Editor’s note: Second in a two-part series on resolving the conflict between mountain bikers and hikers over protecting roadless lands. Click here for the first part, plus a very interesting comment thread.
Last week, I wrote about options hikers and wilderness groups had to make peace with mountain bikers so the two key constituencies could work together to protect roadless land. One option was urging Congress to pass another organic act creating a true alternative land designation. But what to call it?
In past commentaries, I’m used the words “Wilderness Lite” to refer to various land designations that provide almost as much protection as the “Big W” Wilderness Congress designates under the Wilderness Act of 1964. Basically, cutting to the chase, I can more precisely define “Wilderness Lite” as “Wilderness that allows mountain biking.”
Creating this option preserves the holiness of the current National Wilderness Preservation System. All 107 million acres of Wilderness would not have mountain biking, nor would any new additions. But with this new organic act, in some cases, roadless land would have a congressionally mandated designation that preserves wilderness qualities but allows mountain biking. In many cases, I suspect legislation might include some of each.
Wilderness Lite might also allow other acceptable “mechanized” advancements like various climbing equipment, game carts, scouting cameras, chainsaws, hang gliders, and strollers, but the main issue is bicycles.
We already have several Wilderness Lite land designations–National Recreation Areas, National Scenic Areas, National Conservation Areas, Special Management Areas, and National Protection Areas. Going through each of these options would take a lot of words and create a lot of confusion, but here’s one key point. None of these prohibit, by statute, motorized recreation. Congress can, however, mandate non-motorized only when creating one of these areas, but this rarely happens because, in essence, these designations are considered motorized alternatives to Wilderness. See the problem? Nothing in between that allows all forms of non-motorized recreation.
(I should interject that I’m referring mainly to national forests and to a lesser extent land managed by the Bureau of Land Management, not national parks. That’s another issue, and the National Park Service already has a great alternative, national monuments, which have slightly less protection, but where bicycling can be allowed.)
Two examples of this alternative, collaborative “successes” often touted by mountain biking groups are the James Peak Protection Area in Colorado and three National Scenic Areas designated as part of the Virginia Ridge and Valley Act of 2005. But both the protection area and the scenic areas allow motorized recreation, although very limited motorized use in the Virginia scenic areas. That does not make them alternatives to Wilderness.
Creating a scenic areas or recreation areas or protection areas that clearly ban wreckreaction could proceed on a large scale, creating a mish-mash that people might not understand, but would that matter? If politicians had the spines to actually write “non-motorized only” in legalese, this approach might even be a path of least resistance compared to passing the Wilderness Lite Act of 2010, but for those of us who believe we need this type of alternative to “Big W,” it would be better to combine all these Wilderness Lite options included under one brand.
Congress has always had the option of creating a new Wilderness and specifically allowing mountain biking, but this has never happened, and probably won’t in the future, which further begs for a new option.
Also, we should look forward. Take any existing Wilderness off the table. Instead, concentrate on how to protect roadless lands, especially near urban areas, where mountain biking use has become well established just like horse use was established in roadless areas later designated as Wilderness.
In a past life, I wrote brand management plans. I saw the power of branding. In the corporate world, any good business or marketing plan has a good branding strategy as its core. Mountain bikers should develop such a “marketing plan” and the critical first step is creating the right brand.
“Wilderness” is a brand, and a good one. When somebody says the word, we know what he or she is saying.
“National Protection Area” is not a brand. Few people have a clue what it is, nor does it say “non-motorized.” Most people, even most wilderness advocates, haven’t even heard of it. That’s unlikely to change. Ditto for the other current land designations–how many people even know what a National Scenic Area is?
I’ve been talking up this branding idea with a few people who have genuine desire to resolve the conflict between hikers and mountain bikers, and we bounced around various possibilities before narrowing it down to two: “Primitive Area” and “Backcountry.” Both say “non-motorized” and already mean the same thing, sort of, something like “not quite as pristine as Wilderness.”
I prefer “Backcountry,” but think “Primitive Area” would also be a good brand.
So, with that background, I’m going to put up this trial balloon. I propose that wilderness and mountain biking groups join in requesting Congress pass a new organic act called the Backcountry Act of 2010 modeled after the Wilderness Act.
When Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Wilderness Act on September 3, 1964, he also created the National Wilderness Preservation System and immediately designated 54 Wilderness areas encompassing 9.1 million acres in 13 states, including many of our most iconic names like Bob Marshall, Maroon Bells-Snowmass, Boundary Waters, John Muir, Eagle Cap, Bridger, and Three Sisters. Let’s re-use that model, when the Backcountry Act passes, create a National Backcountry Preservation System with a starter list of areas that a majority wants permanently protected but are currently mired in a debate over mountain biking. It won’t be hard to find this starter list. I can think of several here in Montana that would easily qualify.
Here’s the rub. The Wilderness lobby, led by the Wilderness Society, Sierra Club and the Campaign for American Wilderness, might have some serious heartburn over this idea. To be more blunt, they fear it. They know Backcountry will be more popular with politicians than Wilderness. From the day we create a National Backcountry Preservation System, we might not see many more additions to the National Wilderness Preservation System.
For me, a person who wants Wilderness as much as any person reading this, it bothers me to more or less accept defeat on Wilderness, but if we can replace it with Backcountry, I say this looks mighty good compared the rut to nowhere we’re currently stuck in.
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