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June 5, 2024

Representing the Bicycle Industry at the National Outdoor Recreation Conference

By: Rachel Fussell, senior manager of recreation policy

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National leaders gathered in Lake Tahoe, California, to chart the future of outdoor recreation access.

With daffodils blooming around the turquoise waters of Lake Tahoe and fresh snow atop the surrounding peaks, hundreds of passionate trail managers, advocates, and experts gathered for the 2024 National Outdoor Recreation Conference earlier this May. The conference focused on how outdoor recreation — including mountain biking — can benefit communities of all sizes and addressed the growing pains of moving toward a more accessible outdoor future. 

The National Outdoor Recreation Conference is a biannual conference that promotes durable, equitable, and transformative solutions to support outdoor recreation destinations, local communities, and the outdoor recreation workforce. Regional, state, and federal land managers, researchers, conservationists, mountain bike organizations, and public officials all attended the conference.

PeopleForBikes and staff from Tahoe National Forest (TNF) presented a session titled "Innovation, Adaptation, and Access: Leading the Way for Pedal-Assist Electric Mountain Bikes on Trails.” During the session, Eli Ilano, district supervisor with Tahoe National Forest, and Rachel Fussell, senior manager of recreation policy with PeopleForBikes, shared the current state of electric mountain bike (eMTB) use on U.S. Forest Service (USFS) lands, the latest research on the environmental and social impacts of eMTBs, and a model for how other USFS districts and federal land managers can expand access for eMTBs. 

Participants learned how land managers plan and manage eMTB use on federal public lands, specifically on USFS-managed trails. Using the case study of Tahoe National Forest, attendees learned how Class 1 eMTBs were introduced on natural surface trails, TNF’s plans for the future, and how eMTBs have been integrated into TNF’s recreational management plans. Rounding out the discussion, PeopleForBikes shared the latest research and additional case studies of eMTB use on natural surface trails. The session also explored how land managers and recreational professionals can utilize these examples and apply the lessons to trail management in their communities.

The following are six high-level takeaways from this year’s conference:

Planning for Sustainable Tourism
Outdoor recreation is a big and growing part of the U.S. economy and needs leaders who can think long- and short-term for the well-being of their community members. By integrating outdoor recreation into community planning and development efforts, local governments can strengthen economic and environmental resilience and improve quality of life for residents, offering significant benefits for everyone.

For example, the Recreation Economy for Rural Communities (RERC) program, a federal partnership between the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the USFS, the Northern Border Regional Commission, and the Appalachian Regional Commission, supports rural communities by leveraging the power of outdoor recreation to revitalize main streets and diversify economies through planning grants. For forward-looking communities, planning for sustainable tourism fosters community revitalization, protects air and water quality, creates jobs, supports economic diversification, and offers new opportunities for people to connect with nature.

Recreation as a Lifeline for Communities in Transition
As climate change intensifies, more localities are moving away from extractive and energy-intensive industries while looking for opportunities to improve environmental quality and spur economic growth. Outdoor recreation can create ecotourism opportunities while also improving quality of life for long-term residents of the host community through trails and recreational infrastructure. Although ecotourism and outdoor recreation may cause challenges for smaller communities that don’t currently have the infrastructure or amenities, investing in outdoor recreation can provide numerous benefits including better water, cleaner air, and healthier habits for residents.

The Sand Wash/Little Yampa Canyon community in northwest Colorado is an example of a rural economy in transition. The coal industry once drove the small town’s economy, but the city is shutting down a coal-fired power plant by 2028. In lieu of that economic driver, the landscape and region lends itself to an abundance of potential outdoor recreation. Additionally, the outdoor recreation hub of Steamboat Springs is only 45 minutes down the road. The Colorado Outdoor Regional Partnership Initiative helped gather a diverse group of stakeholders to understand how to plan for and work on the long- and short-term strategy for the transitioning economy.

Regional and Local Partnerships are Key
Strategic partnerships drive sustainable recreation. The great outdoors crosses numerous jurisdictions and use cases, so bringing land managers, landowners, and local leaders together is critical to success.

The Lake Tahoe Destination Stewardship Plan is one such success story. The Lake Tahoe region faced a shrinking tax base and declining population due to a lack of affordable housing and increasing wildfires due to climate change. Outdoor recreation, business, environmental organization, and nonprofit leaders came together to create the Destination Stewardship Plan. This core group spearheaded public engagement through community surveys to create a shared vision and design process around destination stewardship for the environment and recreational assets. This collaborative process resulted in a shared vision: “a cherished place, welcoming to all, where people, communities, and nature benefit from a thriving tourism and outdoor recreation economy.” 

Organizing is Powerful
Mountain biking advocacy groups offer a model for how outdoor recreation can shape and inform planning and decision-making for entire communities. Many times, mountain bike groups are one of the most influential voices for conservation and stewardship, as well as recreation access.

During the session, “Recreation Solutions for Communities with Emerging Outdoor Recreation Economies,” one main example of organizing for better recreational land use planning was the formation of Pedal United in Montana. The community saw a gap in access for mountain bikers on their public lands and took action by forming the organization. The group worked with the Bureau of Land Management to plan and fund the recreation projects that were best for the community and their needs. The end result was 80 miles of trail managed and maintained for mountain bikers in southeast Montana.

Youth and Professional Career Development
Fostering a talent pipeline in outdoor recreation initiatives provides opportunities for youth to strengthen their connection with nature, develop leadership skills, cultivate responsibility and environmental stewardship, and build professional skills to keep those who wish to stay in these communities from having to leave for better economic opportunities. By empowering youth to take an active role in outdoor activities (such as participating in a National Interscholastic Cycling Association league or creating one in their community) or learning how to maintain and build trails, young people interested and engaged in outdoor recreation nurture a new generation of environmental stewards and create jobs to sustain and grow the community.

Outdoor Recreation and Equity Solutions
Unfortunately, in many areas, access to outdoor recreation is inequitably distributed. It can be less abundant in lower-income neighborhoods with a larger share of minority residents, which can be exacerbated by a history of segregation in public places and a lack of racial and ethnic representation in recreation and conservation organizations.

The benefits of parks, trails, and outdoor recreation assets are greatest for those who live closest to these resources, and a disparity in access holds significant health, social, and economic implications. However, more cities and towns are incorporating more recreation access — through loan programs and after-school programming — as part of their planning, development, and revitalization standards. Moving beyond recreation as an amenity and holistically incorporating recreation contributes to other public health, climate resilience, and transportation goals.

Climate change, an increasing user base, resource degradation, and lack of education present wide-ranging consequences for land managers, advocacy organizations, and communities throughout the U.S. We all need to continue working to build and sustain the amazing growth of our outdoor recreation community and industry in recent years. The land that hosts these outdoor recreation opportunities depends on the respect and care we show for it whenever we get outside.

Related Topics:

Electric BikesRecreational Bike Access
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