By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 19, 2008
The Interior Department issued a proposed rule yesterday that would make it easier for mountain bikers and other cyclists to traverse the backcountry of national parks.
Environmentalists decried the rule, which is now subject to a 60-day comment period, saying it would spark conflicts between cyclists, who can travel at high speeds, and other park visitors who prefer to hike or ride on narrow trails.
Under current rules, the National Park Service must go through a rulemaking before allowing mountain bikes on hiking and horse trails, a process that factors in environmental considerations and the competing needs of park visitors. The change would give park superintendents greater discretion in allowing bikers in by waiving the formal rulemaking requirement.
The Park Service did not issue a statement on the proposal, and its press office did not return calls seeking comment yesterday.
Mark Eller, spokesman for the International Mountain Bicycling Association, hailed the administration's move. He noted that 20 national parks allow biking on narrow trails and 20 allow it on dirt roads, but these parks are "technically out of compliance" with federal rules.
"We've worked with the Park Service to try to develop the language, and we've been pleased to see that much of what we've proposed has been included," Eller said. He added that the change would allow park supervisors "to look for more opportunities for where they think they've worked out" the balance between hikers and bike riders.
However, Denny Huffman, a former superintendent of Dinosaur National Monument, who now represents the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees, said "conservation comes first" when determining how visitors experience national parks.
"National Park Service employees are pressured every day to allow activities that may conflict with most visitors' experiences," Huffman said in a statement. "This proposed regulation change would only open more park superintendents and managers to pressure by mountain bikers to open trails where that use conflicts with other visitors."
While the White House has barred agencies from issuing rules with a major impact on the economy less than 60 days before Bush leaves office, Bush spokesman Tony Fratto wrote in an e-mail that "this was a non-significant rule. It gives more discretion to individual parks to make decisions about mountain biking trails. We agreed with [the Park Service] that it was non-significant."
Kristen Brengel, a campaign director with the Wilderness Society, said she hopes the next administration will be able to reverse the decision, which would not become final until Barack Obama takes office. "It's a loosening of the rules by anyone's standard," she said.