In April, I posted a two-part series (links at end of column) on the conflict between hikers and bikers over roadless land protection. The comment threads following these commentaries exploded with a plethora of wide-reaching and innovative thought. Unlike most threads, most commenters stayed reasonably close to the subject and built on the original commentaries with a massive collection of good ideas.
A bit too massive, actually, as the nearly 400 comments exceeded the limits of our system and regrettably some of the later comments may be lost forever in cyberspace. I read them all, though, and I’ll try to summarize some of the key thoughts coming out of this sincere exchange of opinions.
1. Existing vs. New Wilderness. With few exceptions, mountain bikers seem cool with the concept of leaving existing Wilderness area off the table and have no intention of trying to open these pristine areas up to bicycling. I wholeheartedly agree with this majority opinion, but for new Wilderness proposals, especially those near urban areas where mountain biking has been popular for many years, we need a new option to “Big W” Wilderness.
Taking existing Wilderness areas off the table means one of my suggested options, revising the administrative rules governing the use of Wilderness to allow mountain biking, goes into the trash. Any such revision wouldn’t be restricted to new Wilderness proposals. It would also cover existing Wilderness areas.
2. Pre-existing Uses. When the Wilderness Act passed back in 1964, the creators were careful to preserve “pre-existing uses” such as riding horses on trails. In the early 1960s, mountain biking was not a “pre-existing use” in any proposed Wilderness, but now it is in most roadless areas. So, using the same logic as used when the Wilderness Act passed, mountain biking should be allowed in new designations because it is, without doubt, a pre-existing use.
3. Where are the Big Greens? The entire point of the commentaries was to encourage national hiking and wilderness groups such as the Sierra Club and Wilderness Society to step in and help solve this problem, and I confess to some frustration and embarrassment that we didn’t hear one peep from any of them. They still, apparently, consider mountain bikers the enemy and place no priority on trying to resolve the conflict and form a united constituency for protecting roadless lands. With this attitude, it’s hard to be optimistic about the future.
The Montana Wilderness Association entered the thread with an appropriate reminder of its successful collaborative effort called the High Divide Quiet Trails project, which I had applauded two years earlier. (Click here to see that column.)
The good news about this project is it displays the type of attitude on a local level that we need to see on the national level. The bad news is that it’s only administrative, which means the next administrator can come along, get some pressure from the motorized lobby to open up these quiet trails to ATVs. Also, the Wilderness component of the quiet trails proposal is only conceptual with no congressional action to protect it and likewise subject to administrative whim.
4. ATV Sacrifice Areas. One point made clearly and accurately by several commenters was that the motorized recreation constituency must be part of the solution. Wilderness and mountain biking groups should not only join forces but jointly accept the eventuality of having to devote some scenic areas to motorized use–“sacrifice areas” where agencies manage primarily for motorized recreation. More later on this one.
5. IMBA Riding in No Man’s Land The mountain biking community, led by the International Mountain Bicycling Association (IMBA), has a serious identity problem. Most mountain bikers I know and most commenting on these commentaries are more aligned with hikers than ATVers, but because of their affiliation with IMBA or local IMBA-supported clubs, they end up on the same side of the podium as the motorized recreation lobby. If hikers and mountain bikers are ever to work together to protect roadless lands for non-motorized recreation only, IMBA needs to avoid any perception that they side with the motorized recreation industry that always opposes Wilderness and any non-motorized alternative to it.
Witness the news coming out during the comment section where IMBA signed up with several motorized groups in a “Sharing Our Trails” program in California. To me, there’s no such thing as a trail successfully shared by ATVers and hikers, mountain bikers or horses, and IMBA shouldn’t be part of any effort to promote the impossible.
In this case, interestingly, it looks like the local mountain bikers were sold on the deal by motorized groups. IMBA, the parent organization based in Colorado, had nothing to do with the deal, only an IMBA-affiliated California club, but in the press release, this fact was conveniently omitted. Instead, it listed the entire organization as a partner, and only the motorized groups put the release on their websites, not IMBA or the equestrian groups. What does this say?
IMBA should back out of this deal and avoid any similar alliances, local or national, with motorized recreation in the future. Every time bicycles are viewed as OHVs, we take a step backwards in efforts to resolve this conflict and form a natural alliance between hikers and bikers.
In recent chats with IMBA officials, it’s clear they disagree and think they can and should work with both ATV groups and hikers, but I say, Earth to IMBA, you can’t have it both ways. The ATV groups want you in their fold to keep you out of a natural alliance of non-motorized groups, and it’s working. You’ve been had.
IMBA, make your choice. If you choose motorized, I can stop trying to get hikers and mountain bikers to join forces, and I’ll consider IMBA an enemy instead of an ally in efforts to protect roadless lands. If you’re an IMBA member and care about roadless lands, I suggest writing your organization and urge them make the right choice.
6. The Backcountry Brand. With the exception of the major green groups where, I can only theorize, egos preclude change, most commenters see the best solution as a new organic act to create a true Wilderness Lite option–a “wilderness with mountain biking” designation. I suggested we call it Backcountry.
I’m sorry to say that on the surface the Big Greens scoff at the idea. Under the surface, they fear it. They know politicians sick of the Wilderness debate will embrace it as a more friendly, popular option, so in my opinion, what we all really need to happen right now, more than anything else, is for one prominent politician pick up the Backcountry ball and run with it. In doing so, he or she could become the hero who solved the problem and prevented another 25 years of conflict.