Who Owns the Forests? Mountain Bike Trail Riders and Park Pros Weigh In


by Danielle Taylor | Posted on June 19, 2014

When I began my research for the feature article on collaboratively built mountain biking trails  for the June issue of Parks & Recreation Magazine, I started out by watching Pedal-Driven, a 2011 documentary that looks at both sides of the debate surrounding illegal mountain bike trail building in the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forests near Leavenworth, Washington. There, the U.S. Forest Service manages more than 4 million acres along the eastern slopes of the Cascade Range, and in recent years, the land has been inundated with problems due to illegal trail building by mountain bikers in the area.


It’s a dilemma that public land managers see every day, and it gets to the heart of the preservation vs. conservation debate. Is it better to preserve publicly-owned lands for the future and make them inaccessible to humans who might harm them, or should we open them up to the public, accept the reality of human impacts on the landscape but nurture the next generation of environmental stewards? Also, what should be the role of government in the protection of publicly-owned lands, and what right does the government have to ban citizens from enjoying lands that they collectively own? 


“Pedal-Driven” starts out by asking, “Who owns the forests?,” and it’s a question that needs to be asked of all public lands. Philosophy and ethics surrounding these issues drive the decisionmaking behind the management of public lands nationwide, but reality needs to be factored into the equation as well, as even the best of intentions don’t always work. 


When forest rangers at the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forests prohibited mountain biking in an effort to protect the landscape, the effect was an unorganized network of unsanctioned trails that damaged the landscape much more than a well-planned, sustainable system of trails would have been.


The problem isn’t unique to federal lands, and I knew of one regional park in my area (Fountainhead Regional Park Mountain Bike Trail) where mountain biking had been prohibited, but thanks to a collaborative partnership with the local mountain biking community, the park authority has created a highly popular, well-built recreational resource


Knowing there had to be similar examples out there, I put out calls for information on NRPA Connect and Twitter as well as through email. Within a few days, I had gotten leads on more than 50 relevant trail systems nationwide. I thought I would get a lot of messages from frustrated park employees tired of dealing with rogue mountain bikers, but the overwhelming message I got was positive. Even in places where illegal trail building had been a problem, I was pleasantly surprised to learn how many parks and agencies had developed good relationships with their local mountain biking communities



Collaborative partnerships between mountain biking groups and parks have led to well-built, sustainable trails


Some of these trails and bike parks really are mind-blowing, and I would have loved to fit more of these great collaborative partnerships into the article. Take a look at the following examples, to name just a few:


  • I-5 Colonnade Park, built under an overpass in Seattle, Washington, through collaboration with the Evergreen Mountain Bike Alliance (EMBA)
  • Duthie Hill Mountain Bike Park  in Issaquah, Washington, also brought about in partnership with EMBA
  • Forest Hill Park Trail in Richmond, Virginia, a collaboration with the Richmond chapter of the Mid-Atlantic Off-Road Enthusiasts (RVA MORE)
  • Duluth Traverse Trail in Duluth, Minnesota, built thanks to efforts from the Cyclists of Gitchee Gumee Shores (COGGS)
  • Air Capital Memorial Park Singletrack in Wichita, Kansas, which wouldn’t have been possible without contributions from Lee’s Bike Shop in Wichita and the Kansas Singletrack Society


As mountain biking became really popular over the last decade or so, many public land managers were concerned that the sport would offer a new opportunity for recreation that would come at the cost of the environment, but based on the feedback I got from park professionals who responded to my initial query for this article, it seems that this isn’t the case in the vast majority of places. Quite the opposite, actually.


So, who owns the forests? We all do, and by working together for the long-term good, we can offer energizing, sustainable recreation that encourages the next generation of land stewards to protect our natural heritage.


What are your experiences working collaboratively with mountain biking groups in your area?  Share in the comments below or tweet us @NRPA_News,@D_R_Taylor.


Danielle Taylor  is the Senior Editor of Parks & Recreation Magazine. Follow her on Twitter @D_R_Taylor.  

Editor’s Note: photos courtesy of theInternational Mountain Bicycling Association, and the Valmont Bike Park in Boulder, Colorado.


This article needed to get out. Our project in Nicaragua actually started with a design for 3 separate trails: mountain bike, walking, and horse trail. This way we can properly handle their own unique "footprints". by Indio Jones on 07/11/2014

Your article avoids the most important ethical issues. What right do individuals have to go into a national forest, that they do not own (you hint at some level of ownership by individuals of the Forest Service Lands, but that is clearly not the case, legally or ethically)and build whatever they feel is best for their use? The whole reason for establishing governmental control over these resources is to prevent this type of activity. What would be left if everyone went into the forests and just started digging and constructing whatever they felt was "best". The answer is "a ruined forest". Just because you can find support from others that like your particular sport and you can force the forest service to accept your vandalism does not make it right or considerate to everyone else. The idea of preservation is to keep the resource as it is, to be enjoyed by everyone in its natural state, not to turn it into some kind of X games amusement park. by Dan Baker on 09/02/2014

Great article. And hilarious comments by Dan Baker. A few trails on forest land=ruined forest? Over-exaggerate much?So it's fine for the forest land to be logged and driven on, but a few bicycles is just too much. OK by Mike on 09/24/2014

Great article and would love to share it on our networks as well. I think Dan rides a trike only in his driveway and spends most of his time being an internet warrior against mountain "Bicycles". Mike put it perfectly, the raping of the forests for greed via log trucks has done way more damage than a 2 inch wide tire can do. by Todd Alan on 11/29/2014

Dan said my sentiments well. Mtn. bikers are a selfish lot. by k Biggs on 03/29/2015


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