Access Denied! A look at regulating MTB in National Parks.
Anthony Seiver looks at why regulating mountain bike riding in national parks is necessary and ultimately in the best interests of the sport.
The regulation of mountain biking riding in national parks triggers condemnation from some riders and acceptance from others. Those who condemn the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) feel that there should be no or few controls on mountain biking in national parks because it is public space and they believe that it has no impacts. More reasonable riders accept that NPWS has to regulate mountain biking to find the balance between conservation, public safety and our right to enjoy our sport. The Royal National Park to the south of Sydney provides examples of good and bad regulation. I have closely observed mountain bike regulation in the Royal and my attitude has changed from condemning NPWS' heavy-handed imposition of mountain bike regulation in 2001 to an acceptance of its need. This article outlines the reasons for my shift in attitude by identifying why and how mountain bike riding in national parks should be regulated.
The National Parks and Wildlife Act 1974 says that NPWS has the objective of managing national parks to conserve their natural and cultural heritage. Conservation must be balanced with other park management objectives, including regulating legitimate recreation—this includes mountain biking. NPWS is obliged to manage national parks for conservation and recreation purposes. National parks are created to conserve the area's natural and cultural heritage and to provide opportunities for people to enjoy the parks and their heritage values through recreation.
Benefits of Regulation
Regulating mountain biking in national parks has advantages and creates opportunities for the sport. The primary advantage is that the sport is given legitimacy by the NPWS and by other stakeholders, such as environmentalists. Legitimacy is the unambiguous recognition that mountain biking is allowed within national parks (subject to certain limitations). Further to this, it allows us to participate in the management of mountain biking in national parks and the opportunity and resources to build and maintain good trails. By contributing resources and creating opportunities, NPWS can exercise control over mountain biking and promote compliance amongst riders. The involvement of mountain bike riders in regulation means that issues such as biodiversity, erosion and public safety can be dealt with rationally and inclusively. Furthermore, once the regulation is written down in a plan of management everyone knows their rights and obligations, protecting riders from arbitrary trail closures. The need for regulation still depends on whether these benefits outweigh the costs.
The cost of mountain bike regulation is already apparent in most national parks. Regulation causes stagnation because trail access and design cannot evolve with the sport. Freeriding and downhilling are prohibited in most national parks because of environmental and public safety concerns. Furthermore, the number and diversity of open trails is greatly reduced to accommodate environmental and public safety constraints. This has the effect of forcing other forms of mountain biking into other public spaces or onto private land. These small areas of accessible public recreational space are already under heavy competition from other users (such as motorbikes). Regulation drives unauthorised trail construction further underground, leading to more dangerous trails and gives trail-builders an improper sense of ownership. The costs therefore are a reduction in the scope of riding opportunities, the movement of non-XC mountain biking into other areas and the building of more illegal trails. If the NPWS are willing, these costs can be offset by allowing some good quality and interesting trails in national parks where appropriate.
Rules & Regulation
The big stick in the spokes of regulating mountain biking is the lack of clear policy from NPWS' Head Office. Current regulation depends on the attitude of the individual park manager, who has discretion to prohibit mountain biking or leave it unregulated. NPWS' policy also has interpretation problems; is it a 'track' which is supposed to be closed to mountain biking or is it a 'trail' which is supposed to be open? These dangerously loose terms means that trails used by 4WDs can be called a 'track' and closed to mountain bikes. Assuming that the local NPWS office takes a reasonable view on regulating mountain bikes, what form should the regulation take?
Regulation is the control exercised by an authority (NPWS) over a class of persons doing a particular activity (mountain bike riders). Regulation varies from prohibition to 'no regulation' and in between there are permits and licences. Prohibition means the activity can never be lawfully undertaken and 'no regulation' means the activity can be done anywhere at any time by any person.
Permits only allow an activity to occur on a specific occasion with written permission from the authority. Permits are difficult to administer but allow for greater control of the activity. A licence is an open-ended approval for a particular activity in a particular area, subject to conditions. Licences are easier to administer but more difficult to enforce. The form of regulation can be varied according to the nature of the activity being regulated.
For mountain biking, the best form of regulation is a licence. It is effectively an open-ended approval to ride in the national park if certain rules in the Plan of Management are complied with. These rules could be that riding is only allowed on open trails and general rules of trail etiquette are abided with.
Nature of Mountain Biking
Mountain biking is a legitimate sport—clubs and organisations openly promote participation in the sport, mountain bike equipment is readily available in bike stores, mountain bike publications are found at most newsagents and riders are average citizens. Mountain biking in national parks is a legitimate recreation in an open public space that is not prohibited by the National Parks and Wildlife Act 1974 or any other law. Prohibition because of the nature of mountain biking in national parks is entirely unreasonable and the form of regulation must depend on the other factors.
Enjoying natural space on a bike is the heart and soul of mountain biking, but like all recreational activities mountain biking can impact those natural spaces. These impacts can be managed through regulation. Without regulation new trails have a tendency to be created and 'chicken' lines appear around obstacles. Generally, there are three kinds of impacts attributed to mountain biking: biodiversity, erosion and public safety. The creation and use of trails is said to impact biodiversity through habitat fragmentation, however, most mountain bike trails are pre-existing, narrow and low impact. Similarly, erosion is related to the soil type, slope, trail design, level of use, climate and vegetation—not only the type of use. Public safety is about walker-bike collisions and the risk to bike riders.
Mountain bike riding in water catchment areas is prohibited because of the alleged effect of non-compliance. The supposed seriousness of non-compliance in catchment areas is reflected in the big fines. There are much lower penalties for unlawful mountain bike riding in a national park, so law makers are telling the NPWS that non-compliance in a national park is not as serious. Besides the risk of a fine, what is the chance that a mountain bike rider will comply with the regulation?
Likelihood of Compliance
There will be little compliance with new regulation without education, promotion of compliance and enforcement—this was the experience with the Royal in 2001. The sudden closure of previously popular trails requires the convincing of riders that they must comply, especially in national parks with a history of mountain bike usage. Only effective communication of the new regulation and its justification will stop riders using closed trails.
Signage explains the imposition of new regulation but will not deter riders who feel the imposition is unfair and unnecessary because trails are closed without reasonable justification—especially if it is only the uninteresting trails that remain open. If fellow mountain bike riders are actively involved in making the regulation, they become the best educators through peer pressure. Peer pressure can reign in riders intending on riding closed trails and introduce new riders to the open trail network. If peer pressure is insufficient, there is still active promotion of compliance and enforcement.
The NPWS can promote compliance by making it easier or more rewarding than non-compliance. Promoting compliance can be achieved through constructing and maintaining good sustainable trails, allowing closed trails to fall into disrepair, publishing literature and maps of open trails, having good signage, and fostering 'ownership' of the trails through volunteer trail maintenance. Despite education and promoting compliance there will always be renegade mountain bike riders who must be dealt with through enforcement.
Enforcement of a regulation varies from the 'full force of the law' to self-regulation. The full force enforcement involves all levels of the criminal justice system (police, courts and gaols). Self-regulation is where those doing the activity monitor and report on their own compliance and the authority punishes breaches that are reported or come to their attention. Between these is ad hoc monitoring—a system of on-the-spot fines and warnings. Mountain bike regulation is usually enforced with ad hoc compliance monitoring.
Enforcement costs for mountain bike regulation are relatively high and NPWS does not have the resources to put staff on every illegal trail or to patrol trails every day. Park rangers have many other recreational activities to regulate and other things to manage. Enforcement is infrequent and through random policing or intelligence-led swoops on organised rides on closed trails. Riders stung feel that the enforcement has deliberately targeted them. Those caught only have themselves to blame and few riders now sympathise because their conduct jeopardises everyone's on-going access.
Regulation is only fair if it is made with proper consideration—mountain bikers should be involved in the regulation making and there should be sufficient opportunity for compliance through a good network of diverse trails. Good regulation needs no heavy-handed enforcement; bad regulation must be challenged. The Royal's managers now recognise that good regulation properly involves mountain bike riders, not tokenistic discussions of a preconceived regulation. NPWS are now revising their much-criticised '2001 Cycling Plan' and are providing opportunities to volunteer in trail design and construction. They are effectively promoting compliance through good trails, signage, educational materials and random enforcement. There are many sceptics to the Royal's regulation making process but I am confident we can all just get back to riding our favourite trails—at least in the Royal National Park.
This article is Copyright Anthony Seiver. It was first published in the Mountain Biking Australia magazine and is reproduced here with the kind permission of the author.