Editor’s note: First in a two-part series on resolving the conflict between mountain bikers and hikers over protecting roadless lands.
Some wilderness advocates don’t consider the conflict between hikers and mountain bikers serious, nor do they believe it prevents worthy roadless lands from becoming Wilderness, but I do.
If you want to know why, read my past commentaries on the issue. I’m devoting this column (and next week’s) to how and why hikers and wildernuts need to take the lead in resolving the conflict.
If you haven’t been in the trenches of efforts to preserve Wilderness, you might not see the impasse. Bicycling groups, led by the International Mountain Bicycling Association (IMBA), commonly say they aren’t opposed to Wilderness, but they are, in fact, opposed to any proposed Wilderness that includes single-track trails commonly used for mountain biking, which is most of them.
Wilderness and hiking groups such as the American Hiking Society, Sierra Club and Wilderness Society commonly say they aren’t opposed to mountain biking, but they keep on proposing Wilderness that doesn’t allow mountain biking–and they abhor the thought of sharing Wilderness trails with bicycles. Most of that objection is based on personal dislike for sharing trails with mountain bikers, not environmental or legal reasons. Instead, hikers should welcome the opportunity to join with cyclists to strive for protection for roadless lands they can easily and peacefully enjoy, together.
In the comment section of this commentary, you’ll probably see people say, “Wrong, Bill, we’re really are working together.” And yes, we have had collaborative successes (Colorado, Oregon, Virginia, et al) where an agreement has been reached so both groups could support legislation designating downsized Wilderness that avoided closing down popular mountain biking routes. I don’t want to belittle these sincere efforts, but in most cases, there’s no agreement and no Wilderness.
So what to do? In my opinion, our best option is for wilderness and hiking groups to initiate an effort to encourage the Forest Service (FS) and other federal agencies to re-write the administrative rules regulating the use of Wilderness to allow mountain biking.
As those familiar with the Wilderness debate know, the word “bicycle” is not in the Wilderness Act of 1964, nor does it disallow mountain biking. In fact, the first regulations the FS wrote in the late 1960s didn’t prohibit mountain biking, but then later, in the early 1980s, when mountain biking started becoming popular, the FS specifically revised the regulations to ban bicycles in Wilderness. So, for around fifteen years after the Wilderness Act became the law of the land, bicycles were actually allowed in Wilderness–until the FS, supported by wilderness and hiking groups, not Congress, and before the IMBA-fueled bicycle lobby started rolling, made an administrative decision to disallow bicycling.
The easiest way to undo this overstepping of the administrative rule-making process would be for the FS, with the support by wilderness and hiking groups, not Congress, to revise the regulations again to allow bicycles. Sadly, most wildernuts consider this heresy.
If mountain bikers and hikers agreed to re-write the regs, the FS would be hard-pressed to refuse. Although possibly making a slight left turn now, the FS has been traditionally anti-Wilderness and delighted to see the impasse between hikers and mountain bikers, two constituencies who should be working together to designate Wilderness, as were interest groups always opposed to Wilderness such as miners and motorheads. The last thing anti-Wilderness constituencies want to see is hikers and mountain bikers pulling in the same direction.
If the FS and wilderness groups continue to scoff at the idea of revising the regs to allow bicycles in Wilderness, it appears as if the only way we can resolve the conflict that has delayed or defeated so many Wilderness proposals is to come up with a new organic act that embodies the principles of what I call Wilderness Lite.
(I don’t, incidentally, expect it to be called ‘Wilderness Lite.” That’s only my term for Wilderness that allows mountain biking. More next week on this issue.)
Wilderness and hiking groups should support a new organic act codifying a Wilderness Lite alternative to Wilderness, but I suspect, they will continue to scoff at that option, too, which means the bicycle lobby should initiate this legislation. Would wilderness groups oppose such legislation because it creates a real and attractive alternative to Wilderness? I hope not, but it wouldn’t surprise me. If they do, they probably have the political muscle to kill the idea, and then, we’re right back where we’ve been for decades.
We have a third option, of course, amending the Wilderness Act to allow mountain biking and therefore force the FS to re-write the regulations, but to me, that seems dangerous. It gives anti-Wilderness politicians a chance to mess up one of the best things Congress ever did. So, let’s not go there. Why should we? We have two much easier, safer options.
And it’s about time wilderness and hiking groups endorsed one of them, so we can finally aggressively move forward in protecting our roadless lands.
Again, for those who haven’t read my earlier commentaries, here’s my disclaimer. I’m a hiker. I never ride my mountain bike on single-track trails and have no desire to do so, in or out of Wilderness. So, why have I essentially become an advocate for mountain biking in Wilderness?
Good question, as they say, and with an easy answer. The conflict over mountain biking hampers our efforts to protect roadless land, and we have too much holding us back already. People who support non-motorized recreation must work together or go down in defeat together.
I’d like to live in a world where mountain bikers would yield to a higher priority, saving Wilderness, and realize that even if all deserving roadless land became Wilderness, they’d still have plenty of places to ride their bicycles, but I don’t. So, the only way we can resolve this conflict and move forward is for wilderness and hiking groups to make the next move. They have two choices: (1) continue losing and compromising away roadless land in our current contentious political climate or (2) make peace with mountain bikers by either supporting new administrative regulations for Wilderness or endorsing a new organic act creating a Wilderness Lite option.
Next week: What should that option be?
For a list of related articles, click here.