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Room for Two?

An interview with STC board member and former IMBA chairman John Bliss

If you've been paying attention to rumblings on the Internet of late, you might have noticed the pissing match over the Wilderness ban on bikes. Or, let's rephrase that–you might have noticed what looks like a pissing match within the mountain bike community over how to deal with the Wilderness Act.

Not sure what all this Wilderness Act stuff is about? Here's some background on the who, why and what-the-hell of the situation.

The bitter back and forth within the mountain bike community has been weird. And, at times, hostile. Which begs the question, "what is going on here?"

The rancor went up a notch last week when John Bliss, former IMBA chairman, issued a very public letter, outlining his dissatisfaction with how IMBA is approaching the Wilderness issue and announced his decision to join the board of the Sustainable Trails Coalition.

This, however, is just the tip of the iceberg. In December, Ashley Korenblat, the former President of IMBA's board, co-founder of NEMBA and the CEO of Western Spirit Cycling, published a blistering piece titled, "Say No to the Sustainable Trails Coalition" on mtbr.com. That column, in turn, was a response to current and longtime NEMBA President, Philip Keyes, who had published an open letter of his own just a week earlier, asking IMBA to support the Sustainable Trails Coalition and take a more direct approach towards gaining mountain bike access in Wilderness Areas.

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THERE CAN BE ONLY ONE?
Both IMBA and STC have publicly stated that they support one another's goals, if not methods. The Internet roar of late, however, has frequently been to pair IMBA against STC. At the root of the recent debate is a fledgling bill that STC is currently trying to get introduced in Congress–Human-Powered Wildlands Travel Management Act of 2016–that seeks to make mountain biking an option in Wilderness areas and on the Pacific Crest Trail.

On one side, you have people arguing that IMBA is lazy, spineless and passive in its approach to the Wilderness ban. The other side often contends that STC and its supporters are naïve, inexperienced and a threat to all the gains in trail access that IMBA has made over the years.

Which begs the question: Is there room for both of these organizations? Can they co-exist and work together to improve mountain bike access? We'd like to think so. In fact, we think it's necessary–there's strength in numbers. But rather than deliver you our opinion, we decided to ask the actual players involved what they think. We reached out to STC President, Ted Stroll; former IMBA Board President, John Bliss; and to IMBA President Mike Van Abel.

IMBA is currently considering this matter and, therefore, declined to comment at this time. We expect IMBA to make an announcement of some sort in the near future and hope to interview them further on down the road. In the near future, we'll also post an interview with Ted Stroll and Jackson Ratcliffe of STC.

Since, however, the most recent news has centered on John Bliss' joining STC, our first installment of this story is the following interview with the former IMBA Board President.

Vernon Felton: How–and why–did you decide to get involved with the Sustainable Trails Coalition?

John Bliss: I saw Ashley Korenblat's online excoriation of STC's proposed legislation. It was clear that there was this amazing disparity of views out there on the issue. After talking to Ted and looking at a draft of the bill, it seemed a very modest and limited piece of legislation that is only trying to restore how things worked between 1981 and 1984, when local land managers could decide on whether or not to allow mountain bike access in Wilderness areas. To me, it makes sense to allow local land managers, with local knowledge, to make sound decisions.

So, I reached out to the lobbyists that STC is working with and chatted with them about the political landscape and they said, “Yeah, we agree with you–this is a very feasible proposition and that's why we’re pushing it now.”

As it stands, the lobbyists are closing in on bipartisan support and bicameral introduction. So, I called Ted and was like, “I've looked through your bill, I've looked through your blog posts, I've talked to your lobbyists and I really like what you guys are doing–how can I help?” And Ted suggested my joining the board, so that's how that happened.

 

VF: You said in your open letter to IMBA that "STC's legislative efforts are timely … ." Many observers would argue the exact opposite–that this is a horrible time to think about tinkering with the Wilderness Act. There are plenty of people in Congress right now who'd love to weaken the Wilderness Act, there's no denying that. Why do you think, then, that the timing is right to push this bill in Congress?

JB: I guess I'm going to flip what you just said on its head: This bill is fundamentally about pushing power down from the federal level to the local level–that is a uniquely Republican point of view that is going to play well in a Republican-controlled Congress. So, provided there is an opportunity, a case to be made to get Democrats supporting the bill as responsible, it seems to me that there is a great chance for this to succeed.

That's my argument and people can disagree with me on it, but I am looking at this situation through the lens of having spent 15 years of my life either lobbying Capitol Hill as a lobbyist myself or as a staffer on the Hill. I think this is a politically propitious time to push a bill like this.

John Bliss

John Bliss

 

VF: But can you really dismiss the notion that some people are going to seek to gut the Wilderness Act by tacking on amendments that open Wilderness areas up to natural resource extraction?

JB: This notion that there are going to be dozens of riders tacked on this bill, so that it becomes some kind of Christmas tree that ushers in a parade of horribles? I don't buy it.

We've seen no evidence of special interests hovering around, investigating the possibilities to do that sort of thing–it doesn't mean that no one will try it, but I just don't find that argument credible in the absence of proof. We don't find it a justifiable reason as to why IMBA shouldn't support the STC. And it's not just me saying this, some of IMBA's own chapters are saying the same thing.

 

VF: You signed your open letter as a "former IMBA member.” Are you taking a position against IMBA?

JB: My letter wasn't intended as a personal attack on anybody at IMBA. This is a debate over policy. We are trying to have a discussion here. I have true respect for IMBA and its leadership, but on this particular issue they've effectively, and excuse the cliché here, gotten lost in the wilderness.

I can tell you, on the STC side of the fence, we absolutely support everything else IMBA is doing–and they do a tremendous amount of good. But this isn't about that. This is a question of us asking IMBA, “Will you support something you've said you can't do? You can't lobby, so let us do it. And if you don't think STC is capable, then find some other lobbying outfit and have them do it.” Bottom line? Being mum on this issue is not acceptable.

 

VF: Not everyone is going to read your letter and accept that.

JB: What's the analogy here? You know that moment when you're about to marry somebody that's bad for you and all your quote-un-quote friends stay quiet while you make the worst decision of your life, but your real friends turn out to be the ones who tell you, “Hey, you're making a huge mistake!”?

Well, I want to be the latter kind of friend to IMBA.

I feel like I am seeing a movement that IMBA just doesn't see. I am seeing a groundswell of emotion that they are not picking up on. I see them almost trivializing what is going on here when there is a vast group of people supporting this bill and what STC is aiming to do. I think IMBA is incorrectly writing STC and its supporters off as this wing nut, fringe element that just doesn't understand the Wilderness issue. And I think that's a mistake.

Right now, it's sort of a binary thing for mountain bikers; you're either for or against this legislation. I think IMBA can turn this situation around in a heartbeat by simply supporting the STC's effort on this legislation or, at the very least, by doing a much better job of defending their claim that everything will go to hell in a handbasket if this bill gets introduced.

If IMBA can't see its way clear to get behind this proposal before it gets introduced and then it discovers that the bill is introduced in a bi-partisan fashion, I think it's going to be hard for IMBA to dig itself out of that hole. It's going to make IMBA be perceived by its constituency–mountain bikers–as a group that is more interested in cultivating relationships with the Sierra Club than in supporting mountain biking access.

 

VF: IMBA has a lot more members than STC. Aren't you guys, in fact, a minority in this situation?

JB: Are we the minority? There were 399 shares of that announcement on singletrack.com, 160 likes on my Facebook page, 113 likes on STC's page, 128 shares on Mountain Flyer's Facebook page, 21 comments on bikemag.com. Those things don't seem to be representative of a small slice of mountain bikers.

When I was working on Capitol Hill, there was this formula that we lobbyists used that basically held that for every handwritten letter you received in the office, you could conclude that that letter represented roughly 250 other constituents who shared that view. So, I look at those numbers and it seems to me that it represents the interest of a much larger group.

I've had easily 500 people who've communicated with me, through one channel or another, since my announcement, who have said that they want to see something happen here. I don't think that's a marginal group. I really don't.

 

VF: What if this legislation backfires–somehow completely fails? What then?

JB: There are people who support IMBA's current position who have said to us, in effect, “Well, what if you lose?” as if that is reason enough to not try and push this bill through. Well, there are plenty of people out there supporting STC who are psyched that we are trying. They are looking at IMBA going, “You didn't even try–at least these guys are trying to protect our backs.” I don't think that IMBA is grasping that…and, by the way, we're going to try like hell to make this successful.

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VF: When we posted your letter to IMBA here on bikemag.com, Ashley Korenblat posed a number of questions for you, including this one: “Where in the constitution, or any other law governing public land use, do you find a ‘right’– modest or otherwise to ride bicycles on singletrack trails that are owned by all Americans? This right does not exist and that is why it has never been a good idea to waste money fighting for it. The current STC draft legislation would not be fighting for a ‘right’ but rather attempting to amend both the Wilderness Act and the National Environmental Policy Act— for the benefit of a small special interest group.”

What's your response to that?

JB: Look, nowhere have I said, or has Ted Stroll said, that mountain bikers have a right to ride in all Wilderness areas. We are asking that the local land manger, whose job it is to make Wilderness decisions, has the opportunity to actually decide whether or not it makes sense for mountain bikers to ride in a given Wilderness parcel that they oversee. They can still say “no.” We just want the opportunity for bike access to be considered on its merits in any given case. I wouldn't characterize that as claiming a “right.”

But while we're talking about rights, there's something worth asking here and that is this: If mountain bikers don't have a right to ride any trail they want on these public lands–and I agree that Ashley is correct about that–then why is it that we are operating under the assumption that hikers and equestrians do have a right to do so?

What is at the root of this entire situation is the equestrian and hiker perspective of what they are entitled to when seeking seclusion in Wilderness areas. Somehow their view of Wilderness trumps everyone else's view. I don't understand why we don't have the same ability to secure our vision of seclusion on a bike, as they do walking or riding a horse. I'm not claiming that as a right, but I don’t see logically why one group's version of Wilderness solitude should trump another's.

Let’s be absolutely clear: We're not arguing for a right to ride all Wilderness areas. We're arguing for logic to be used in managing Wilderness and for not arbitrarily placing one group of trail users above another. It's arguing for democratization of uses that are in accord with the purpose and spirit of the Wilderness Act.


Stay tuned for more on the Wilderness issue over this week and the coming weeks, and as always, give us your take in the comments.