It’s no secret that the hills and plateaus of the New River Gorge region are a haven for mountain bikers. But until now, no regulation has specifically permitted biking within the New River Gorge National River (NRGNR).

That could change, as a new special regulation opens up for public comment that would allow the permanent establishment of 24 new and existing bike trails in the park, totaling 105 miles.

Park officials say it’s something the public has wanted for a long time, going all the way back to a 1982 General Management plan and continuing through the most recent plan, put in place this year.

“Overwhelming support for bike trails has been a constant,” says Jeff West, chief ranger at NRGNR.

“If the public wants it and the resource does not preclude it, why shouldn’t we be listening to folks, especially if we’re in a position to use the International Mountain Biking Association and volunteers to get these sustainable trails in place?”

The International Mountain Biking Association (IMBA) consulted on last year’s construction of the 13-mile Arrowhead stacked loop trail, specifically designed for bikes but open to multiple uses. The earth was moved by Boy Scout volunteers and National Park Service staff.

“I applaud the Park Service for looking into the future with this ... and for the trails they’ve already implemented using people who know what they are doing,” says Adam Stephens of the New River Gorge Bicycle Union.

“They went to IMBA and said, ‘Teach us how to build these latest innovative trails.’ So IMBA went out and taught their whole maintenance crew. The trail drains right, flows right, and is safe.”

Biking is currently allowed on some park trails under what’s called a superintendent’s special compendium. It’s kind of like a rule book, created by the superintendent.

NRGNR’s document states that recreational bicycling, commercial bike tours, and special bicycling events are permitted on park roadways, as well as other specific sections of trail.

But to avoid any gray area, the park started a special regulation process several years ago to cement the bicycle use in perpetuity.

That regulation — out for comment until Oct. 26 — lumps together Arrowhead, an as-yet-unbuilt Garden Ground trail, three roads that will be converted to new trail, and 19 existing trails and administrative roads.

“What’s great about the New River Gorge is it’s more of a comprehensive trail and rule planning. It’s new, existing, and dirt roads. They are saying, we are going to wrap this in one package and dot every ‘i’ and cross every ‘t.’ I think they way they packaged it is a good way to do it,” says Jenn Dice, government affairs director for IMBA.

Mountain biking trails in national parks have not historically been allowed. Their mission of conservation and preservation has sometimes conflicted with the erosion and other issues caused by mountain biking. That’s not to say there aren’t trails that people bike on — but it’s just not specifically allowed. If that sounds complicated, it is.

“Most parks, when you run into special regulation issues, they back away from it because it’s complicated,” says West.

It takes a long time, requires multiple studies and public comment proceedings, and is expensive.

But a new National Bike Use Regulation finalized this July attempts to streamline and clarify the process for parks to designate bike trails. It gives park superintendents more control over the process and cuts down on some of the red tape previously involved.

The rule didn’t directly affect the NRGNR’s cumbersome special regulation process, which began years ago and was too far along to change course.

But in the future, if the park wants to designate a new, noncontroversial multi-use trail in the front country for bikes, officials can make that determination within the park and won’t have to go to the Deputy Secretary of the Interior for approval. A regional director will instead sign off on the plan if it gets a thumbs up from the local park superintendent.

Environmental impact statements and public comment will still be a part of the process in most cases.

“The superintendent, Don Striker, looked at the comments from the last General Management Plan and feels strongly that this is something that the public wants, and that the park can support — it’s not going to be an impact on the resource,” says West.

“He’s the one who has kind of championed this cause throughout and made it clear to park staff that we are going to go through the process and make this happen.”

The 33-mile Garden Ground trail, for example, is already mapped and designed, and can be built at any time. It is adjacent to the park, as well as the Boy Scouts of America’s new high adventure center, The Summit.

The park’s three-year plan includes money to build the trail, says West, especially considering that much of the labor would be provided by Boy Scout volunteers. He did not have figures for the project, but says its principal cost will be management and logistics.

In the New River Gorge, recreations like rafting, climbing and biking have an environmental impact, besides an economic one. That’s why NPS has to analyze those impacts before approving certain uses.

Dice and Stephens say the new trails are being constructed with sustainability in mind from day one.

More will be built to expand biking opportunities and thin out usage, says Stephens.

The public comment period, which ends Oct. 26, is another chance for citizens to express support or disapproval of bike use in the park.

If the comments are favorable, the regulation will go into effect in 90 days.

For more information, visit http://www.nps.gov/neri/parkmgmt/planning.htm and click on “Environmental Assessment: Design and build two stacked loop hiking and biking trail systems.” Or contact Jamie Fields, outdoor recreation planner at NRGNP, at 304-465-6527.

You may submit your comments, identified by Regulation Identifier Number (RIN) 1024-AD95, by visiting the Federal eRulemaking Portal at http://www.regulations.gov or by mailing or hand-delivering to Don Striker, superintendent, ATTN: Bicycle Regulation, New River Gorge National River, P.O. Box 246, Glen Jean, WV 25846-0246.

— E-mail: cmoore@register-herald.com

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