I recently read about the National Park Service's consideration of allowing mountain biking in Rocky Mountain National Park. They have set up a test-run on a short stretch of trail inside the park and will be preparing an environmental impact assessment to go along with it. There has always been resistance against making trails open to cyclists but it is usually on grounds of social interactions between hikers, horseback riders, and bicyclists. I will be the first to admit that there are inconsiderate riders out there that are bound to frustrate other trail users by blazing down the mountain without yield. However I think some clever steps taken by planners can help users avoid such interactions. The trails around the front range of colorado have very clear signage indicating who should yield to who, and some of the parks even have certain days of the week when cyclists are not allowed. The real question the NPS is addressing is this: is mountain biking measurably worse for the environment than other forms of trail use? I was curious what research has already been done on the subject and came across this comprehensive review done by the International Mountain Bicycling Association. Their key conclusion on the matter is quoted below:
The environmental degradation caused by mountain biking is generally equivalent or less than that caused by hiking, and both are substantially less impacting than horse or motorized activities. In the small number of studies that included direct comparisons of the environmental effects of different recreational activities, mountain biking was found to have an impact that is less than or comparable to hiking. For example, Marion and Olive (2006) reported less soil loss on mountain bike trails than on hiking trails, which in turn exhibited substantially less soil loss than did horse and ATV trails. Similarly, two wildlife studies reported no difference in wildlife disturbance between hikers and mountain bikers (Taylor & Knight 2003, Gander & Ingold 1997), while two other studies found that mountain bikers caused less disturbance (Papouchis and others. 2001, Spahr 1990).
As a mountain biker I hope that these facts are soon recognized by land managers so that the sport can keep progressing and exciting new terrain can be open for travel by bike.
Scientist, photographer, and outdoor athlete based in Denver, Colorado. This blog is a place to share science-related news and ideas that I find interesting.