The National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) brought some early Christmas presents to the mountain biking community at the expense of wilderness.
Buried in the Act was a boundary adjustment to the Wheeler Peak Wilderness of New Mexico. The existing boundary had been put into place 50 years ago with the signing of the Wilderness Act. Since mountain biking (and any mechanical advantage) is not permitted in official Wilderness, technically mountain bikes were excluded from the Wheeler Peak Wilderness.
Approximately a mile of trail was removed from the wilderness protection to allow legal access (mountain bikers had already been illegally using the trail). The deletion of wilderness status allows the creation of a 15 mile long trail, much of it above 10,000 feet, that links the East Fork to Lost Lake and Middle Fork drainages to create what biking enthusiasts describe as a “ripping-fast single track”.
The change in the wilderness boundary was part of the Columbine-Hondo Wilderness Act that permanently protects 45,000 acres of the Carson National Forest in Northern New Mexico near Taos. The Columbine-Hondo was a wilderness study area since 1980.
Mountain bikers in the area consider this a small concession to balance out the loss of 75 trails they had been using in the Columbine-Hondo Wilderness Study Area. But that attitude is part of the problem created by the Forest Service’s lax approach to mountain biking in the WSA (as they do nearly everywhere else). Instead of banning bikes from WSAs as they should, the agency allows this incompatible use to flourish, thus creating a constituency that frequently opposes new wilderness designations.
This was not the only concession to mountain bikers in the NDAA. The proposed boundary of a 22,000 acre addition to the Alpine Lakes Wilderness was also adjusted to accommodate mountain bike use along the Middle Fork of the Snoqualmie River.
Similar exclusions and revisions to wilderness proposals in the Hermosa Creek Wilderness in Colorado. The original roadless area was more than 148,000 acres, and for decades conservationists had sought to protect about 100,000 acres as wilderness. However, due to active opposition from mountain bikers, the wilderness boundaries were shrunk to 37,000 acres with 70,000 acres being designated a “Special Management Area” to permit mountain biking to continue.
Mountain biking also played a part in the designation of the 208,000 acre Conservation Management Area in Montana along the Rocky Mountain Front. Much of this area was considered to have the highest wilderness qualities of any lands in the lower 48 states during the Forest Service Roadless Areas Review Evaluation.
Yet due to opposition to wilderness designation from mountain bikers, along with other interests like ATVs, loggers, ranchers, etc., some of the most outstanding wildlands in the lower 48 will not garner the protection of wilderness designation. The legislation creating the Conservation Management Area also specifically directs the Forest Service to study expanding mountain biking in this area, likely foreclosing forever the opportunity to designate this area as wilderness in the future.
In the Boulder White Cloud (BWC) proposed wilderness in Idaho, mountain bikers managed to get specific trails that traverse the heart of the range (and wilderness proposal) excluded from any wilderness legislation. Unless this is voided by Congress if and when the BWC obtain some protection, these trails will fragment and diminish the wildlands quality. At least in the BWC, the existing proposal calls for allowing mechanical trail maintenance equipment use like bobcat tractors and of course chain saws.
Not all mountain bikers are wilderness opponents. Indeed, it tends to be the most aggressive bikers who lead the opposition. Many mountain bikers are content to ride roads and trails outside of any existing or proposed wilderness. As this quote here in a guest commentary in the Denver Post demonstrates, some mountain bikers understand why we need wilderness free of bikes. Dennis Coello, author of “The Complete Mountain Biker,” says, “In this day of man’s increasingly mechanical approach to the outdoors, when thousands experience nature not for what it is through observation but as a playground, there aren’t many places left where one is guaranteed one won’t be run over by a Jeep or snowmobile or mountain bike. Preserving those [wilderness] areas at the cost of a disgruntled few seems worth the price.”
I wish more mountain bike organizations shared Coello’s perspective. Unfortunately most leaders for organizations like the International Mountain Biking Association, along with local biking groups, are among the most dedicated and aggressive mountain bikers. This group lobbies ceaselessly to open more public land to mountain bike access. Unless conservationists start organizing soon, we will eventually see far fewer acres being given the gold standard of wilderness protection.
I do not object to mountain biking as an activity—in appropriate locations. But our remaining wildlands are increasingly under assault from a wide range of impacts—not only the traditional industrial sources like mining, oil/gas, agriculture, ranching, and logging, but also increasingly from a variety of recreation pursuits as well. Wilderness designation is about more than just human recreational opportunities. These lands are places we set aside for the “others”, the creatures that require natural places that are protected from human intrusion and manipulation.
Wilderness also has symbolic value. These places represent places that we have set aside as a matter of self-restraint and ethical consideration for the rest of Earth’s diversity and lifeforms.
George Wuerthner is an ecologist who has published 37 books, most recently Keeping the Wild: Against the Domestication of the Earth.