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Opinions, Principles and MTB Advocacy

Opinions, Principles and MTB Advocacy

By: Kevin Adams
Posted: January 4, 2016

Let me begin by revealing something in the spirit of full disclosure: Although I am on the senior leadership team at IMBA I have contributed financially to both IMBA and the Sustainable Trails Coalition (STC). Why does this matter? Some have suggested that there is an untenable gap between these organizations, or that mountain bikers must choose to only support one or the other. I don’t agree with that viewpoint, and here are some truisms that support my view.

One truth I see is that neither IMBA nor the STC (nor any of the other mountain bike advocacy groups) hold an exclusive, golden ticket to protecting mountain biking. Our power lies in our collective voice. Right now, that voice is relatively small and, at times, fragmented. By some estimates, there are about 8 million mountain bikers in the United States. As of last count, approximately 40,000 are active IMBA members and supporters. The non-membership-based STC has raised approximately $89k. Other important voices in the MTB community, such as the New England Mountain Bike Association (NEMBA), are also relatively small groups when viewed in a societal context. Without a sincere effort by all of us to work together and grow our numbers the mountain bike advocacy movement we will not win many political battles.

Another truth is that too many mountain bikers sit the sidelines and do nothing to contribute to our potential collective voice. I’m asking anyone and everyone who rides knobby tires to please help change this. IMBA is introducing a multi-year campaign this year to get more mountain bikers active and engaged—measured by the numbers of our members, chapters, affiliate members, volunteers and financial supporters. Although some critics have suggested that IMBA's influence is receding, that is simply not the case. In fact, membership grew by 20 percent in 2015, and I'm confident that trend will continue. 

We’re pushing for growth because we know that, regardless of the outcome of the bikes in Wilderness debate, or any other issue important to mountain bikers, it will ultimately be the local mountain bike organization (more than likely an IMBA chapter) that will be at the table advocating for the things that are important to mountain bikers. To quote one of my colleagues, "We desperately need more active soldiers (and Marines, I'll add) in our mountain bike advocacy army." No matter what you personally believe about bikes in Wilderness, I’m hopeful that we can all agree we need to get more mountain bikers productively involved. If we resign ourselves to waging a civil war within our own sport via negative social media comments then we’ll only have ourselves to blame for our ineffectiveness.

"Every difference of opinion is not a difference in principle."

— Thomas Jefferson

The third truth is that there is great respect at IMBA for STC’s courage of its convictions and for helping to get more mountain bikers engaged. Personally, I applaud—even envy—the STC’s ability to demand specific actions on the issue of bikes in Wilderness. STC’s goals are simply defined: to pass legislation that will open Wilderness and some National Scenic trails to bikes. That's an admirably straightforward mission.

A fourth truth is that IMBA and STC do not share the same governance and mission. An important distinction is that you join IMBA by becoming a member and support the STC by donating to its cause. This difference leads me to some important conclusions: 

  • IMBA incorporated as a nonprofit tax-exempt entity under Internal Revenue Code (IRS) section 501(c)(3). As such, IMBA is subject to some limitations on political activity. IMBA’s mission is to create, enhance and preserve great mountain biking experiences. To accomplish such a broad mission, IMBA must balance the competing interests of all its members toward something that serves all its members.
  • STC incorporated as a nonprofit, tax-exempt entity under IRS Code section 501(c)(4). As such, STC’s able to spend all of its donations—which are not tax deductible—on seeking legislative remedies in Congress. The STC’s mission—expressed as goals on its website—is narrower in scope than IMBA’s. STC serves the segment of the mountain biking community that shares its mission’s value proposition.

The fifth, and final, truth I see is that both IMBA and STC respect the Wilderness Act and each other. However, due to differing governances and missions, IMBA and STC have differing approaches when it comes to bikes in Wilderness. IMBA works within the existing legislative playing field while STC works to change the legislative playing field altogether. Regardless of STC’s mission success, IMBA Chapters and affiliate members will continue to play a key role in working with Wllderness issues moving forward, which perhaps explains why a large majority of STC’s board members are also IMBA members. This difference of approach is not a difference in principle. 

In conclusion, I urge all mountain bikers to channel enthusiasm into knowledge by:

  • Learning more about how we can work within the current law by reviewing IMBA’s Land Protection and Wilderness Toolkits
  • Considering how to possibly change the current law by reviewing STC’s website, reading their draft legislation and listening to their strategy podcast
  • Thinking about the downstream effects if some version of STC’s proposed bill were to become law so that we can productively work with all Wilderness interest groups moving forward
  • Remembering that if some version of STC’s bill were to become law it will not change the fact that Wilderness is only enacted by Congress and is therefore inherently political—compromise is embedded in the Wilderness Act’s DNA.
  • Turn social media chatter into action by joining and financially supporting mountain bike advocacy groups. As STC’s Ted Stroll explains in his podcast, it’s mountain bike advocacy groups that will ultimately be responsible for the implementation of STC’s draft bill if it ever becomes law.

A deeper understanding is what is essential for mountain bikers, IMBA, STC and Wilderness to coexist.

— Kevin P. Adams is a retired Marine Mustang and Fortune 500 Executive, as well as the former Trail Boss and Treasurer of IMBA's largest chapter, the Mid-Atlantic Off-Road Enthusiasts. He currently serves as IMBA's Vice President of Chapter and Member Services. The opinions expressed here are his and not necessarily those of IMBA.

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