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A Closer Look at Land Protection Options

IMBA believes that five types of land designations, "National Recreation Area," "National Scenic Area," "National Conservation Area," "National Protection Area," and "National Monument," have great potential for expanding the land preservation system while allowing bicycling and other, preservation-compatible uses.

A detailed analysis of these alternative designations follows.

National Conservation Areas (NCAs) and National Recreation Areas (NRAs)

Congress has made at least 10 National Conservation Areas on Bureau of Land Management lands and created many National Recreation Areas on Forest Service and National Park Service lands. Though the existing NCAs are only on BLM lands, nothing prevents the other agencies from adopting them.

What is an NCA? The acts of Congress that designated the NCAs removed them from mining and from "disposal" (which means they cannot be sold or traded), but said little more about management. Theoretically, BLM could authorize logging, new road building, and even commercial structures within NCAs. IMBA agrees with national environmental groups that NCAs, as enacted to date, offer insufficient protections. We believe that Congress should enact an Organic Act, a law that would govern all NCAs, and that law should prohibit new roads and development in NCAs. However, NCAs may include lands with existing roads, and thus could protect lands that disqualify as Wilderness. NCAs could have a specific management purpose such as ecological restoration or wildlife security.

NCAs and Wilderness are not mutually exclusive. Congress has designated a large NCA with a smaller Wilderness contained within the NCA boundary. The NCA with Wilderness option can create a win-win solution for bicycle activists and Wilderness proponents.

Nothing prevents Congress from adopting customized management provisions in the law that enacts the next NCA. Bicycle activists can propose NCAs with rules that adequately protect the land and water. Since NCAs already exist, this is a realistic option, available for political action today.

A similar preservation option is National Recreation Area. Congress has designated many NRAs on Forest Service and National Park Service lands. Like NCAs, the laws creating NRAs have lacked clear management rules. IMBA has formulated a proposal to improve NCAs and NRAs, available on our website.

National Monuments

Perhaps the best known of these five tools, National Monuments have been created by most presidents since Theodore Roosevelt. The president's authority to act unilaterally, independent of the U.S. Congress, derives from the 1906 Antiquities Act. IMBA supports the Antiquities Act. Often, Congress will later act to confirm and sometimes expand the presidential designation. For example, President Theodore Roosevelt initially protected the Grand Canyon as a national monument in 1908. In 1918, Congress made it a national park.

President Clinton used his authority to create national monuments in Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Oregon, Utah and Washington.

The president has the authority to prescribe specific management provisions for each national monument. With one exception, none of the national monuments proclaimed by President Clinton have precluded bicycling on singletrack trails. The monuments protect lands by precluding mining and setting a high standard for protecting ecosystems. National monuments established to date have not prohibited the creation of new roads, so this system is different from Wilderness and many Wilderness proponents view it as inadequate because a succeeding president has the authority to de-designate a national monument.

But in some cases Congress has designated national monuments, such as the Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains National Monument Act of 2000. Congressional designation makes a national monument certain and permanent, a viable alternative to Wilderness.

Roadless Areas

You may have seen the term "roadless area" in forest service plans or other documents. In this more generic reference, this term stems from a provision in the original Wilderness Act of 1964, whereas Congress directed the Forest Service to study all its lands to see which were roadless and from that inventory recommend which should be designated Wilderness. In the following decades, some roadless areas were designated as Congress while others suffered from resource damage. In 1999, President Clinton ordered the Forest Service to protect the remaining roadless areas, and the agency asked for public comments on how to do this.

IMBA supported the Roadless Areas Conservation initiative, because if offers the possibility of protecting lands while allowing bicycling. In our original letter regarding the proposed national regulation, IMBA said that we could support rules that would prohibit development in roadless areas, emphasize wildlife protection, and allow motorcycling on limited, designated trails. IMBA stated that ATVs do not belong on singletrack, and thus should be prohibited in Roadless Areas.

In 2004, the Bush administration initiated a sweeping overhaul of the roadless system. Under the new rule, each state must conduct a comprehensive review of its roadless areas and governors must petition the Agriculture Secretary to have their roadless areas maintained. Otherwise they will be delisted. The deadline for this review and proposal is set for the end of 2005. The Bush rules have put states under enormous pressure to identify their most important roadless areas and it seems likely that some states will not have completed their inventory by the deadline. Thus, though roadless areas are desirable to mountain bike advocates, the future of many roadless areas is uncertain.

Special Management Areas

For various reasons, Congress has also established five special management areas on national forest in Arkansas, California, Colorado and Washington. These more-or-less custom designations all include prohibitions on mining. Most of them include rules to regulate or prohibit motorized travel. They also contain a mixture of various other management provisions, as is appropriate for each particular place.

The special management areas stand as testimony to the need for Wilderness alternatives. In each case, Wilderness was not the appropriate legislative choice, but there existed no clearly defined second option. Because special management areas lack the stature of the categorical areas discussed above, IMBA does not recommend these as a solution. However, given the nature of politics, special management areas do remain a viable option.

Will these diverse designations protect the land? Some, such as existing national conservation areas, may indeed lack rules sufficient to protect conservation values. IMBA agrees that it is often necessary to request an "improved" form of an existing management tool. A land protection bill can incorporate rules for an improved national conservation area that retains the best qualities of Wilderness while allowing for bicycle access. Specific designations may appeal to specific user groups: success could come from reaching out to these groups and formulating a proposal that meets a variety of needs. It is important to remember that Congress can enact laws that adequately protect the ecological, wildlife, historic, archeological or other conservation values of lands and can call such preserved areas whatever it wants.


The prohibition on singletrack bicycling in the Escalante-Grand Staircase National Monument came as a result of the management plan, not the presidential proclamation. Few trail bicycling opportunities exist in this sandy, desert environment. If necessary, the plan later can be revised.

In fact, this occurred to the Wheeler National Monument in Colorado.

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