Obtaining a valid permit for your race is one of the hardest things a race director has to do.
First, you have to deal with the chance that a competitor might move in on your desired venue before you.
If you don’t move in time, they could reserve the same venue on the same day you wanted it.
The dreaded venue scoop!
Then you have to convince park managers, oversight committees, and sometimes the US Government to give you permission to play on their property.
This requires presentations, proposals, and paperwork.
And after all of that preparation, they can still say “No”.
A race without a venue is like a plane without a runway.
Unfortunately, there are worse things than having a park tell you “No”.
They could tell you “Yes” only to abuse you, your business, and take you for every cent you make.
Or they could be telling you “No” simply because you’re a racer.
Not because they don’t think your race is safe, or that the park will not benefit from the business.
No, it could because their worldview on the environment is to discourage the public’s use of public lands as a means of protecting the land itself.
This makes them see you and your racing company as their number one enemy!
Yes… but it’s going to cost you
Let’s deal with how the “Yes” could hurt you and your business first.
What happens when that permit process has too many rules?
Or worse, doesn’t have any rules at all?
What happens when you are allowed to use the venue, but it comes with a price?
Racers like to complain about prices and think they are being charged too much money to race.
But what they don’t know is that the main cost to get access to that special racing venue can vary significantly from state-to-state or even from county-to-county.
It is especially true in States like California where permit structures differ depending on who is managing the park in question.
Many race directors have discovered that there are parks that have no set limits for what they can charge for permits.
Some park managers have even gone as far to take advantage of this by requiring race directors to give their park an increasingly higher percentage of the gross each year.
This is a big issue when trying to budget for your next race season.
Surprise increases force you to make concessions in the form of raising prices, reducing features, or having to lay off staff.
This makes expanding your races into other States even more difficult when your next location may not have any limits on what a permit will cost you.
Virginia is an example of a place that has set limits for what parks can charge.
They require a flat 15-percent of your gross profit with every special event permit they issue.
This is fair model simply because you can factor this cost into all your budgets and know what part of that each registration will go to the park.
But not all States follow this model.
Often, the end result of this kind of chaos is either no race at all or the painful need to relocate the race to another location.
No… because I said so!
This is a problem with public land in many states and counties across the United States.
When you want to use land controlled by bureaucrats — city, county, State, and Federal Government employees — there is always some kind of paperwork involved before you are allowed to proceed.
This is how most public land administrations decide who gets to use the land, how it can be used, and what that usage will cost you (if anything).
Some of these folks are sure to give you some grief when they hear that you want to host an off-road race on their land.
I say “their land” because all to often you meet park managers that actually do see it as “their land”.
It’s not necessarily a bad thing — you WANT park administrators to care about their charge.
However, convincing them that your race will not harm their park can be a difficult hill to climb.
If you work in outdoor recreation long enough you will learn very quickly that many park administrators believe that the only way to protect their trails is to keep people off of them.
This seems counter-productive to what public land is for.
That, again, depends on your point of view with regard to sustainability.
Some park administrators think sustainability means fewer people, others think it means more people.
You have to remember that park administrators ARE just people.
They are decent people, bad people, dedicated people, misguided people, and even lazy people.
You’re never going to know what kind you’re going to get when you first approach a park administrator for a permit.
You could get the one that thinks sustainability means more people using the park.
Or you could get the door slammed in your face.
The ones that think that sustainability means fewer people do not see the benefits race promoters can have on a park’s success.
They do not see the rise in the number of racers and racing companies that are becoming a new resource for fixing park trails.
They only see the large number of shoes, tires, or hoves that will be pummelling their trails all day.
They have met the enemy — and it is YOU!
I’m from the government… and I’m here to help!
What do you do when you run head first into the “sustainability means fewer people” or “only if you pay a premium” kind of bureaucrats?
Your first step should be to find out if they are truly acting this way because they can, or because some policy told them to.
A personal motive is very different from institutionalized direction.
Bureaucrats by their very nature are creatures of a process.
They have a process for everything and a policy that governs the rules for each of those processes.
Sometimes, they are given policies that are written in a way that makes sense.
“No motorbikes on public trails” is an example of one of those policies.
Motorbike riders can use their engine power to really tear-up the trails and their speed can injure people.
That policy makes sense.
“A park manager can charge any commercial business whatever fee they deem to be fair to the park” is an example of another kind of policy.
Who’s to judge what’s fair and what’s not?
Apparently, the park manager.
What one person thinks is fair may not seem fair to another.
The park manager has been delegated all the power from some other overseeing government entity.
That’s a kind of policy doesn’t make any sense.
Neither does a blanket policy that states something like “the park manager has the sole authority to grant access to the park as they see fit”.
How do policies like this get written?
The delegation of responsibilities is the core reason for many institutionalized policies that exist at lower levels of government.
When the paperwork or process to administer certain governmental responsibilities becomes a burden on higher levels, that power is delegated to lower level administrators in an effort to optimize the process.
They think that if the lower level organization is empowered to make decisions like permitting or commercial fair use pricing, then they can be freed up to do more important work.
Unfortunately, not all delegation is created equal.
Remember again, bureaucrats are still people.
Remembering those park administrators are still just people, goes hand-in-hand with understanding their personal motives.
When someone has an agenda that goes counter to a policy, this can cause all sorts of problems for more than just race directors.
When policies and processes are poorly written, many bureaucrats attempt to correct the oversight with their own understanding of what they think the policy really means.
This can lead to an interpretation of the policy that is counter to the reason it exists.
It just so happens that the Wilderness Act contains many of these potential interpretations with regards to mountain bikes.
What was intended to keep motorbikes out of wilderness areas with the term “mechanical” was written long before mountain bikes existed.
Now the term “mechanical” has been interpreted to also mean mountain bikes too.
Is this the interpretation what the US Congress intended?
Doesn’t matter now.
The existing interpretation is not clear enough to provide a solution either way.
Which is why it is left to lower-level administrators to decide what the term mechanical means in their parks.
So far, they see it as a justification to prohibit mountain bikes from wilderness areas.
Unfortunately for mountain bikers, the only way to fix this mess is to have the US Congress amend the Wilderness Act and correct the issue.
Something that is not likely to happen anytime soon.
Time to start a revolution!
So if bad policies or misinterpretations rule the day on public lands, what is a race director to do?
Your first recourse against bad policy is to, of course, choose to avoid these low-level bureaucrats and go find another venue.
There are advocates out there that love off-road racing and see the benefits of championing your events.
But if that is not an option, then there are only two options left for you to do.
The first is to try and form some sort of relationship with this park managers.
Fostering a relationship — even if initially strained — may show them that you are not a one-trick-pony.
You need to convince them that you will be around for more than one race and can be counted on to support their park early and often.
This is a time investment challenge that may take more than a year or two before it produces anything positive.
If you have the patience and the thick skin to deal with a disagreeable park manager for this long, this could prove to be a successful strategy.
Unfortunately, if you are facing a bureaucrat that has a personal agenda to never see racing in their park so long as they live, then you have only one option:
The only way to reign in an out-of-control park manager is to get their boss and their bosses boss involved.
Often, park managers answer to a larger body of elected officials like a Board of Supervisors.
These boards set park policy based on State and Federal laws.
But these boards are made up of people too.
Only these people are a special bred: they’re elected.
This means you have to be careful how you approach them.
Elected officials have only two missions in life: do what they were elected to do (hopefully), and get re-elected (more likely).
If they are not doing the former, they are certainly trying to do the latter.
Regardless of how you decide to approach these officials, one thing is clear — there is power in numbers.
The more people you have on your side of any issue, the more likely a local politician is to pay attention to you.
This means you’re going to have to form a lobby.
A racing lobby?
Maybe not that official.
A lobby is simply a group of people that have organized around a certain issue to see it changed.
Since you cannot fit 100 people into a County Supervisor’s office, the lobby elects a leader to act on its behalf.
Go out and find 1,000 people that care about your clear and concise cause, have them sign a petition, and then set a meeting with your local representative.
Having 100 people who care is a start.
Depending on what the policy is you wish to see changed, that could be all you need to get what you want.
But if the change is bigger — say getting your mountain bike race approved on Federal land — then you may have more work to do.
Each level of the bureaucracy is impacted by the same pressures.
Private citizens acting in concert do get heard.
Always remember that if politicians can create policies, they can also repeal or amend them too.
The difference between seeing the change take place or accepting the status quo only depends on how far those involved are willing to go to see it through.
Be the champion of smart access!
It is possible to build a race that does no harm, especially in locations that once only allowed limited recreational use.
Race directors have been using the Leave No Trace and Trail Advocacy model for more than two decades now.
The rise of trail enthusiasts, trial sponsors, and responsible race directors has brought new life back to many forgotten and neglected public parks.
Only it’s time to for you to take that message to the park administrators and bureaucrats.
It would be a shame to find out that the only ready some parks are opposed to racing is because their administrators were given a bad policy or a personal ax to grind.
I agree that public lands are meant to be used in a sustainable way so that current and future generations can enjoy their beauty.
But this does not mean “no access” or “less access”.
It means “smarter access”.
However, it is your job to teach your park administrators what smarter access actually means.
If you want that permit bad enough, you’ll take the time to do it.
Or you’ll go through the trouble of fixing the very policies that are hamstringing your efforts.
Both of those options sure beat having to look for new venue all over again.
And now you know.