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Will the International Mountain Bicycling Association Lose California?

From the desk of Ben Stone, SDMBA Vice President and Advocacy Committee Chairperson —

In full disclosure, these are my opinions and do not reflect a stance San Diego Mountain Biking Association has taken – yet. IMBA has had a tumultuous year and is working to restructure its chapter program in order to make itself more sustainable.  In the past month, IMBA has hired a new Executive Director, Dave Wiens, and sent all current chapters an initial restructuring proposal which is still evolving as we speak. Some features that have been proposed include:

  • an increase of basic membership fee from $35 to $49 annually
  • eliminations of all regional directors and the creation of Subject Matter Experts
  • new fee schedule pay per services for any special request or questions
  • a new low cost insurance program
  • membership revenue share restructuring between IMBA and SDMBA of 40%/60%

Many people may be scratching their heads as I was, and some may be saying,  “What was SDMBA giving IMBA before?” Generally, IMBA keeps 60% of your membership dues and SDMBA gets 40%. I was scratching my head asking myself if we are increasing the cost of membership, there must be an increase in value or services offered to the chapters or members?  So far, it is not obvious what that increase in value might entail.          

Over the last two years, the SDMBA Board has reviewed our IMBA chapter charter for many reasons, and after each of these reviews we decided to stay with IMBA even with some dissent. Now, the Board has started a third review of our chapter status as this current proposal surfaced. We are not only concerned with an increase of dues to our members, but a lack of value to our members and our chapter. Two years ago we fought hard to get a California specific Regional Director and we got it. Then, one year ago we raised hell with IMBA following public comments against supporting bikes in Wilderness and nearly working against Sustainable Trails Coalition (STC). We also grew more and more disturbed at what seemed to be a new cozy relationship IMBA was forming with eBike manufacturers and a softening position on eBikes on trails. We raised big concerns behind the scenes with IMBA and we thought we had been part of the reasoning there was a softening of IMBA’s stance against STC and eBikes.

          Then at the World Summit in Arkansas in November 2016, we sent a significant contingent to help voice our concerns.  I was disturbed by not only a further cozy relationship with eBike manufacturers, but unfair and biased panels that vilified the efforts of getting bikes into wilderness. It was obvious that significant funding issues have also hit IMBA with the loss of Subaru as a sponsor and shuffling of high end staff. I also was amazed at a disconnect between some of IMBA’s board members and advocacy efforts on the ground. The Chairman of the Board of IMBA actually has lived in Carlsbad for some time.  Now, I had never seen him at a SDMBA meeting or witnessed him at a trail work event. Even when I spoke to him about trail issues in his own backyard of San Diego, he was completely unaware and seemed indifferent to them. When he spoke it became obvious that his views were diametrically opposed to those of the SDMBA Board and members. Although I had a good time on the trails in Arkansas, I left somewhat disturbed and concerned.

          So why would California chapters leave IMBA? Well, much like tax revenue in the U.S., California is contributing a significant amount of funds to IMBA without equal representation. We have a significant amount of Federal Wilderness and nearly 46% of our State is owned and managed by the federal government (nearly 46 million acres). A further 1.5% of the State is owned by California State Parks managing nearly 1.5 million acres. In San Diego County alone, there is 103,548 acres of Federal Wilderness, 43,000 acres of recommended wilderness and about 600,000 acres of State Wilderness. According to the County of San Diego, about 1.5 million acres of land is in State or Federal ownership (unincorporated San Diego County), that means that about 50% of our public lands at minimum are managed as Wilderness and doesn’t even count other public entities like Federal Wildlife Refuges, California Department of Fish and Wildlife, or private land trusts. So the short answer is Wilderness is a big issue for California and is not the small problem IMBA keeps making it out to be.

          From Wilderness to State Parks we enter a whole new realm of severe difficulty to access in California. One thing nearly every chapter in California shares is extreme frustration with California State Parks. State wilderness isn’t the only issue, but the fact that most State Parks do not allow bikes on trails or even roads is just the beginning. By default all California State Parks do not allow bikes on trails or roads and each District Superintendent must sign an order to even open up roads to bikes. To open a trail to bikes they must undergo what is called a “change in use designation” and this in many cases has turned into a prolonged 3-5 year process. The California State Parks Trail handbook that dictates trail standards for multi-use is so rigid and arduous that many times to bring a trail into compliance for multi-use a whole new environmental study must be completed for rerouting small sections. Further, State Parks seem to not want volunteer help. By far, our volunteers have the most difficulty working with State Parks to build new trail or maintain existing trail. In San Diego we have it pretty good as there is a long history of mountain bikers volunteering at Cuyamaca Rancho State Park. But nearly every other IMBA chapter in California has a horror story of their ongoing problems with State Parks.

          Now, on to eBikes and a deep division and what I think is a lack of understanding. I have had many long conversations with eBike manufacturers and what has become apparent to me from them and IMBA is they don’t understand land use in California. Nearly all of our California  parks, preserves and open spaces are governed by conservation first and recreation second or even further down the list. For example, here are some of the mission statements of land agencies in San Diego County that mountain bikes have access to:

San Diego Wildlife Refuge – US Fish and Wildlife

“The Mission of the National Wildlife Refuge System is to administer a national network of lands and waters for the conservation, management, and where appropriate, restoration of the fish, wildlife, and plant resources and their habitats within the United States for the benefit of present and future generations of Americans.”

California Department of Fish & Wildlife

The Mission of the Department of Fish and Wildlife is to manage California’s diverse fish, wildlife, and plant resources, and the habitats upon which they depend, for their ecological values and for their use and enjoyment by the public.

California State Parks

To provide for the health, inspiration and education of the people of California by helping to preserve the state’s extraordinary biological diversity, protecting its most valued natural and cultural resources, and creating opportunities for high-quality outdoor recreation.

        As you can see from this list mountain biking is not mentioned anywhere, further recreation is only mentioned in one and it’s purposely in the last part of the sentence. Unfortunately, ebikes are the manifestation of every fear and claim many of these conservation minded groups have been waiting for. The argument traditional cyclists have always pushed that they are not mechanized and are passive trail users just like horseback riders or hikers.  Now we are entering a realm where it becomes more difficult to argue for access in conserved areas because we are being pooled with pedal assist bikes that are obviously mechanized. I wish we didn’t have to take such a critical stance on this, but we will lose future and current trail access if we do not denounce ebikes on trails.

So, this brings us back to the decision of remaining an IMBA chapter or having SDMBA be an independent organization. Is there value for San Diego to remain a chapter?  Does it amplify our voices on issues that matter to California?  Would California benefit from its own statewide mountain bike advocacy group that can go directly to Sacramento? Is there too much of a rift between California’s priorities and IMBA’s priorities? These are all questions California Chapters are asking themselves. I wish IMBA was leading the way on this, but currently they seemed embroiled in how to balance the books. Meanwhile many chapters in California are assessing their own needs and I believe San Diego Mountain Biking Association with its over 1,100 members can help lead the way forward.

Ben Stone

bens@sdmba.com