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Will Mountain Bikers Lead the Future of Land Protection?

PHOTO: Author Jenn Dice, IMBA Government Affairs Director, at the 2012 National Bike Summit in Washington, D.C.

I want you to think back to IMBA's early years. What consumed IMBA leaders? What did access look like? The old IMBA was reactive. We would meet, we would write, we would call, we would speak and — if we were lucky — at the end of the day, we kept things the same. No new trails, just protecting the status quo.

Two years ago, we hit a boiling point. We had just lost almost 1,000 miles of trail in Montana; we were losing access to the 3,000-mile Continental Divide Trail and we had lost in district court and in regulatory court. We didn't have the resources to keep up and the political winds were against us.

At the 2010 Bicycle Leadership Conference, the president of Bikes Belong, the owner of Trek and the owner of Specialized stood before a crowd of business leaders and made an impassioned request to invest in IMBA to help stop those closures. Remarkably, 40 companies stood up and pledged to give, helping IMBA launch the Public Lands Initiative (PLI).

Because of this investment, we are now involved in every major public land trails campaign around the country. It is no longer feasible to introduce a trails bill without involving mountain bikers.

The PLI has tackled 40 campaigns nationwide and is helping to change the national conversation around recreation and land conservation.

The result is best stated as "2,762 miles." That number summarizes our work. Because of the PLI, we have protected or expanded 2,762 miles of trail. Many of those miles will be new trails, specifically built for mountain biking

It is an exciting time at IMBA. In the last few years, we have gone from being the advocacy group that is always playing catch up and reacting to being the one that is out front in most cases, leading the charge.

We have gone from pleading to leading.

The great majority of our work is now proactive for new trails, new land protections, new partnerships and new places to ride. At IMBA, we truly believe that mountain bikers are the future of land protection. Here are some of the key reasons why the tides are turning in our favor:

  1. The Recreation Economy: All things bicycling brings $81 billion to U.S. economy and we are getting better at telling the story of how trails tourism and the bicycling business are important to job creation.
  2. Relevancy: Kids today want to ride bikes. Bicycling is a top gateway activity that gets youth excited about the outdoors and interested in other things like camping and fishing. The best example is the National Park Service (NPS) and their new rule change to help the process to open more parks to mountain biking. They know the average age of most park visitors is not young. By partnering with mountain bikers, the NPS is cultivating a youthful audience and encouraging future public land stewards.
  3. Creative Partnerships: It is no longer the "us vs. them" mantra of the early days.

IMBA knows the importance of collaborative, creative partnerships. Here are a few examples of our new approach to combining recreation and conservation values:

  1. Conservation Community: IMBA is working with the Wilderness Society in 10 states to introduce bike-friendly public lands proposals.
  2. Motorized Community: IMBA partnered with the motorized community to secure $85 million for the Recreational Trails Program. When Congress cut or eliminated almost everything to do with bicycling, our program kept $85 million of dedicated funding.
  3. Ski Areas: Last year, IMBA signed a partnership agreement with ski areas to bring more, purpose–built trails to our country’s 325 ski resorts.
  4. U.S. Military: More military groups are interested in cycling. We dedicated this year's Take A Kid Mountain Biking Day to military families and kids.
  5. Growth: IMBA is growing, membership up 30 percent, IMBA staff is more than 50 people and our chapter program tops 100. While we are growing, we are seeing many national non-profits suffering and making cutbacks.

Overall, it's an exciting, proactive time at IMBA. We are leading a wave of bike-friendly conservation proposals and we have emerged as one of the strongest, freshest voices in the conservation movement.

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