IMBA's president and executive director, Mike Van Abel, reaffirmed his organization's commitment to advocacy and trail access today, amid recent criticism from opponents that IMBA should take a more aggressive stance on Wilderness designations and other land-access issues.
Van Abel spoke during a press conference Thursday morning on the direction given by members of the IMBA Board at its meeting on Feb. 6, including a directive to maintain its controversial position against devoting resources to amend the 1964 Wilderness Act, which bans mountain bikes on Wilderness-designated lands.
Van Abel said that IMBA membership is at an historic high and there are more volunteers than ever working at the local level through its 200 worldwide chapters, both of which gives IMBA more political clout in Washington D.C.
"Access to trails on public and private lands has never been better in the history of organized mountain-bike advocacy," Van Abel said. "We know access could be better in some areas. Yet there is not some new dynamic, or new threat happening today, as some vocal enthusiasts with understandable passion are criticizing IMBA."
Many of those 'vocal enthusiasts' support the newly formed Sustainable Trails Coalition, or STC, which has hired a lobbying firm to take the fight for mountain-bike access to Congress. The group recently proposed a bill, the Human-Powered Wildlands Travel Management Act of 2016, which seeks to undo the blanket ban on bicycles in federal Wilderness areas, putting the power to allow or ban bikes in the hands of local land managers.
Van Abel commended the STC for its strides in engaging more mountain bikers in the fight for access, but said IMBA would not seek to amend the 1964 Wilderness Act, calling it a "risky and unnecessary endeavor" that could have negative downstream effects on trail access.
Instead, IMBA will concentrate its efforts on pursuing legislation to redraw existing Wilderness boundaries to establish trail connections and corridors–as it's already done in New Mexico and other states–in regions where IMBA has a strong grassroots presence.
When asked what he would say to the 96 percent of mountain bikers who think Wilderness areas should be open to mountain bikes, as reported by 4,334 mountain bikers recently surveyed by Singletracks, Van Abel said he understood their passion about riding in spaces that provide that kind of solitude. IMBA will take a more "assertive stance" with regard to future Wilderness proposals and recommendations, Van Abel said, but only if there is a local IMBA chapter working to conserve trails and habitat in that region.
The Wilderness Act crept back into the minds of mainstream mountain bikers last year when a bill sponsored by Idaho Republican Senator Mike Simpson to form the Boulder-White Clouds Wilderness passed the House and Senate. The bill proposed assigning the highest level of protection to miles of pristine singletrack in Idaho's high alpine, thus prohibiting mountain bikers from riding two previously legal backcountry trails. When President Obama signed the bill into law last August, the controversy reached a fever pitch. From the outside, it appeared that IMBA had failed to represent mountain bikers, conceding to powerful groups like the Sierra Club.
Van Abel recognized the loss as painful, but said he was confident such a situation would not be repeated, since it was the result of a unique political landscape, in which a longtime Senator rallied support for a legacy bill as he exited Washington.
“I understand the frustration some feel when they perceive we have been arbitrarily excluded from access to trails on public lands. I understand and empathize the anger this solicits. I am sorry we didn’t prevail in our hard-fought efforts to preserve access to two epic trails in the Boulder-White Clouds. But that has only deepened our resolve."
In that vein, IMBA's Board has given IMBA staff the greenlight to pursue legal action against the U.S. Forest Service for classifying 102,000 acres in the Bitterroot National Forest as Wilderness Study Areas, a term given to land that has been deemed worthy of a Wilderness designation, but is still waiting on Congress to give it such a designation. That grey-area classification would cut off mountain-bike access to 178 miles of singletrack.
IMBA is currently undergoing legal analysis to determine whether the law was followed while the Forest Service was drafting the Bitterroot Travel Management Plan, and attempting to answer the question of whether a mountain bike in that landscape causes impacts to the Wildnerness characteristics of the land.
"We have to be smart about asking the question legally," Van Abel said. "I've had high-level Forest Service individuals that have actually cautioned us and said, 'Be careful what you ask for.' What if the court decides in fact the law is being followed in their determination? There could be downstream effects of that legal decision that we need to anticipate, and that's our due diligence that has to happen right now."
Van Abel said another focus of IMBA moving forward would be to throw its efforts–financial, legal, personnel and otherwise–behind local chapters that are fighting to reopen trails where IMBA feels a land manager has taken the expedient route to prohibit mountain biking.
"It is unacceptable for government agencies to arbitrarily, without proper analysis and empirical evidence of adverse impacts, close access to trails currently enjoyed by people riding bicycles," he said.
Bruce Alt, IMBA's vice president of government affairs, closed the press conference by identifying the enemy in this debate as the lack of engagement by individual mountain bikers nationwide and a positive collaboration in public policy advocacy process, which handicaps progress and diminishes mountain bikers' collective voice.
“Part of my objective being here at IMBA is the awesome opportunity to create a much stronger ground game for mountain bikers everwhere, regardless of the political issues at hand. To that extent we will be actively involved in creating a more focused, a more productive and a more effective ground game. Our members and our chapters and our coalition partners are at the heart of that effort,” Alt said.
Here’s a recording of the conference in its entirety: