I’ve had debates with mountain bike supporters over the question of whether bikes and, by extension, other wheeled vehicles, should be permitted in designated wilderness. The mountain bike crowd feels their activity should be allowed in wilderness areas.
Many mountain bikers oppose any wilderness that does not permit biking and/or at least if wilderness designation closes a trail that mountain bikers have come to use. Since by definition of the Wilderness Act, mechanical access is prohibited, any lands designated under the 1964 Wilderness Act is automatically off limits to mountain biking. I ride a mountain bike on trails. It’s great exercise. I like the challenge. But I oppose mountain bikes in any designated wilderness and/or areas under proposal for wilderness.
Many mountain bikers react to the exclusion of mechanical transport, including mountain bikes, in wilderness with indignation. Wilderness designation does not exclude them from wilderness. They, and all people are welcome in wilderness. What is not welcome is many modern forms of transportation. One is not being denied access to wilderness by a ban on wheeled access any more than someone who like to ride on dirt bikes are being denied access because dirt bikes are also banned.
Mountain bikers can walk which is the most equitable and democratic form of access. Walking requires little more than a pair of sneakers. In a sense, the ban on wheeled access equalizes access for everyone. All people are welcome in wilderness, just not their bikes—and that is how it should remain.
Such exclusions are no different than the ban on smoking implemented across the country. One can’t smoke in public libraries, on planes, in many restaurants, public schools, and so forth. People who smoke are permitted to enter these public places; they just can’t smoke their cigarettes in such places.
Unfortunately some mountain bikers react to this ban on mountain biking by opposing wilderness designation if it curtails present or perceived future mountain bike use. If they can’t access it on a bike, than they are not going to support wilderness designation. In some ways this shows better than I could explain why mountain bikers as a group (and there are exceptions) are not wildlands advocates. They are recreation advocates—and a very specific recreation advocates—wheeled access.
There is nothing wrong with being an advocate for a sport you’re passionate about. But just because you’re an advocate doesn’t mean that your particular activity is appropriate in all locations, including in all public holdings.
I know many passionate hunters. But hunting, with just a few exceptions, is not permitted in national parks. Yet many of the avid hunters I know still support national park designation even though they cannot enjoy hunting in those places. They appreciate that national parks preserve many public values, including protection of watersheds, wildlife habitat, and scenery.
Yet the distinct feeling I get from mountain bikers –at least the mountain bikers who I hear from—tend to put mountain biking first. They cannot accept that there are public lands where wheeled access is restricted.
There is an unfortunate context to this issue. Many trails were “captured” by mountain bikers without any formal discussion or public review. Basically mountain bikers just started riding those trails and over time established a use as other thrillcraft (ORVs) did. There were no public reviews as to whether that use was appropriate. There was no environmental review. Now mountain bikers feel they are “losing” access that was never formally granted.
As mountain bikes have improved, more and more trails can be ridden. Places that twenty years ago would never have been traveled by a bike are now regularly traversed. Just as with other thrillcraft, mechanical and design improvements have allowed mountain bikers to access more and more remote country. And I have no reason to believe that this trend will not continue.
The Wilderness Act explicitly excludes “mechanical transport”. That is why not only mountain bikes, but other recreational pursuits like para-gliding, snow sailing, and so forth are also excluded from designated wilderness.
Though mountain bikes may be the machine of today, who knows what kinds of new wheeled vehicle will gain popularity in the future? I can envision muscle-powered four wheelers, backcountry skate boards, and what have you. Human ingenuity is endless and new technologies and materials may make it possible for many new kinds of wheeled machines to be invented. If mountain bikes are permitted in wilderness, then how can other muscle-powered wheeled vehicles be denied access?
That is why wilderness designation is so important. Wilderness designation is an act of humility. With the designation of wilderness, we as a society are saying this is a place that is different. It is not like all other public lands. It is a place where we don’t do the same things we might find acceptable elsewhere.
We are implicitly saying that wilderness is a place set apart. To the degree that we have any kind of sacred ground in America, wilderness and national parks and other special land designations represent “hallowed ground.” While certain types of recreation have always been practiced in wilderness including things like hiking, fishing, cross country skiing and canoeing, the primary purpose of wilderness designation is not to provide recreational opportunities. If that were the case, there would be no reason to designate a wilderness.
One can hike, canoe, and so forth outside of a wilderness and for that matter one can mountain bike outside of wilderness too. And we have many, many more acres of public lands that lie outside of wilderness and/or any potential wilderness where mountain biking as well as many other recreational pursuits are acceptable.
Organizations that are wilderness supporters do not make recreation the main goal of wilderness designation. It is the Wilderness Society for instance, not the Backpacking Society. And that’s one of the differences between organizations like the International Mountain Biking Association (IMBA) and wildlands supporters. IMBA exists to expand trails and trail use by mountain bikers—which in itself is a fine goal in appropriate locations—but it is not about wildlands preservation.
Many mountain bikers (see my recent post on Omnibus Wilderness for a taste of these comments) http://www.newwest.net/topic/article/ominbus_wilderness_bill_likely/C564/L564/ seem to think that the only reason wilderness advocates objections to mountain biking in wilderness is because we want to selfishly have all the trails to ourselves. I suppose since the only rationale that mountain bikers see for being involved in public lands issues is to expand places where they can ride their bikes, they can’t imagine that anyone would just be supporting wilderness for its own sake. But that is exactly why many of us support wilderness designation.
Though I have hiked, skied, canoed, and otherwise traveled in many wilderness areas and proposed wildernesses, whether I can do any of these things in any wilderness is not the reason I am a staunch wildlands supporter. Indeed, I will never visit; much less fully explore most of the areas that I support for wilderness designation.
Rather I support wilderness for a host of reasons other than recreation and/or their economic value. I can cite the way wildlands provide us a base line for how natural systems work, and as a home to many species that cannot thrive in the mangled landscapes we called “managed” lands. And of course, wilderness preservation also protects other things that benefit all of us like fountainheads for clean water, soil protection and so forth.
But the real reason many strong wilderness advocates support wilderness is because we believe that some lands should be self-willed and to the degree possible in an age of global warming—lands that are beyond human manipulation. We feel there should be places where humans accept limits on what we do and where we do it.
This is an old human tradition. All cultures have traditions that attempt to promote the best attributes of human nature. And all cultures recognize that there are some activities that you are not appropriate everywhere.
Wilderness designation automatically says this is a place we don’t do all the things we might do elsewhere. We are not going to log the forest. We are not going to mine the land. We are not going to drill for oil. We are, in other words, going to treat these lands as something special. And one of the things we have decided not to permit in a wilderness is wheeled access—whether muscle powered or not.
I suspect this may be hard for some mountain bikers to understand. But another way to think about it is to imagine a place like the Arlington National Cemetery. I imagine one could have a fun time riding among the ground stones, maybe jumping some of the tombs and creating a nice trail through the cemetery. All but the most crass mountain biker would understand why someone would be outraged if a group of mountain bikers insisted on creating a trail through the cemetery. It is hallowed ground.
For many of us who are advocates of wildlands preservation, wild places are already so scarce that we believe any remaining lands should be set aside as special places. And these grounds are steadily shrinking under the onslaught of industrial society. To permit even one more intrusion by mechanical advantaged machines, even muscle-powered ones, is a step towards degrading many of the special qualities of wildlands.
Though I am sure there are mountain bikers who love natural areas and appreciate wild places, the main reason people mountain bike is not to show reverence for a place. And I am not speaking of religion necessarily here, but respect. Careening down a trail at high speeds does little for reverences. Though not all people who visit a wilderness necessarily think of them as sacred places, the very quality of going slowly at least encourages thoughtful appreciation.
I suspect some mountain bikers would respond by saying how is their activity any different than a white water kayaker running a rapids and/or a backcountry skier swooping down a mountain slope. Is someone focused on the next Class Four drop really thinking about reverence or just thinking about survival?
However, one of the explicit rationales behind the Wilderness Act is to preserve “heritage values”. Heritage values including things like our heritage of unmanaged landscapes, scenic values, clean water, and so forth. But it also applies to how one approaches wilderness. Human travel in these places is based on the kinds of traditional access that has been used for centuries whether it be hiking skiing, canoeing or on horseback. In many cases, these modes of travel have been the dominate way of transport for humans for thousands of years. These are in a sense an authentic part of the experience that wilderness designation preserves. Bikes were not part of the traditional heritage of wilderness.
Many mountain bikers are quick to say that horse travel (which is permitted in designated wilderness) does more damage to trails and even the experience of other visitors than mountain bikes. And in one sense they are correct. But I do not think this justifies promoting another activity that potentially degrades wildlands.
Mechanical advantages such as mountain bikes shrinks wilderness. The main objective of most mountain bikers is the challenge of the trail, not the experience of a sacred ground or communion with nature.
Again I suspect mountain bikers would respond that the average backpacker, wilderness fisherman, or backcountry skier is not seeking sacred ground either. And in that regard they may be correct, but some activities are more conducive to reflective moments than others. And one of the implicit goals of wilderness designation is the promotion of reflection about the human relationship to nature.
I would encourage mountain bikers who want to help protect public lands from industrialization—a worthy challenge—to begin land protection campaigns to set aside lands that are not part of any wilderness proposal and/or large block of roadless terrain. The majority of public lands fit these basic criteria. There are far more acres of public land that will never be considered as potential additions to the National Wilderness System than there are lands that could be designated.
The opportunities for this kind of distinctive conservation effort would be welcomed by most wilderness advocates. There are certainly many lands that could be designated as conservation unit—open to mountain biking. For instance, in Montana the Bangtail Hills between Livingston and Bozeman are suitable for mountain biking as well as other non-motorized users but is not now in any wilderness proposal. Yet the Bangtail Hills have conservation value as a linkage and biological corridor between several other proposed wilderness and some kind of protective status would aid overall conservation goals. If mountain bikers were to focus their efforts on such areas, they could avoid this unnecessary conflict with wilderness advocates, garner more public lands that are open to mountain biking and at the same time help the bigger goal of long term conservation efforts.
Wilderness is not an outdoor gymnasium. We should not reduce its value by allowing more and more activities that compromises any values in wilderness. Wildlands are under assault everywhere. We don’t need to add to that assault by allowing mountain bikes to contribute to that decline.