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Celebrating IMBA’s 25th Anniversary—and What’s to Come in the Next 25 Years

Photo: IMBA founders meeting in 1988.

Mountain biking is, for the most part, an activity that depends on access to public lands. Sure, there are a few privately owned bike parks and riding areas in existence. However, the vast majority of places we ride are managed by government officials working at the local, state and federal levels. As long as that’s the case, mountain bikers will need an organized approach to maintaining and increasing our access to trails.

In its 25-year history IMBA has emerged as the largest group representing mountain bikers, primarily in North America but increasingly around the globe as well. Our genesis was in 1988, when a small coalition of clubs from California decided to join forces because they realized that working in isolation was ineffective. Although each of the founding clubs was interested in particular trails, they shared a common desire for better riding opportunities. Uniting under the IMBA banner made them a bigger player in advocating for trail access.

In its early years, IMBA was not unique. Regionally based coalitions of mountain bike groups emerged, notably in New England (NEMBA) and in the southeast (SORBA), among others. Those organizations continue to achieve great things because banding together gave them the financial capacity to hire staff. But only IMBA forged ahead with the intention of becoming a national, indeed international, association for all mountain bikers.

IMBA’s growth has been both rapid and organic. In 2013, IMBA will spend more than $5 million to protect trail access and enhance mountain bike experiences. We formed productive partnerships with some of the largest and most influential land managing agencies on the planet, including the U.S. National Park Service and Parks Canada, and we extended our partnerships all the way down to the local level through agreements with state, provincial and county-level agreements.

Nonetheless, if we want to build on our successes in the decades ahead, I believe it’s time to reshuffle IMBA’s approach. Not in the way we approach our partnership-building efforts with government agencies and other external groups. The challenge ahead is to change from within.

Although IMBA calls itself an “association,” we have not really functioned like one. The most obvious example is that IMBA competes with its own clubs for members. How many of you reading this decided to join IMBA and eschew your local club?  How many of that club’s members made the opposite decision?

IMBA’s chapter program represents a big step forward in this regard: individual IMBA members become chapter members within that group’s territory and vice versa. Many groups are initially concerned that IMBA takes 60 percent of a chapter’s membership revenue. But experience has shown that the increased number of total members, along with enhanced membership recruitment provided by IMBA, represents a revenue-positive change.

Growing the memberships and fattening the checkbooks of IMBA’s local groups is a great thing, but it’s not the ultimate goal of the chapter program. The real goal is to strengthen our effectiveness at the local, state and federal levels so we all enjoy more and better places to ride.

One of the best pathways to make this happen is for IMBA and its chapters to hire paid staff members. The volunteers in IMBA’s grassroots network are an awesome force — our army has grown so large (we estimate that IMBA volunteers contributed 700,000 hours of service in 2011) that we need professional leaders to make the most of this incredible resource.

The next 25 years in IMBA’s history hold tantalizing possibilities. A new generation of land managers is moving up agency ladders and taking decision-making positions. Many of them know and trust IMBA. They realize that our reach extends to national capitols and the highest-ranking agency leaders. They want to expand on the partnerships IMBA has developed.

It’s up to us to make the most of this opportunity.

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