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Debate on trail use policy regarding mountain bikes

New England Mountain Bike Association's comment on October 1997 Draft of the Appalachian Mountain Club's Trail Use Policy.

From the New England Mountain Bike Association


Thank you for allowing the New England Mountain Bike Association to comment on the October 1997 draft of the AMC's proposed Trail Use Policy. Our organization holds the AMC in the highest regards, and in many ways, NEMBA has modeled itself after the AMC in our quest to become a regional New England organization. Like the AMC, NEMBA's trail advocacy programs are designed to promote sustainable recreational trail use, environmental awareness and the preservation of our open spaces.

Both of our organizations fundamentally support the important relationship between conservation and recreation— a relationship which engenders a strong sense of stewardship of public open spaces and the environment— and both our organizations have a special responsibility to harness the energies of our constituencies and educate them about the need to care for our trail systems and be sensitive to the experience of other trail users. It is not surprising that many of our members are also members of the AMC.

In our brief 10 year history, NEMBA is now in a position to have a positive impact throughout much of New England. We currently have eight chapters in the six New England states, and we are experiencing a membership growth of almost 50% annually. While small compared with the AMC, our membership of over 900 households has performed over 7000 hours of volunteer trail maintenance over the last two seasons, and our trail projects are expanding considerably for the 1998. We have also initiated a Trail Grant Program designed to fund local projects and channel money to public lands.

One of our emphases for 1998 is to work with other user groups, including the AMC, Trailwrights, and the equestrian organization, the Bay State Trail Riders Association. We strongly believe that all human-powered user groups need to work together to protect the trails, to preserve more open spaces and to develop an awareness and sensitivity towards each other. The AMC has traditionally been a paragon of multi-user inclusion, and NEMBA hopes to become both a resource and a partner in future trail work. It is evident to us that this is not a Trail Use Policy, but rather a Mountain Bike Policy, and the AMC should call it such. Regardless, we have serious concerns about the draft and its consequences which we will outline below.

Comments on the Trail Policy Draft

1) "The AMC supports the existing prohibition of mountain bikes on the Appalachian Trail and opposes their use in federally designated wilderness areas."

NEMBA supports this provision in its entirety.

2) "The AMC believes that appropriate use of mountain bicycles should be directed toward those trails (rail trails, woods roads, and cross country ski trails, etc.) determined to be most suited for their use in regard to safety and resource protection."

NEMBA believes, and all available research attests, that there is no significant difference between environmentally sound hiking and bicycling trails. A trail that is environmentally sound for hiking is equally sound for mountain biking. Studies of relative user impact have shown that the physical impact on trails are similar between hiking and bicycling (Seney: 1990). In a recent study (Cessford: 1995), the researcher concludes that the "downhill effects of mountain bikes, where they have their greatest erosive potential, are not greater relative to those of other activities (e.g., walking)." Some trails, of course, are not constructed in an ecologically sound manner, and both hiking and bicycling will negatively impact them. For this reason, trail construction and rehabilitation are a critical and necesary for all areas which receive significant use. NEMBA works to control damage on a site by site basis by constructing waterbars, trail hardening techniques, switchbacks and trail re-routing. We utilize trained personnel to lead our volunteer trail maintenance events, much like the AMC.

Implicit in the draft's language on point two is the underlying assertion that mountain bikes are inappropriate on all but double track trails. Not only is this incorrect, as argued above, but is also prejudicial to mountain bicyclists. It is like telling the hiking community that they are welcome on portions of the AT, but they should not climb any of the mountain peaks. Singletrack trails are the trails of choice for mountain bikers. As with hikers, singletracks offer mountain bikers a closeness to nature and sense of beauty that simply cannot be found on rail trails or woods roads, and in most cases, if a singletrack trail is inappropriate for a mountain biker, it is inappropriate for a hiker as well. In sum, mountain biking is a legitimate use on most singletrack trails.

3) "AMC supports the International Mountain Bike Association (IMBA) guidelines for safe trail riding."

NEMBA, of course, supports IMBA's Rules of the Trail. However, these guidelines have been developed to promote responsible and safe shared use of trail systems, not the type of policy in the present AMC draft. All but one of IMBA's Rules (Control your bicycle) speak equally well to all trail users, and AMC's Trail Policy may wish to refer to each one specifically. These are:

  1. Ride [Hike] on open trails only.
  2. Leave no trace
  3. Control your bicycle
  4. Always yield trail
  5. Never spook animals
  6. Plan ahead

Bicycle safety is a central concern for NEMBA, and we have played a key role in promoting the safe and responsible use of mountain bikes on shared-use trails. Our Share the Trail Brochure (n.d.) educates mountain bicyclists to be good diplomats and emissaries of our sport, and instructs them on how to make encounters with other trails users positive and enjoyable. Unfortunately, media-generated images of mountain bicyclists as gonzo riders has been especially damaging and has created a false impression among some non-cyclists that such irresponsible mountain bikers might be around every corner. Research indicates that the perception of safety concerns is dramatically greater than actual experiences that safety has been compromised, and reported incidents of injury are extremely rare.

In his chapter on the social impacts of mountain bikes, Cessford (1995) concludes: [While] potential hazards do exist from irresponsible riding, cases of actual accidents or injuries are not common. From a sample of 40 resource managers, Chavez et al. (1993) noted that only one case was known which had resulted in injury. And Coughlan (1994) found that although 38 percent of walkers considered mountain bikes "compromise safety", only 10 percent reported safety concerns as a negative outcome from actual encounters with mountain bikes. Most mountain bike riders in Cessford (1995) considered the safety hazard to others from bikes was over-estimated, and that the actions of a few irresponsible riders caused most problems. It appears that in most cases, the "safety" concerns relate more to an anticipation of potential threat than any actual experiences of hazardous riding.

NEMBA believes that it is not only mountain bikers who need to be cautious and courteous to other trail users, but that other trail users need to be more aware that they are sharing trails with mountain bicyclists as well. In many areas, mountain biking is a relatively new phenomenon and other trail users are unaccustomed to encountering bicycles on the trails, and are generally suspicious of this new user group. Mutual awareness and education will go a long way toward calming the fears of non-cyclists, and promote greater cooperation in caring for the trails.

4) "To protect the essential aesthetic experience of hiking and other legitimate trail uses, AMC believes that local, state and federal agencies should designate appropriate single use trails in each area or park."

We believe this to be the most divisive feature of the AMC's proposed trail policy, and one which NEMBA vehemently opposes. Mountain biking is a legitimate trail use, and its essential aesthetic experience must also be protected. We believe that user groups must work together, develop a common understanding of each other needs, and ally ourselves to protect and maintain our trails. Contrary to this view, the very nature of this point pits user groups against each other as each tries to carve out its small bit of turf. Rather than work together for the common good of a park, equestrians, trail runners, hikers, XC skiers and mountain bikers would be forced to argue against each other in order to receive priority treatment in securing a segment of the trail. Rather than working together to increase the number of trail opportunities for everyone, we would all lose access to a limited resource. In short, it creates a "lose-lose" situation, with the major loser being the collective preservation of our open spaces.

We view this as extremely detrimental to the core vision of both our organizations which seeks to engender a sense of stewardship and appreciation of the natural environment. If enacted, this policy would engender nothing more than hostility between user groups, and act as a wedge to prevent user groups from cooperating. Single-use trail systems are only appropriate in very few and highly specific cases, mostly related to highly congested urban parks, and most land managers regard single-use management as a technique of last resort. Out of seventeen management techniques discussed by the USFS's Andy Kulla (1995) in his "Hierarchy of Options for Managing Trail User Conflicts," imposing single-use trails ranked near the bottom at number fifteen.

In Roger Moore's (1994) study of "Conflicts on Multiple-Use Trails," sponsored by the National Recreational Trails Advisory Committee, Moore highlights twelve management principles for minimizing trail conflicts, and his study concludes "that when trail conflict situations are tackled head on and openly they can become an opportunity to build and strengthen trail constituencies and enhance outdoor recreational opportunities for all users." NEMBA believes that the AMC's proposed policy is prematurely adopting an extremist position of last resort. By taking this position, and essentially throwing the baby out with the bath water, we believe that many important opportunities for working together to develop a wide range of solutions will be lost. We believe that this policy as a whole would also drive a wedge into the AMC's own membership.

NEMBA is concerned that point four highlights a serious and damaging misconception that, in contrast to mountain biking, hiking is a more "pure," more "wholesome," and essentially a "superior" form of recreation. This is not the case. Mountain bicyclists and hikers share similar experiential and motivational desires for engaging in their preferred activity (Bjorkman 1996). Many mountain bikers are hikers, and even those who are not, enjoy the sports for essentially the same reasons. Mountain bikers love the outdoors with a passion. They love the sense of exploration and discovery of what is around each corner of nature's byways. They love the healthy lifestyle and exercise that is intrinsic to the sport. They love leaving the modern world behind and being self-sufficient and independent, and they love the sense of conquest of climbing a difficult trail and taking in the view from the top. Most importantly, they love the trails, and out of this has developed a strong desire to steward and take care of our open spaces.

The long and venerable tradition of hiking has created great advocacy groups, such as the AMC. The short tradition of mountain biking is doing exactly the same thing. While the AMC has over a 100 years of history under its belt, groups like IMBA, NEMBA and more than 300 other mountain biking groups are attempting to pursue the same goals with only a decade of experience. We agree that mountain bikers have a long way to go, but we have made great strides in an inordinately short period of time. We believe the solution is education, not segregation. We believe in mutual understanding through interaction, not ignorance through isolation.

5) "AMC believes that local, state, and federal agencies should make sound and responsible decisions concerning trail use that hold users accountable for sustainable maintenance on the trails that they use."

We agree that all user groups should carry their weight. In most of the areas where NEMBA performs trail maintenance, we are the only group who makes more than a token effort to give back to share-use trails. However, we do not wish land managers to use this fact to alienate all other users from the trails we work on. Far from it, we are developing maintenance series to which all users may come and help out.

Neither hiking nor mountain biking organizations are extensive enough to cover the long list of trails and parks that are in need of care, and many trail systems go unattended. However, if all the diverse user groups held trail maintenance events and provided a structure to allow individuals to get involved, then we might stand a slight chance of covering at least a majority of the trails. NEMBA has invested tens of thousands of volunteer hours to build an organizational structure which allows individuals to volunteer to help our under-funded open spaces, and we resent the erroneous implication in this policy point that the AMC is carrying the burden itself.

6) "AMC chapters may choose, by majority vote of the individual chapter committee, to suspend maintenance activities on designated multi-use trails when other user groups are unwilling to share responsibility for maintenance, management, and education."

We agree that AMC chapters should not be forced to volunteer for any duty that they do not see as worthwhile and beneficial to themselves and the organization. However, we find the condescending tone and threat implicit in the policy statement to be beneath the dignity of the AMC. It presumes that the AMC is doing all the work, and if it doesn't get some support, it's going to pack up its marbles and go home. In short, it is a childish statement which makes the AMC look unprofessional, and, in fact, peevish.


NEMBA does not want to end on such an unflattering note, however, because our organization is great believer in the AMC, its cause, and its sense of fairness and duty. We understand that the AMC is under pressure, especially from its southern chapters, to take a hostile stance against mountain biking, and we hope the Trails Committee has the foresight to see the larger picture, not only of what will be lost by taking such an inauspicious stance, but also of what will be gained by working with the many groups, like NEMBA, which run the gamut of the Appalachian Trail. Groups such as NEMBA are sincere in their desire to work with the AMC, and NEMBA and the AMC's Boston Chapter already have events planned for the 1998.

Rather than isolating maintenance organizations from each other, we recommend that the AMC request that their chapters make an outreach to include other groups and users in their own events. NEMBA is a strong and vivarant organization, but we also welcome your help and guidance. We are appreciative of AMC's Pat McCabe's assistance, for example, which has been instrumental to our efforts to model ourselves after the AMC's organizational structure. NEMBA and the AMC share the same goals and aspirations. We also share the same fears that our open spaces and the environment are under threat. This is the true enemy, and we are your ally.


Bjorkman, A.W. (1996). Off-Road Bicycle and Hiking Trail User Interactions: A report to the Wisconsin Natural Resources Bureau of Research. Eagle, Wisconsin.

Cessford, Gordon R. (1995). Off-Road Impacts of Mountain Bikes. Science and Research Series, No. 92. Dept. of Conservation. Wellington, NZ. Available online at

Off-road Mountain Biking: A profile of riders and their recreation setting and experience preferences. (1995). Science & Research Series No.93, Department of Conservation, Wellington.

Chavez, D.J. et al. (1993). Recreational Mountain Biking: A Management Perspective. Journal of Parks and Recreation Administration, 11(3): 29-36.

Kulla, Andy (1995). A Hierarchy of Options for Managing Trail User Conflicts. United States Dept. of Agriculture. Missoula MT. Available online at

Moore, Roger (1994); Conflicts on Multiple-Use Trails. Synthesis of the Literature and State of the Practice. Report No. FHWA-PD-94-031. Federal Highway Administration. Washington DC. Available online at

NEMBA (n.d.); Share the Trails Brochure. Available online at

Seney, Joseph (1990); Erosional Impacts of Hikers, Horses, Motorcycles and Mountain Bikes on Mountain Trails. Unpublished Master's Thesis, Dept. of Earth Sciences, Montana State University, Bozeman MT

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