New Zealand Mountain Bike Web 

Mountain bike classification
under the National Parks Act (1980)
An environmental and social impact analysis

Richard Cassels-Brown, 28th January 2002


1.0 Executive Summary
        1.1 Recommendations
2.0 Introduction
3.0 Background
4.0 Impact Analysis
        4.1 Environmental impacts
        4.2 Social impact
5.0 Arguments against policy amendment
        5.1 Department of Conservation
        5.2 Trampers
        5.3 New Zealand Conservation Authority
6.0 Conclusion
7.0 Reference list



1.1 Recommendations



The current classification of mountain bikes as vehicles under the National Parks Act (1980) is unjustifiable according to recent research, which shows that mountain bikes induce less environmental and social impact than the motorised off-road vehicles they are classed with. Implicit in the Department of Conservation policy on mountain biking, is the enforcement of a total ban on access to national parks, based on perceptions that the impacts of mountain biking are unacceptable in accordance with the department’s conservation policies.

Mountain bike classification as ‘vehicle’ under the National Parks Act (1980) can only be warranted on the fact that, like other vehicles, mountain bikes have wheels. By classifying mountain bikes as vehicles, the policy effectively excludes them from National Park access. This report will prove, through analysis of the environmental and social impacts of mountain bikes and other vehicles included in this classification, the injustice of this discrimination. Opposition to policy amendment will be primarily based on preconceived perceptions of the impacts of mountain biking, but as current research will show, these perceptions are ill-informed. The report will show that considerable discrepancies between the impacts of mountain biking and motorised off-road vehicles and the corresponding similarities between the impacts of mountain biking and tramping, strongly contend that the Department of Conservation’s policy on mountain biking is both unquantifiable and unjustifiable.



The National Parks Act (1980, part 2) classifies mountain bikes as ‘vehicles’, along with four wheel drive recreational vehicles and off-road motorcycles. This classification was made in a set of guidelines produced by the Department of Conservation in 1994 under the auspices of realisation of the rapid growth potential of mountain biking as a recreational pursuit (Kennett, 1997b). The purpose of this report is to refute this classification with the findings of current research, which shows the limited severity of mountain bike impact on the physical and social environments of a given area.

Under the current ‘vehicle’ classification in the National Parks Act (1980), mountain bikers are being excluded from opportunities that studies conducted by Cessford (1995b) and Horn (1994) found were desired. Both Horn and Cessford found that most mountain bikers considered the opportunities to explore new areas, and appreciate scenery, views and nature among the most important experiential components.

New Zealand bicycle import statistics indicate that mountain biking participation is rapidly increasing and it has been argued that this will ultimately lead to overcrowding in areas currently provided for this recreational activity (Kennett, 1997b). As the primary regions of ecological, scenic and outdoor recreation values, national parks clearly offer significant opportunities to remedy this inevitable scenario.



The behaviour of individual recreationists, and the resulting patterns of use, induce change in the natural and social environments within which recreation is undertaken. Impacts of recreational use is a complex issue for the management of conservation areas. This report does not attempt to suggest an appropriate threshold of use, rather to argue that off-road mountain biking has far less environmental and social impact than motorised off-road vehicles and no greater impacts than tramping.

Every outdoor recreation activity contributes to adverse effects on the environment in which it is performed. This is made explicit by the Department of Conservation (1994, p.1) when it suggests that all activities involving the use of outdoor settings "create ecological, physical and social impacts". Therefore, it is clearly not the incidence of adverse impacts that is in question in this report, rather the extent to which mountain bikes and, conversely motorised off-road vehicles, induce long and short-term environmental and social impacts.

4.1 Environmental impacts

The impacts of motorised off-road recreational vehicles has been a widely discussed issue in the past. A number of regional authorities, both domestically and internationally, have implemented comprehensive studies of the impacts of four wheel drive vehicles and motorcycles on soil, vegetation and wildlife. More recently, paralleled studies have been implemented on the environmental impacts of mountain biking. The results of this research will be used to argue that the severity of the environmental impacts of mountain bike use on soil, vegetation and wildlife are minimal when compared to the motorised vehicles they are classed with.

4.1.1 Environmental impacts of motorised off-road vehicles

The impacts of motorised off-road vehicles on soil structure, which has been positively linked to accelerated soil erosion, are significant. The primary impact on soil has been identified as excessive compaction due to vehicle weight bearing, skidding and wheel-spinning, and motor vibration transmitted through the wheels (Cessford, 1995a). The most commonly affected areas are on hill sections where the likelihood of wheel slippage is greatest. Soil compaction results in reduced water infiltration, which has been identified as a significant contributor to bogs and reduced vegetation growth potential due to poorly irrigated land, and direct damage to seedlings and germinating seeds (Sheridan, 1979).

Motorised off-road vehicles have also been found to have adverse impacts on vegetation in later life-stages. Under observation, Grant et al (1977) noted that non-woody species were uprooted, completely defoliated, partially defoliated, bruised, and buried by topsoil, while woody species were found to have branches partially debarked and defoliated and, in some instances, suffered removal or bruising of their growing points. Grant et al (1977) also specifically noted that most severe cases of damage to vegetation were the result of lateral stress induced by wheel-spin, skidding and sideways sliding. As with soil impacts, the sections that are affected the most are hills, due to larger amounts of torque applied to the wheels, causing increased vegetation stripping, exposure and damage of tree roots. As well as the physical effects of motorised vehicles on vegetation, Sheridan (1979) found that the thin layer of oil deposited on the ground by motorised vehicles clearly had adverse effect on both vegetation and soil. In a similar study, Lodico (1973) found that fumes emitted from vehicle exhaust systems had been linked to declining plant health.

In addition to the impacts of motorised off-road vehicles on soil and vegetation, Sheridan (1979) found that noise and fume emission affected wildlife, by displacing it from its natural habitat, disrupting breeding and feeding habits, and causing permanent hearing damage, which effectively reduces long-term survival chances. Motorised off-road vehicles have also been directly linked to animal injuries and death through collisions, and destruction of habitats through damage to vegetation and soil. It is clearly evident that due to noise, fumes, vehicle speed and the destruction of vegetation, the presence of motorised off-road vehicles detracts from public land as wildlife habitat.

4.1.2 Environmental impacts of mountain bikes

Horn (1994, cited in Booth & Cullen, 1995) found that some walkers appeared to perceive mountain bikers to be responsible for impacts that do not occur. In the analysis of the environmental impacts of mountain biking, a number of similarities between mountain biking and walking emerge, while a number of fundamental differences between mountain biking and motorised off-road vehicle usage are evident. Weaver (1979, cited in Cessford, 1997a) focussed his research on the impacts of mountain biking and tramping on soil impacts. Weaver concluded that apart from downhill sections of tracks, the differences in impact were very difficult to identify. On downhill sections, Weaver found that stepping was more erosive than downhill mountain biking due to the downward force exerted through the heel in down stepping. The erosive potential of downhill mountain biking, however, was found to be more severe when the wheel was locked through poor braking technique. This is an issue that is currently being addressed through rider education programs and various publications, such as the "Mountain Bikers Off-road Code". Due to a relatively large amount of ‘mean ground contact pressure’ exerted by motorised vehicles, the impacts on soil compaction and erosion were considerably lower for mountain bikes. In addition, the impacts of motorised vehicles on uphill sections are far greater than that of mountain bikes due to weight and the ability to induce greater wheel torque leading to wheel-spin, which was only observed on wet or unconsolidated surfaces for mountain bikes (Kennett, 1997a).

As an indication of the level of concern for the environment, it was found that attitudes of mountain bikers toward the environment were similar to walkers, but different to those of motorised off-road vehicle users. Mountain bikers and trampers had similar levels of membership to conservation organisations, while both considerably outnumbered motorised off-road vehicle users (Horn, 1994). These attitudes have been clearly reflected in the impacts of the activity on vegetation, where damage induced by mountain biking was far less extensive than that of motorised vehicle use and was usually the product of avoiding damaged areas of the track, in a similar fashion to walkers (Cessford, 1995a). In the same study, mountain bikers were found to contribute less to overall impact on vegetation, as they were less likely to venture from the track than walkers.

4.1.3 Comparative analysis of environmental impacts

The extent of environmental impact of mountain bikes and motorised off-road vehicles is clearly incompatible. Research has shown that the damage to soil structure accredited to motorised vehicles is substantially more severe, due to considerable differences in ‘mean ground contact pressure’ and wheel torque capabilities. The destructive impacts of noise, oil and fume pollution evident in the use of motorised vehicles is also noted as a fundamental difference between the relative impacts of the two recreation forms. Perhaps the most notable difference between mountain bikers and motorised vehicle users is found in their incompatible attitudes toward the environment. Clearly this represents a broad generalisation and many individuals would be exempt from these findings, but the fact remains that as a collective body, the predominant attitudes of motorised vehicle users ultimately represents a lesser ability to employ good environmental practices.

4.2 Social Impacts

Conflict is the basis of social impact in the recreational setting, and occurs when the actions of an individual or group interfere with another individual or group’s ability to achieve goals. Conflict is defined as "goal interference attributed to another’s behaviour" (Jacob & Schreyer, 1980, p.389; cited in Schreyer, 1990). As resource-based recreation is essentially goal-directed behaviour, the occurrence of perceived conflict is higher in resource-based recreation than in many other aspects of life.

Jacob and Schreyer (1980; cited in Schreyer, 1990) suggest there are three major dynamics that affect perceptions of inter-activity conflict. The first is activity style, where factors such as speed, noise, and level of regard for other users are used by the participants of on activity to evaluate the appropriateness of another activity in a particular area. The second is sense of place possession where the participants of one activity assess their own level of place attachment to particular areas, to evaluate the appropriateness of another activity in that area. This dynamic is particularly applicable to trampers in national parks, as they have possessed sole rights of recreational use of these areas since their conception in New Zealand. The third perception is expectations formed from lifestyle, where participants set a level of expectation that they intend to realise from their recreation experience and if this is not achieved, conflict will inevitably occur.

As an inevitable consequence of the interaction of persons from varying backgrounds, who bring with them different recreational agendas, conflict will be taken as hearsay. The report will, instead, attempt to address whether that conflict is the cause of real circumstances. As the current sole recreational users of New Zealand’s national parks, the experiences of trampers will be analysed to determine the level of goal-interference they attribute to mountain biking and motorised off-road vehicles and the extent to which these interferences are real or subjective.

4.2.1 Social impacts of motorised off-road vehicles

The social impacts of motorised off-road vehicle use have been identified through conflict with other users and nearby residents. The most common source of complaint attributed to conflict is excessive noise emission. Other users of multi-use areas found that the presence of machine noise in an otherwise man-made noiseless environment was detrimental to their experience (Grant et al, 1977). Similarly, in a study conducted by Sheridan (1979), nearby residents to a popular peri-urban off-road motorcycle venue reported noise as an invasion of their privacy. In particular, the noise levels emitted from motorcycles is a regular source of complaint with a number of national and local authorities imposing noise output regulations. Motorised off-road vehicles have also been associated with excessive dust emission, oil on trails, disruption of wildlife, and destruction of plants, which are all attributed to disruption of co-users’ experiences.

4.2.2 Social impacts of mountain bikes

The social impacts of mountain biking are primarily the product of conflict with walkers. Walkers regularly identify the three main sources of conflict as perceptions that mountain biking has too much environmental impact; mountain biking represents a safety hazard due to speed and silence; and that the presence of mechanisation in outdoor settings is inappropriate (Cessford, 1995b). Research by Horn (1994) and Cessford (1995a), however, has indicated that these impacts have tended to be exaggerated. Firstly, in section 4.12, the physical impacts of mountain biking were clearly, under normal operation, no greater and in some cases less than walking. Secondly, although mountain biking is perceived as a safety hazard, Cessford (1995a) found that even in areas of high interaction between walkers and mountain bikers, actual accidents were very rare with only a small number being reported; none involving serious injury. The most significant argument put forward by walkers is the presence of mechanisation. This perception is clearly well-grounded and difficult to refute, except that the actual social impacts of a noiseless, pollution-free form of recreation is clearly comparatively less than the motorised vehicles they are classed with under the National Parks Act (1980).

Watson et al (1993) found in a study on mountain bikers and trampers in Rattlesnake National Recreation Area (NRA), that nearly two thirds of trampers felt that mountain biking was objectionable, but found it difficult to specify behaviours that reduced their own enjoyment. They found the conflict to be clearly asymmetrical, whereby mountain bikers expressed low feelings of animosity towards trampers, and many indicated that they enjoyed meeting trampers on trails. Additionally, Watson et al (1993) found that trampers perceived the demographics and environmental attitudes of mountain bikers to be highly dissimilar, but this was not actually the case. They found that, demographically, the two groups were highly similar, and mountain bikers’ interests in the setting and feelings of attachment to the wilderness resources, were similar to hikers, indicating very similar environmental attitudes. Real differences between the groups were few and did not follow the patterns of perceived dissimilarities. The authors suggested this was probably because many mountain bikers come from tramping backgrounds.

4.2.3 Comparative analysis of social impacts

As with the comparative physical impacts, the absence of noise, fumes and oil emission from mountain biking creates fundamental differences between the two activities. As the most common and resolute forms of complaint about motorised vehicle use, this clearly represents impact dissimilarities. The social impacts caused by mountain bikers have been shown to be relatively less substantial with the exception of mechanical presence. The extent of mechanical presence between mountain biking and motorised vehicle users, however, also characterises another significant difference between the two activities in that mountain biking is relatively noiseless and leaves no evidence of mechanisation, such as oil deposits.



5.1 Department of Conservation

The Department of Conservation will likely disapprove amendment to the National Parks Act (1980), on the basis that increased levels of access to national parks will likely occur, hence compromising conservation values. To refute the perspective of the Department of Conservation, it is necessary to return to the fundamental principles of the National Parks Act (1980). In section 4 (p.10), it states that national parks are to be "maintained in natural state, and public to have right of entry". The first part of this governing principle appears to be directly related to the environmental impacts discussed in this report, which clearly shows that the effects of mountain biking were insignificant in comparison to motorised off-road vehicles. Under the current classification of mountain bikes in the National Parks Act (1980), mountain bikers are being denied right of entry and the evidence upon which this decision is based appears somewhat unfounded.


5.2 Trampers and representative groups

As the traditional users of national parks, trampers will likely consider amendment to mountain bike classification under the National Parks Act (1980) to be undesirable, based on perceptions of user conflict. Research cited in section 4.22 clearly indicates that trampers’ perceptions of goal-interference, which are the basis of conflict between tramping and mountain biking, are relatively invalid and are clearly less substantial than the comparative social impacts of motorised vehicles. As the traditional users of national parks, the presence of mountain bikers will inevitably be perceived as an unnecessary intrusion. However, where facilities are provided for the public, shared usage is merely a reality of technological and social progression, and the impacts of those activities are conceptually no worse than each other. Therefore, acceptance must eventually occur.

5.3 New Zealand Conservation Authority

In November 1997, the New Zealand Conservation Authority chairperson, Sir Duncan McMullin, publicly announced that "people had the right to enjoy national parks, and amending the policy on mountain biking would undermine that" (The Dominion, 6 November 1997). Surely, the only justification of this statement can be drawn from research on the comparative impacts of tramping and mountain biking. As this report has indicated, the research directly applicable to Sir Duncan’s remarks, indicates few discrepancies between the two activities. Therefore, if these differences are not as exaggerated as previously perceived, surely the right for the public to access New Zealand’s national parks is not being upheld. On the contrary, if this research had found the impacts of mountain biking to be worse than those of trampers, justification would not have been difficult to achieve.



The social and environmental impacts of mountain biking are so dissimilar to those of off-road motorised vehicles, that collective classification of the two activities is both illogical and unfair to mountain bikers. It has been evidenced that the impacts of mountain biking and tramping, however, are not dissimilar, and as trampers currently possess almost unlimited access to national parks, this is clearly a case of unjustifiable discrimination. Additionally, the arguments against policy amendment tend to lack substantial credibility as they are evidently based on perceptions that are not supported by current research. Amendment to the Department of Conservation’s policy on mountain biking would enable mountain bikers an equitable standpoint in national parks’ decision-making, which they are currently not afforded.



Booth, K. and Cullen, R. (1995). Recreation impacts. In P.A. Devlin; R.A. Corbett & C.J. Peebles (Eds.), Outdoor recreation in New Zealand: A review and synthesis of the research literature (Volume 1), pp. 99-136. Wellington: Department of Conservation.

Cessford, G.R. (1995a). Off-road impacts of mountain bikes: A review and discussion. Department of Conservation Science and Research Series, 92.

Cessford, G.R. (1995b). Off-road mountain biking: A profile of participants and their recreation setting and experience preferences. Department of Conservation Science and Research Series, 93.

Department of Conservation (1994). Guidelines for use of bicycles on tracks managed by the department. Wellington: Department of Conservation.

Grant, I.J., Crozier, M.J. & Marx, S.L. (1977). Off-road vehicle recreation study: Characteristics, demand and impact on the social and physical environment. Wellington: Regional Planning Authority.

Horn, C. (1994). Conflict in recreation: The case of mountain-bikers and trampers. Unpublished Master’s Thesis, Lincoln University, Canterbury, New Zealand.

Kennett, S. (1997a). The Flip Side of Land Access. (19 July 1998).

Kennett, S. (1997b). The growth of mountain biking in New Zealand. (19 July 1998).

Kennett, S. (1995). Wellington Regional Council (WRC) mountain bike issues. (20 July 1998).

Lodico, N.J. (1973). Environmental effects of off-road vehicles: A review of the literature. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of the Interior Office of the Secretary.

Mountain bike ban to stay despite public opposition. (1997, November 6). The Dominion, p.14.

National Parks Act, (1980).

Schreyer, R. (1990). Conflict in outdoor recreation: The scope of the challenge to resource planning and management. In J. Vining(Ed.), Social science and natural resource management (pp. 13-31). Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press.

Sheridan, D. (1979). Off-road vehicles on public land. Washington, D.C.: Council on Environmental Quality.

Watson, A.E., Williams, D.R. & Daigle, J.J. (1993). Sources of conflict between hikers and mountain bike riders in the Rattlesnake NRA. Journal of Parks and Recreation Administration, 9, 59-71.


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