Woody Allen once said, "80 percent of success is showing up." "The world is run by those who show up" is frequently noted in all arenas of life. "Be the change you wish to see" (Dalai Lama) is another call to action. The underlying premise of these three aphorisms is the same: participating in the process is essential to getting what you want.
Mountain biking is one of the fastest growing outdoor recreation sports in the country, and overall, access for mountain bikers to great trails has been increasing across the U.S. on both public and private land. Yet painful losses where mountain bikers lose access continue, from relatively small trails like Byrne Preserve in Los Altos Hills, California, to huge trail networks on United States Forest Service (USFS) lands in Montana. As a recreational community, mountain bikers are largely dependent on public lands for access to the trails we love to ride. Therefore, it is essential that mountain bikers are active participants shaping the future of outdoor recreation.
In other words, we need to show up! Because in the public lands planning process—the process that decides who can access certain places and what people can do there—the majority wins. To win, you have to be present and be an active participant in the process.
It's not as easy as it sounds, but it's also not as difficult. In the public policy world, mountain bikers are a smaller, somewhat isolated group compared to many of the other outdoor recreation stakeholders jostling for access. It is estimated there are approximately 8.6 million* mountain bikers in the U.S. but only about 35,000 of these were members of the International Mountain Bicycling Association (IMBA) at the end of 2017 prior to a recent IMBA decision to discard their membership model nationally. Compare that to the largest environmental organizations in the U.S. that boast over 3 million members and supporters. Think about what it would mean if just 25 percent of all mountain bikers became official members of a national advocacy organization representing their interests? With 2 million activists, we'd have a much stronger voice to protect mountain biking access and trails.
Along with being a smaller group, mountain bikers also face a pervasive negative perception from some other recreationists that they are reckless, destructive and sometimes selfish. How can riders overcome this image problem and continue to preserve access to trails and increase future opportunities?
Whenever we as citizens in our democratic, free-enterprise society want something different our natural tendency is to justify our desired outcomes based on the merits of our arguments. Perhaps we will ‘win’ if we just proclaim our views louder or to more people, or to be specific, argue that horses cause more damage to trails? However, it's far more instructive to examine the issue of trail access for mountain bikes from a different perspective—that of land managers and elected officials. Here are some specific actions that all mountain bikers can take to ‘show up’ and ensure that we can continue to make access gains, and prevent being locked out of trails.
Keys to Showing Up With Elected Officials and Land Managers
Elected officials and land managers are generally charged with making decisions for the public for the greater good and according to applicable law, so they are looking for consensus, collaboration and clarity. They are, or should be, our "champions and friends."
Bring Information and Knowledge
Responsible officials are informed by people or information that they find persuasive, truthful and credible. That certainly doesn’t mean they are completely informed with all pertinent information. To be well informed on any issue takes work and time, and it’s unrealistic to think that elected officials and land managers can be well informed about every issue that they face. To be part of the access solution, the mountain biking community must be providers of credible, factual information.
If there's one thing elected officials and land managers are looking for, it's consensus. Consensus among interested parties makes it easier to make quality decisions and beneficial public policy. Sadly, the mountain biking community, at times fractured and even divided, is not always viewed positively due to the lack of a representative voice or sufficient unity. Having different opinions about trail construction, bike types, styles of riding, e-mountain bikes, Wilderness access and more is fine for trailhead conversation, brewpub banter and organizational policy development. However, in the trenches of both the local and national public policy process, harsh divisiveness absolutely handicaps our political influence and our credibility as a community.
To be effective in the public policy realm we must be providers of solutions. In any given public land access challenge or opportunity, the mountain biking community must be willing to take action to solve problems. One persuasive attribute we currently enjoy is our long history of volunteer trail stewardship.
Keys to Showing Up In Your Community
Before you can bring consensus, credible information and solutions to elected officials or land managers, they need to know you and trust you.
It's all about relationships! As an individual or organization, resolve to be an active participant in mountain bike advocacy. Many clubs and mountain bikers have earned an admirable reputation for their significant contributions to trail maintenance on public lands as volunteer stewards. This not only provides a huge value to under-resourced land managers, but strategically this spirit of selflessness and volunteer public service conveys a powerful and solution-oriented advocacy message. Actively seek opportunities to welcome and engage elected officials and land mangers in your community.
Demonstrate genuine gratitude and sincere appreciation to decision makers who are supportive of mountain biking. Show your appreciation by inviting elected officials, land managers and community leaders to social events, trail workdays and club rides. Personal thank-you letters and public Letters to the Editor in local newspapers go a long way to earn their support.
Be Open to Other Recreational Users
Most importantly, understand that no single group or recreational interest has a special right to use public lands as they wish. Public lands in the U.S. were established for all citizens and therefore everyone has a right to participate in the processes lawfully established to determine how they are managed and enjoyed. Conflicts between different user groups cause problems and unintended, negative consequences.
Where to Begin?
The real challenge here is that all of these simple, achievable actions involve time, resources, and personal treasure. However, they are a huge step toward nurturing relationships and protecting long-term access for mountain bikers. This means occasionally unclipping, putting a foot down, and becoming an active participant in advocacy efforts to develop solutions.
Mountain bikers can take positive action by joining their local mountain bike club and getting organized for advocacy. If there is no local organization, form a committee of fellow riders to organize a group. If we all contribute just a little in a positive way, then it's not too hard or time-consuming. And unless we do, we will continue to lose rides and access to trails we love.
Clearly, the mountain biking community can win by creating, improving and preserving trail access nationwide. To continue this momentum, and prevent painful losses, we must commit to being active participants in shaping the future of outdoor recreation.
Bruce C. Alt Bruce is the President of Fat Tire Solutions, a membership management, communications and advocacy consulting firm that is focused on delivering high value solutions to mountain bike clubs. As an active mountain biker, he co-founded the Central Arkansas Trail Alliance and served as its first president. He was formerly the Vice President of Government Relations for the International Mountain Bicycling Association after serving other not-for-profit organizations in the professional association management and government relations communities earlier in his professional career. He resides in Little Rock, Arkansas with his wife Dianne and two delightful rescue dogs.