Grant proposal:
The Environmental Impact of Mountain Biking on Shared Wilderness Trails in the United States.

by Mark Angelo Cela



 This study is about the environmental effects of off-road mountain biking on publicly shared trails in the United States. The goal of this project is to evaluate how current trails are affected by mountain biking, how environmental damage from biking is handled by parks and trail builders, and if there is a design solution to the increasing hostility between shared spaces involving mountain bikers, hikers, and equestrians. Researchers are comprised of individuals with expertise in observational research, and share the recreational disciplines involved in the study.  What we expect to find is that mountain biking does not have an adverse effect on the environment, and with an increase the number of available trails across national and local parks enthusiasm for conservation and outdoor recreation will grow.  


Problem Statement

Over the last five years mountain biking has fallen under scrutiny by the environmental, hiking, and equestrian communities. Mountain biking involves the use of trails, such as desert or snow, but the focus of most debate regards the largest area of use, which is forested land. While there are many trails designated specifically for mountain biking, shared trails over long tracks of publically-protected forests are where much of the debate centers. Hikers and equestrians dislike the speed at which mountain bikers use shared trails, often unsettled by how quickly bikers seemingly appear from nowhere. Mountain bikers who ride in wet conditions may rut the trails, and often in an attempt to circumvent muddier sections will inadvertently widen them by destroying side foliage. There is also concern regarding the disruption of streams and widening of these areas by continued mountain bike crossing.

Mountain bikers, from professionals to casual trail riders, see the situation differently. Many trails are cared for by mountain biking associations in conjunction with park rangers, and trails that appear damaged are often rerouted and allowed to regrow. Mountain bikers argue that the speed with which they use trails make them the least damaging among the three mentioned disciplines because they spend less time in a given area and are the least disruptive regarding noise. They are also the less likely than hikers to leave refuse, and are not as damaging to shared trails than horses.

The debate has become so intense that a small percentage of hikers have begun to booby-trap shared trails in areas such as North Carolina, North Dakota, Colorado, and New Jersey. The problem has also spread outside of the United States to the Alberta, Canada, and the United Kingdom. Bikers have been injured by metal wire strung neck-high, and run into sharpened sticks embedded into trails. In several states hundreds of miles of shared trails have banned mountain biking due to hikers pushing for legislation that claims biking to be an environmental threat to government control forested land.

The outcome of this research will be information which may provide a clear solution to the problems of shared wilderness trails. The result may be more trails across a larger number of publically-owned lands. Usage could be spread across a wider variety of areas, decreasing the burden of heavily used trails currently available. Access to closer trails will mean less time in automobiles to travel to these locations, reducing carbon emissions. Easily accessed trails will encourage more people to exercise, positively affecting public health. More mountain bikers will mean more trail maintenance volunteers, and the public will be directly observing and partaking in the conservation of public land. This will also increase forestry employment and job opportunities.



 The project will begin with field research. Several of the higher-trafficked shared trails will be observed, and the habits and effects of mountain biking will be recorded. Interviews of mountain bikers, hikers, and equestrians will be performed.

With these methods, researchers will be able to clearly define if mountain biking is damaging to the environment and dangerous to those who share trails with mountain bikers.

Particular attention will be paid to these areas with regard to mountain biking:

·      Trail width increases

·      Rutting of paths due to biking

·      Eroding and widening of creek banks

·      Refuse disposal

·      Noise pollution

·      Practices of mountain bikers when encountering hikers and equestrians

·      Average travel distance to reach the trails, and the carbon impact of such travel

Individuals who evaluate these areas will have backgrounds in conservation, trail building, and a cross-section of mountain bikers, hikers, and equestrians.


Project Personnel

Project Leader

Mark Cela
MFA Experience Design

Mark Cela has a background in research and a design. He has been a mountain biker and for over 30 years and is determined to find a solution to the problems encountered by those who share public park trails.

Support Researcher

Dale Swoope
BS Mechanical Engineering Energy Technology

Dale Swoope has a background in mechanical engineering and conducted surveys regarding the long-term environmental impact of construction machinery on the environment. He is also an avid hiker and trail builder.

Support Researcher

Danielle Murderbac
MS Environmental Design

Danielle Murderbac has spent much of her career designing spaces that are multi-use with the lowest impact on the environment. She is also an accomplished equestrian.



The project will be evaluated over three seasons (years) of mountain biking. Trails will be closely measured for the environmental impact of mountain bikers. Mark Cela will conduct interviews of the impacted stakeholders, record trail conditions, and keep in contact with park officials regarding incidents between mountain bikers and other outdoor recreationalists. Dan Swope will record trail width specifications, trail rerouting practices, and the erosion of creek and water crossings. Danielle Murdersbache will evaluate and record trail conditions, biker interactions with horses, and determine which areas are the most congested with trail traffic. Each individual will record trail conditions photographically.



After the research has been performed, data will be presented at the annual National Parks Services conference. A presentation will be made at the National Parks and Recreation annual conference and City Parks Forum.