Editor's note: Wilderness isn't the only challenge mountain bikers face when it comes to access. Our new series, 'Lines in the Dirt,' will zoom in on contentious locations across the U.S. to chronicle their issues, profile key players on both sides and detail what–if any–solutions have been achieved. Here's the first installment of this four-part series: a breakdown of the access equation 40 years after the movement began. New chapters will launch on each of the next three Tuesdays. Up next: tradition vs. progress in Northern California.
The most unlikely success story in recent mountain-biking-access history began with a favor request from a federal Wilderness expert to a chimney sweeper.
A group of freeriders had been building illegal downhill trails on Teton Pass just west of Jackson, Wyoming, in the early 2000s. In 2004, the Bridger-Teton National Forest's Wilderness, recreation and trails manager, a New York hiker named Linda Merigliano, heard about a handful of close calls between downhill bikers and people on horseback. Trail Creek Ranch, a 1940s dude ranch that had run horseback rides on the pass for six decades, stopped offering rides because its manager was afraid someone was going to get killed.
Merigliano, who has worked in the Bridger-Teton for 36 years, realized a long-simmering problem was about to boil. She needed a mediator—someone respected by the local rowdies and ranchers alike—to suss out the best path forward. Naturally, she called Keith Benefiel.
Benefiel rode his bike from Indiana to Wyoming in 1974 and for years owned the only bike shop in Jackson. He knew most of the people who were building illegal trails. He also knew most of the ranching families and old-guard hikers, having served as a search-and-rescue volunteer as well as—not to be underestimated in mountain-town politics—the valley's go-to chimney sweep for 25 years.
Benefiel held a series of one-on-one conversations with key players on both sides—over breakfast, at the general store, in the post office, on trails. The Forest Service was sick of playing cat and mouse, posting signs asking people to stop building trails and finding the signs gone in the morning. Merigliano, who had recently led an effort to legitimize an old social-trail network on the edge of town, wondered if the clashing user groups on Teton Pass could collaborate on something similar…or if a shouting match would ensue.
After a couple of weeks, Benefiel reported back: "I think people do believe this area could work for everybody."
Merigliano contracted the Center for Conflict Resolution to facilitate a meeting of roughly 100 ranchers, hikers and mountain bikers. The forest supervisor and district ranger watched as attendees broke into groups and came up with a proposal for the 14,000-acre playground on Teton Pass. There was no question separate trails for bikers, hikers and horses were a must, but everyone got a fair share in the proposal. Merigliano's bosses told her to move forward.
"At the time, I didn't know if the plan was going to work," Merigliano says. What she means is she didn't know if trusting mountain bikers would work. With off-road cycling access nearing a tipping point in many parts of the country, trust remains a critical factor.
A lot of people felt Merigliano was rewarding bad behavior by giving bikers their own (legal) trails. Some of her Forest Service colleagues—as far away as California—criticized her, she says. But the reason why Benefiel calls Merigliano "a model for any Forest Service employee who works with the public" is because of the principle that guided her on Teton Pass. "I'm an inherently trusting person," she says. "I strongly believe in trying to work with people."
As a condition of the plan, she made it clear to the bikers—who became formally known as the Teton Freedom Riders—that they would be held accountable for maintaining their trails and self-policing those who rode them. To this day, everyone who rides on Teton Pass knows if they misbehave, and thus violate Merigliano's trust, they could be ostracized.
In the past decade, the Teton Pass agreement has become a model for mountain-bike advocates around the country. Merigliano says she gets calls from Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) staffers, as well as mountain bikers, asking how they can establish a similar relationship where they live. She says the formula won't work everywhere. "You don't create accountability just through regulation. It has to come from an internal sense of ethics, where there is a community norm of 'that's just the way we do things here. We're respectful of other people and wildlife,'" she says.
Some of Merigliano's critics still question the decision, which has increased system trail mileage on Teton Pass from 20 to 55, including some of the premier downhill lines in America. The critics miss a crucial point, she says.
"It wasn't just about bike trails," Merigliano says. "It was about making this trail system work for everybody."
It sounds so logical, the way Merigliano says it. But mountain-bike access remains a delicate topic in communities around the U.S. Not everyone has a visionary land manager and open-minded user groups to collaborate with. The fact is, it matters who is involved when making decisions, perhaps more than any other factor. And mountain bikers are often part of their own problem.
One thing everyone agrees on: Mountain-bike access is a hell of a lot better now than it was 20 years ago. For every story you hear of a segregated community, you hear three others about places where the trail mileage has doubled or tripled. This is particularly true in the Southeast and a lot of towns across the Mountain West. As advocates will tell you, the sport's renegade roots have given way to a new subset of participants.
"No longer are people arriving at trailheads in Volkswagen buses with plumes of smoke coming out," says Eric Melson, a bike advocate (and former Wilderness ranger) based in Missoula, Montana. "Now the people arriving at trailheads with mountain bikes are doctors, educators, business owners, land managers. There is an evolution in the culture and understanding of mountain biking, an appreciation for what it contributes to the health and wellness of people's daily lives, what it contributes to the local economy."
It's been more than 40 years since people first started riding clunkers off-road in Marin County, California, and Crested Butte, Colorado, and still nobody knows how many mountain bikers there are in the U.S. Studies estimate between six and eight million, or about one-fifth the number of hikers.
Anti-mountain bike feelings persist in many places, despite the sport's growth and increased political clout. This often stems from the impossible task of managing for so many styles of rider with one designation—a trail is either open or closed to bikes, no matter if you're blazing downhill at 30 mph or meandering through the wildflowers. "Mountain bikers are not one user group," contends Nona Dennis, an 87-year-old hiker and frequent bike opponent in Marin County.
Some access challenges remain the same as ever; others are a product of technology and the times. Among the stalwarts, communities across the country are still grappling with user-created "legacy trails" that arose due to a lack of legal bike access and became the go-to routes for thousands of riders, and are now in the process of either being legitimized or shut down. Wilderness, where bikes are banned, is still a hot topic in states ranging from North Carolina to Montana to California—but lately the focus has shifted from Wilderness itself, which can only be designated by Congress, to the fuzzy rules surrounding Wilderness study areas (WSAs) and recommended Wilderness areas (RWAs), impermanent classifications that are assigned by local officials and managed differently depending upon where you happen to be. Sometimes bikes are allowed; most often they are not.
There remains great debate over whether mountain bikes, as "mechanized" vehicles in the access parlance, degrade an area's Wilderness value. Most no longer dispute the science that says bikes do about the same damage to trails as hiking shoes. Merigliano, who has testified before Congress about Wilderness stewardship, said in 2013 that while motorized use on Teton Pass "clearly diminishes the area's eligibility for Wilderness, mountain biking use is not going to preclude this area from Wilderness."
Still, conservation advocacy groups, with memberships in the millions and deep pockets to lobby politically, have proven successful in their efforts to keep WSAs and RWAs managed as de facto Wilderness, primarily by the Forest Service. Bike advocates take issue with the supposedly neutral agency's role in the process. "The Forest Service is moving beyond what their mission is authorized to do," says Aaron Clark, conservation manager for the International Mountain Bicycling Association (IMBA), which was founded in 1988 and still is the sport's leading advocacy organization. "I call it 'Wilderness creep.' The Forest Service can't designate Wilderness, but they are doing that, and they are doing it with a method that's an activist format, not a manager format."
Perhaps the most challenging issues under the access umbrella are still evolving. Strava, the online, GPS-enabled timing system that turns every ride into a race, can both help and harm trail access. It led to a trail closure in Los Altos, California, last year by exposing to city leaders how fast people were riding a neighborhood connector (up to 26 mph). However, in Breckenridge, Colorado, town planners list Strava data in their grant applications to show why they need more money to maintain trails.
Electric bikes, which provide a boost on hills and have blurred the line between motorized and nonmotorized use, are also proving tricky to manage in local, state and federal jurisdictions. City officials in Durango, Colorado, for example, banned e-bikes last year but later reconsidered their decision when senior citizens—who, ironically, are among the most vocal opponents of mountain bikes in many places—argued the electric motors helped them enjoy nature and get around town.
People endlessly debate the merits of recreation versus conservation when it comes to mountain-bike access. Can a bike advocate be a conservationist, too? Ashley Korenblat, an outspoken former IMBA staffer and tour operator based in Moab, Utah, takes issue with bike advocates' proclaiming their love for the landscape as a means of justifying their stance. "Mountain bikers like to say, 'We're conservationists too!'" Korenblat says. "Well, have you ever done anything other than advocate for your own trails? Until we do that, we're just another user group demanding access."
Much of the recent access discussion, like a lot of contentious issues where industry is involved, has revolved around money. For a long time mountain biking's economic impact was an aside. But lately, as the outdoor industry attempts to leverage its power, land managers are paying more attention to how much revenue, say, a trail network might bring in to a surrounding community. "The way to keep a trail open is to make it a recreation asset," Korenblat says. "Political will is all about economics." Still, such a shift has more of an effect on known tourism destinations or urban areas, and less of an effect on isolated swaths of Montana, for instance, where bike access to alpine trails is disappearing in RWA and WSA classifications hundreds of miles at a time.
One of the biggest gripes you will hear related to mountain-bike access comes from advocates and opponents alike. Namely: the bike industry may be part of the solution when it comes to funding the cause, but it perpetuates an air of irresponsibility through the image presented in ads and editorial properties. Mountain-bike advocates say they show up to public meetings to see an opponent holding a magazine photo of someone "shredding" the trail, to prove that bikes are destructive or that people ride too fast. Even if the photo, or ad, is aimed at an aspirational rider, even if the photo was taken on private land, it perpetuates a stereotype to an uninitiated beholder.
"I look at the ads," says Dennis, the Marin County hiker and Conservation League board member. "And unfortunately, the message is speed, downhill, fast, fast, fast. The industry is promoting that."
John Burke, CEO and owner of Trek, which gave more than $4 million to advocacy causes last year and is the largest contributor to IMBA at $350,000, said he had never considered how Trek's advertisements influence access until he was interviewed for this story. "I'm just writing myself a note here; we'll do a deep dive in our marketing department and take a look at our stuff," he said. Other companies did not respond to interview requests on the same topic.
Brice Minnigh, editor of Bike, which was the first magazine to champion the freeride movement and consistently publishes photos of riders "roosting" turns and charging downhill, said in a phone interview that he has no control over what ads end up in the magazine and that access implications have been a photography challenge for years. "It's a real issue, and I don't know how we're going to address it and still put out a compelling product that applies to a broad range of people," Minnigh says. He can't ask a bike manufacturer not to show riders skidding through turns in an ad, "because they're going to say, 'This is aspirational; this is what sells our bikes.' And to a similar extent, Bike would have to say, 'This is what sells our magazine.'"
Does it help for big brands to weigh in on access issues politically? Numerous people interviewed for this story believe it does, and most believe it should happen more often. "I think companies have a special responsibility and a special voice in this discussion," says Randy Neufeld, the Chicago-based director of the SRAM Cycling Fund, which allocates a half-million dollars per year to advocacy. "As a decision maker, it's one thing if a scruffy mountain biker calls you; it's another thing if somebody who employs hundreds of people and is dependent on mountain biking as a business calls you."
Of course, that is not to say more scruffy mountain bikers aren't needed, too. While IMBA carries an international title and has always been the strongest force in high-level advocacy, it still only counts 35,000 members. If we go with the low end of estimated mountain bikers in the U.S.—six million—that means less than one percent of mountain bikers belong to the sport's most influential advocacy org.
Lately IMBA has been hemorrhaging: sponsors (Subaru unexpectedly ended a 19-year sponsorship last year), its executive director (Hall of Fame racer Dave Wiens filled the vacancy left by Mike Van Abel), key employees and programs. It is mired in a philosophical and divisive battle with the upstart Sustainable Trails Coalition, which is trying to get bikes allowed in Wilderness, a sexy yet polarizing mission. People for Bikes, another national advocacy organization, provides political e-blasts and Washington, D.C. lobbying—and is led by ex-IMBA chief Tim Blumenthal—but still spends only 15 to 20 percent of its $6 million budget on mountain-bike issues. Much of that is through a grant to IMBA.
There is reason to believe things at IMBA could be changing, however. Last year the organization hired as VP of development Aaron Locker, a new mountain biker who says his first ride changed his life. Before joining the nonprofit world at age 40, Locker managed a $200 million sales team for a Fortune 500 company. He wants to build IMBA's membership to 100,000 in 10 years and attract sponsors from outside the bike industry, which currently contributes $1.8 million of IMBA's $5.5 million budget. The key, Locker says, is to show what, exactly, IMBA does with its funding, which he thinks has been missing in past outreach. "I think if I can prove my case, the industry would give more money," Locker says. "But I don't expect them to give purely philanthropically."
There is a belief in advocacy that those who participate inevitably get their fair share of access. "I've always said: It's a democracy. And it's government of the people, by the people and for the people—who show up," says Trek owner John Burke. "And if we got everybody who cares about mountain biking to show up, you'd have double the access."
Except it doesn't always work like that. Rigid land-management laws can prevent even fair points from being considered. But a pair of new bills could help. The National Forest System Trails Stewardship Act (passed last fall) directs the cash-strapped Forest Service to double its reliance on volunteers, fire crews and outfitters for trail maintenance; and the Recreation Not Red Tape Act, introduced by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR), could provide new protections for mountain biking in areas that might otherwise preclude it. You still hear stories of collaboration ending happily, too, like in North Carolina's Nantahala and Pisgah National Forest, where Wilderness and mountain bike advocates last year worked out a way to support 109,000 acres as Wilderness without closing a single bike trail.
Perhaps someday, decades from now, mountain bikers will laugh when told they were banned from trails around the U.S. It's easy to forget snowboarders were not allowed at ski areas just 30 years ago. And perhaps mountain bikers will talk about those who initiated a new way of thinking: people like Linda Merigliano, who trusted the outlaws to do right in the name of access—and who proved to others that they could.