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No Sucker Punches in North Carolina

by Tom Sauret

mtb signIf one were to read some magazine articles, or follow the social media chatter, a perception might emerge that IMBA hasn’t been doing enough in the mountain bike advocacy arena. Some critics suggest that IMBA and its chapters were sucker punched while we were biding our time and waiting for better mountain bike access.

That's not the case here in the Southeast. 

In 2013, the Forest Service (FS) announced it was time to begin a Forest Plan revision process for the Nantahala-Pisgah National Forests in western North Carolina. As the Executive Director of the Southern Off-Road Bicycle Association (SORBA), I began working with our three western North Carolina chapters to ensure that our members, SORBA and IMBA fully participated in this public process by being well-informed, attending public meetings and providing well-cosidered input. We committed ourselves to submitting comments to the FS in a timely fashion, and to reaching out to other user groups to develop common ground.

It was during this early phase of the forest planning process that I crossed paths with Brent Martin, the Regional Director for the Wilderness Society. We decided that both our organizations should join with the newly forming Nantahala-Pisgah Forest Partnership (Partnership), a coalition of recreation, environmental and conservation organizations. The Partnership was seeking a balanced, cooperative approach to submitting comments to the FS. We believed that our organizations needed to first discover our common values in order to create a rational non-ideological approach to forest planning.   

The central question before us was to find a way to create a “win-win” scenario out of the forest planning process. For SORBA, that winning scenario had to include our support of wilderness while simultaneously opening new opportunities to allow mountain biking and other outdoor recreation activities to grow and gain their fair share of access. After thousands of hours of poring over maps, redrawing boundaries and meeting with various interest groups—plus additional time for vetting all of this with local forest user groups—it emerged that mountain bikers would be well served by supporting the Partnership.

The Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) that was created by groups working together within the Partnership (now expanded to include additional businesses and organizations) as a parallel activity to the Forest Revision process is clear evidence that the environmental and recreational communities, including groups like IMBA and its chapters, can work together and achieve meaningful compromise.

"Instead of the mountain biking and the environmental communities submitting two separate and conflicting versions of what the Nantahala-Pisgah Forests should be, a worn-out formula that is sure to lead to an unacceptable status-quo or further alienation, we have jointly submitted this MOU."

This MOU is groundbreaking; there is nothing else like it. Why does it represent a win-win solution? It has the broad support needed to make it an attractive plan to the FS, including the creation of two National Recreation Areas. Both of these NRAs would allow bicycling where it has been prohibited and open these areas for new trail development! 

At what price you might ask? We negotiated these advances in mountain bike access in exchange for SORBA’s and IMBA’s support of new Wilderness in places where historically there has been no mountain bike use. Strategically, this agreement and these areas have been fully vetted and are supported by our three local chapters.

What was the traditional alternative? Instead of the mountain biking and the environmental communities submitting two separate and conflicting versions of what the Nantahala-Pisgah Forests should be, a worn-out formula that is sure to lead to an unacceptable status-quo or further alienation, we have jointly submitted this MOU. Today, we stand united in our vision of what the Nantahala-Pisgah National Forests can be for outdoor recreation, including mountain biking and land protected as Wilderness  As a result, we now have more people in agreement on how the Forest should be managed in the future, which gives SORBA/IMBA chapters and members more political and social clout, and we believe, the potential to create many high-quality trails in the decades ahead.

I'm happy to say that there have not been any "sucker punches" thrown in this process. Does it take time, commitment and painstaking work to build partnerships? Yes, yes it does. Is that effort worthwhile? I'm sure that it is.