adds up to 48 million people. To further that idea, the Continental Divide Trail is 700 miles longer than the Pacific Crest Trail. So you have 8 million people for 3300 miles of the CDT and have 48 million people for 2600 miles of the PCT. So given the shear number of people involved it would be more likely that Mountain Biking would interfere with the PCT intended uses more than it would for the CDT. But again, the PCT does not have that language in its Comprehensive Plan. Instead it says

"The Pacific Crest Trail traditionally has served horseback and foot travelers. This use pattern, accepted by most visitors to the trail, should be continued."

The other key difference between the PCT and CDT is that the PCT is a mostly completed trail, whereas the CDT is far from complete. In fact, up until about 20 years ago when you hiked the CDT there was no designated route, you simply hiked along the Continental Divide using whatever route you liked. Now, there is more of a designated route for the CDT, but much of it is on 2 track forest roads, not a real trail through the forest. Whereas, the PCT is a completed trail that was designed and built for hikers and horseback riders. The fact that it wasn’t built for mountain biking is another clue that mountain biking doesn’t belong on the PCT.

One of several photos of 2 track roads being used for the Route of the CDT from Dan Susman's Hiking Blog

In the PCT Comprehensive Plan there are drawings and trail designs showing hikers and horseback riders on the trail. There are no drawings and trail designs showing mountain bikers on the trail. Remember, this is the “Comprehensive Plan” so they would not intentionally leave something out that belonged on the trail.

The PCT Comprehensive Plan has drawings illustrating how the trail should be cleared for Hikers and Horseback Riders. There are no illustrations of bikes in the Comprehensive Plan.

Now, let’s take a look at what the Pacific Crest Trail Reassessment Intiative (PCTRI) has been doing. PCTRI's big deal is disputing a 1988 Forest Service Order that bans Mountain Biking on PCT. They claim the order is illegal or no longer valid because the Forest Service didn’t follow correct procedures with the order. They claim the Forest Service didn’t follow the rules of the Administrative Procedure Act (APA). But here’s the deal. Not all rules are required to go through the APA process. Rules that interpret or clarify the Federal Code do not need to follow the APA process. Obviously, the order clarifies that the PCT is a footpath and horseback riding trail as the Federal Code states.

PCTRI has sent several letters to the Forest Service and the Forest Service responded to them twice. In the two letters the Forest Service stated that the 1988 ban of Mountain Bikes on is perfectly valid. Forester Randy Moore writes

"The continuation of Regional Order 88-4, which prohibits using or possessing bicycles on the PCT, is consistent with legislation, regulations, directives, the recommendations of the PCT Advisory Council, and the PCT Comprehensive Management Plan. These authorities demonstrate that the Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail was intended to be administered as a footpath and horseback riding trail. The PCT was not planned or designed for bicycle use, which has been prohibited since 1971 (National Parks) and 1988 (BLM and U.S. Forest Service)."

Also, it appears that the Forest Service has researched the issue very in depth. Forester Randy Moore Writes:

"The primary uses for the PCT were determined by the PCT Comprehensive Management Plan (CMP) and are also found in 36 C.F.R. § 212.21, which states that the PCT is to be used “primarily as a footpath and horseback riding trail.” Since your initial inquiry, a complete review of the National Trails System Act legislation, legislative history, regulations and policies, PCT CMP, PCT Advisory Council Minutes, and agency correspondence records has occurred. Our research documents a legislative and administrative intent that only hiking and equestrian use were to be permitted on the PCT. There is no evidence that bicycle use has ever been allowed on the PCT."

PCTRI continues to rehash the same old misleading statements. On their “Sharing the PCT” Facebook page the have the following statement in their “About” section:

“It's time to bring cyclists back into the PCT community by reopening the PCT to all quiet human-powered uses.”

That’s a totally misleading statement given the fact that Mountain Bikes have never been allowed on the trail. How can you bring something back if it never was supposed to be on the trail in the first place? Plus the law never says anything about having “all quiet human- powered uses.” It says the trail is a “a footpath and horseback riding trail.”

So, how did the Pacific Crest Trail become a hiking and horseback riding trail? Well, Congress established an Advisory Council to figure out the details of the trail when the PCT was authorized as a National Scenic Trail. The Advisory Council decided that Hiking and Horseback Riding was to be the approved uses of the trail. The Advisory Council consisted of representatives from the 3 States the PCT goes through, land agencies, and other interested groups. You have to remember that this was back in the late 60’s and 70’s when Mountain Biking as a sport didn’t even exist. The first commercially made mountain bike didn’t happen until the late 1970’s or early 1980’s. The Advisory Council did its job and disbanded. Then the Pacific Crest Trail Association was created to be the volunteer partner for the trail.

One of the other points PCTRI often seems to make is that the PCT is overgrown in places, so adding mountain bikers will add more maintainers for the trail. Well, the PCT is a 2600 mile trail, and try as hard as they can, the Pacific Crest Trail Association cannot insure that every inch of the trail is cleared. It is really unknown whether adding mountain bikers will help keep the trail clear. Many volunteers that the PCTA already has are dedicated to having the trail be a hiking and horseback riding trail. Adding mountain bikes might discourage these volunteers. Mountain Bikers already complain that hikers don’t help maintain current “multi-use trails.” Perhaps hikers feel disenfranchised by multi-use trails and would rather help maintain trails just for hiking, etc. The PCTA organizes over 50 work crews during the summer, and they also have local chapters that help maintain the trail.

Meanwhile, the Forest Service has reported that 3 out of 4 trails within the Forest Service Lands are not up to standards. Let’s see, Forester Randy Moore mentioned in his letter to PCTRI that over 123,000 miles of trail within the Forest Service are open to Mountain Bicycle riding. Now, if you do the math on that, it means that over 90,000 miles of trail that allow mountain biking are not up to standards. Mountain Bikers would be better off helping maintain trails that they are already allowed on. Otherwise, some of the unmaintained trails will just fade back into the forest and will be taken off the maps. The Pacific Crest Trail has a volunteer group (PCTA) that helps clear and maintain the trail. Some of these other trails have nobody.

Furthermore, Mountain bikers don’t seem to like it when somebody else takes over one of their trails. In 2013, a new ATV route was constructed over the Missing Link Mountain Biking Trail in Montana. Here is an excerpt from the Montana Mountain Bike Alliance Facebook Page.

“It's a SAD day in the Gallatin. The beloved non-system singletrack trail between Lick Creek and Moser Creek known as The Missing Link is being replaced by an ATV troad as per the direction of the Final Decision from 2007 Gallatin N.F. Travel Plan. This corridor was identified by the Forest Service as THE route for the expansion of the ATV system in Hyalite and a groom-able ski route in the winter. Sadly there was no obvious effort to retain the trail and find a separate route for ATVs. The trail contractor was instructed to use the trail as the 'flag line' for the ATV route so The Missing Link will be gone in a matter of weeks. In the 15+ years of use, the trail has never ridden better than it is right now - If you can stomach it, go give it a final farewell ride - for its days are numbered. R.I.P The Missing Link...”

So, Mountain Bikers are saddened when one of their trails is taken over by a different user. What’s the difference between ATV’s taking over a Mountain Biking Trail, and Mountain bikers taking over a hiking and horseback riding trail? Very little.

The bottom line with the argument of PCTRI is just wrong. Is there anything wrong with a trail just for mountain biking? I personally think there is nothing wrong with building a trail just for mountain biking. Likewise, there is nothing wrong with having a trail just for hiking, or just for hiking and horseback riding. Mountain Biking is fundamentally different from either hiking or horseback riding. It’s okay to have some trails where all the users can share a trail. It’s also okay to have some trails where only one use or a couple uses are allowed. Now PCTRI is trying to raise $120,000 to $180,000 to change the laws to allow mountain biking in the Wilderness and on the PCT. With that much money they could be on their way to building a great trail system just for Mountain Bikes. But, No, they’re proposing to waste the money trying to take over a hiking and horseback riding trail. What a shame. Hikers and horseback riders should be allowed to enjoy a trail in peace.

Feel free to discuss this blog on the "Preserving the PCT" Facebook page located here:

Articles mentioned
The Daily Bike: A Look at the Ban on Wilderness Mountain Biking:

Here’s an article about the Forest Service’s Report on Trails being up to standards:

All other documents mentioned in this article can be seen here: