The International Mountain Bicycling Association (IMBA) may not be the kind of organization you would expect to be facing vocal opposition from mountain bikers. But some are calling on IMBA to take a stronger stance on mountain bike access after the upstart Sustainable Trails Coalition has grabbed headlines with its mission to undo the blanket ban on bikes in federally designated Wilderness areas.
This week, IMBA reaffirmed its commitment to trail access and public land conservation via a press conference and a series of statements. IMBA emphasized a focus on collaboration, assisting local mountain bike groups and strengthening broad partnerships, and clarified the organization’s approach to Wilderness.
Mike Van Abel, IMBA’s president, addressed several key points:
- IMBA’s membership has never been larger. The organization claims more than 200 IMBA chapters, 400-plus clubs and volunteer bike patrols, 700-plus corporate partners, 700-plus retail shop partners, more than 100,000 subscribers to its messaging, more than 40,000 individual members and 65 employees (18 of whom are field-based staff).
- “Trail Access” is one of four, core strategies in IMBA’s 2016-2020 operating plan.
- IMBA will not accept loss of access to trails on public lands, particularly where mountain bikers have been “arbitrarily” shut out while other human-powered recreation methods are still allowed.
- IMBA will focus its advocacy efforts where it has chapters (there are currently more than 200 in the U.S.). Where chapters are fighting access battles, including Wilderness, IMBA will offer its resources of staff, time, money, partnerships and experience to support those battles.
- IMBA will pursue legislative and legal efforts, on a case-by-case basis, to redraw Wilderness boundaries in order to gain back lost mountain bike trail access, but only where feasible and where a local chapter is involved.
- IMBA is concerned about and paying attention to the efforts of some state and federal legislators to transfer ownership of federal public lands to state control, which could see some of those lands privatized, thus cutting off bike access.
- IMBA is focused on strengthening its “ground game,” meaning getting more of its members and chapters educated and involved in advocacy, and continuing to form and strengthen partnerships with other organizations to affect backyard issues.
- IMBA will not actively or financially support the current effort by the Sustainable Trails Coalition (STC) to amend the 1964 Wilderness Act to allow mountain bikes on lands federally designated as Wilderness. Van Abel specifically thanked the STC for rallying awareness around bike access issues, but does not think the politically “negative and unintended consequences” are worth IMBA formally backing the STC’s mission. Despite criticism from mountain bikers, including a former IMBA board member, IMBA asserted that it prefers to focus on the more than 90 percent of public lands that are not Wilderness.
Potential Legal Action in Montana
In Montana, IMBA is exploring the possibility of legal action against the U.S. Forest Service, which has classified more than 100,000 acres in the Bitterroot National Forest as Wilderness Study Areas, meaning that land is now on the table for Congress to consider designating as permanent Wilderness. It would also close mountain bike access to 178 miles of trails.
Legal action from IMBA—something the organization has pursued only one other time in its 28-year history—would stem from whether or not the Forest Service followed the laws that govern travel management planning (something land managers are required to do) in recommending new Wilderness in the Bitterroot.
Van Abel said that the central question is whether or not a bike—on a trail in a landscape recommended for Wilderness—actually causes a negative impact to the “Wilderness” characteristics of the landscape. “We want to ask that question of the court, but we have to be smart about doing this legally. We have to do our due diligence prior to any action,” he said.
Van Abel also said that some in the Forest Service have cautioned IMBA to consider what would happen if the courts decided that it is indeed acceptable to keep bikes off of Wilderness and lands recommended as such.
Van Abel explained that the Bitterroot is particularly important to IMBA because it has a local chapter in the area that is working on the issue. IMBA intends to pay for legal fees and tap its network for additional, pro bono legal support for the Montana effort, as well as providing technical support, staff support and advocacy training.
What the Future Holds
IMBA has committed to looking at re-opening trails where access has been lost to “arbitrary land management decisions,” including the possibility of introducing legislation that would re-draw Wilderness boundaries in various locations. But Van Abel stressed this work will only be done where there is already a strong grassroots presence in the form of an organized mountain bike advocacy group.
Bruce Alt, IMBA’s vice president of government relations and its “Chief Advocacy Officer,” offered the closing remarks by identifying what he sees as the enemy to more mountain bike trail access: a lack of engagement by individual mountain bikers in the public policy process.
Alt acknowledged that there are those who can’t engage, but there are also those who don’t know or don’t care. “A lack of productive engagement handicaps collective progress and diminishes the strength of our collective voice.”