Perched like a vulture on a snag, the threat of mountain bikes in National Parks stares down on the fraying edges and core of our National Parks and the dream and vision of what National Parks can and ought to be. Over the years, mostly years in which mountain bikes were nothing but a worrisome blot poking over the horizon, the vast majority of the American people came to see and believe that National Parks could be enjoyed by walking the trails or riding the paved roads, whether on your bike or in your Chevy. Americans came to that understanding along with some parallel understanding that National Parks were mostly natural areas. Not only are they a delight to lay eyes on, but they protect what Americans vaguely understand to be ecological integrity; things like clean air, native wildlife, plants, all mixed into a largely protected landscape.
It seemed intuitive that such a exceptional idea, and the exceptional places that brought that idea to life, should be free of mechanized access. It was a given that it excluded motorized access, and we should give thanks daily to the visionary and hard working people who did spend their time and effort on protecting Park integrity, particularly given the exponential rise is the abusive and destructive use of off road vehicles. With snow machines already prying the door open, an avalanche of mechanization, pollution, and conflict is surging forward. Yes, the motorized recreation world is drooling over access to National Parks and the Bush administration has been there with their legislative and rule making pry bar, trying to force even more commercialization and exploitation.
And now we have the prodding threat of mountain bikes. This is another retreat from the notion of what a National Park represents, and what role it has to play in the psyche of a free America. Along with Wilderness, no human construct represents freedom of the masses like National Parks. It may well be that America will continue to turn National Parks over to the kinds of people that engineered the financial and housing free fall in America — the anti-regulators, the anti-democracy and the anti-science — the people who take extreme risks with rights and your assets.
Most hikers are negatively impacted by even occasional, let alone regular, flow of bikers on trails or walking roads. Bikes and bikers are a physical threat, they are inherently aggressive, they kick up dust, and they can impose a mechanical sound on the immediate area. Other times they just sneak up and surprise hikers, and for a species like us that is heavily visually oriented, mountain bikes are an ugly intrusion of mechanization and urbanization.
Bikers, it is claimed, only “want” some front country routes, the ones that receive concentrated routine use from day hikers, the ones that older hikers use almost exclusively, and those that people with children use almost exclusively. No conflict there, right? The claim that people are going to use bikes more as they age, just when their balance, eyesight and hearing is in decline, is nonsense. Just the opposite is true. The front country routes are going to be increasingly important for older walkers and families, so conflict will increase. Seems like forcing conflict on your most intense use areas is the goal.
I’ve personally had my share of the excuse that bikes are less of a physical and psychological impact than some other kind of park use, presumably making their cumulative impact acceptable. Some kinds of park use involve natural means of travel — and yes, they have to be tightly regulated, as in horse use — and some, as in the bike proposals, involved artificial, man made means of off road travel. A bike on a ridge top provokes a substantially negative and different physiological, psychological and behavioral response from a person than a horse or someone on foot. The distinction is dead clear.
Some people that have slipped into the great void of indifference want to throw the bikers a “bone.” All people have a right to have their iron in the fire, but make no mistake about it, many are there to put another brand, another form of privatization, on public lands, in this case National Parks. Outright promoters of mechanization of Parks are driven by the same behind-the-scenes political agitation driving the off road vehicle set — manufacturers and dealers, corporations and people who promote commercialization at any cost. Lets see how that’s been going. First, renewed snowmobile use in Yellowstone, continuing widespread slaughter of bison with its huge ecological and psychological changes, then guns in all national parks (please don’t try to tell me the NRA doesn’t speak for gun manufacturers and sellers!), and recently a call for widely extended cell phone use/coverage, towers included, in Yellowstone. Now, another step: mountain bike mechanization of the park. Anyone see a trend here, or the rumblings of an avalanche?
It’s a common ploy by promoters and the indifferent to call for activists and citizens and scientists to “look the other way.” It’s not worth our time and effort, they proclaim. And it works. Wilderness activists and citizen supporters drop the ball when they think they don’t have to defend every inch of public rights, every public principle and process, and every vision of public ownership. Americans are again faced with another serious threat to public lands, but this time it’s mountain bikers in National Parks. Seems like it’s time to not just push back but reclaim the line that was wisely and rightly drawn in the sand by early visionaries.
Brian L. Horejsi is a wildlife scientist, public process advocate and frequent user of Yellowstone National Park.