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Is Mountain Biking the Biggest Threat to New Wilderness Designations?

Several years ago, I published a book called Thrillcraft on motorized recreation and its impacts on public lands. In doing the research for that book, one of the statistics that I found interesting is the demographic profile of the “average” motorized ORV user. They tended to be male, between the ages of 20 and 40, and had incomes at or slightly above the national average (It takes a lot of money to buy pick-ups, snowmobiles and dirt bikes).

Another interesting statistic is that most motorized users had an “outlaw” attitude and regularly violated trail closures and felt like they were entitled to go anyplace their machines could carry them. They were adrenaline junkies and like spoiled children who groused at being told they were banned from some landscapes. .

Mountain bikers are, as a demographic group, fit the profile of off-road vehicle users. They are predominately male, between 20-40, and tend to have above average incomes and often have the same outlaw attitude and sense of entitlement.

We see this sense of entitlement in the continual commandeering of trails and/or illegal construction of new trails on public lands by mountain bikers. When the Forest Service or BLM seeks to close some of these trails (very infrequently done) mountain bikers squeal like a poked pig, claiming they being “discriminated against.”

A good example is the reaction of mountain bikers in Wyoming to closure of the Dunior Special Management Area near Dubois Wyoming. The Dunior has been a candidate for wilderness for years.  But without seeking any permission, mountain bikers began to ride in the area and upgrade trails. The Shoshone National Forest finally closed the trails, and the mountain bikers screamed about their “loss” of access. Access that was garnered illegally.

A similar situation exists in the Palisades Wilderness Study Area on the border of Idaho and Wyoming. Mountain bikers have commandeered trails in the area and are fighting to oppose wilderness designation for the area. This conflict would not have occurred if the Bridger Teton National Forest had simply unambiguously closed the trails to mountain bikers. After a Wilderness Study Area is supposed to be managed for its wilderness qualities until Congress determines its fate and mechanical access is not permitted.

A comparable conflict is being precipitated on the Lewis and Clark National Forest in Montana where mountain bikers are regularly riding in a wilderness study areas like the Big Snowy Mountains. Similarly, mountain bikers regularly ride in the Gallatin Range, another Wilderness Study Area on the Gallatin/Custer National Forest.

When the Forest Service limits mountain bike use, the mountain bikers scream that they are being denied access to public lands. On the contrary, most trails currently used by mountain bikers are available to anyone to walk. The only thing that is being closed is access to their machines (bikes).  Most of these users are in better than average physical condition.

While there are local and regional mountain biking advocacy groups as well the International Mountain Biking Association (IMBA) all promoting more mountain bike access and trail construction, there is virtually no push back from conservation groups. I am not aware of a single employee of any conservation group whose sole responsibility is to monitor mountain bike use in proposed wilderness areas and to provide push back and support to public lands managers who might want to limit mountain biking in these areas.

I believe if mountain biking isn’t controlled and contained just as motorized ORV use has been limited, we will find it nearly impossible to designate any new wilderness areas.

Indeed, some of the more aggressive mountain bikers are even seeking to scuttle the prohibition on mountain biking in designated wilderness, which will open the door to a host of other interests to argue they too should be given access to the these lands. In a sense mountain biking, to use a cliché, is the camel’s nose under the tent.

Mountain biking is part of the outdoor recreation industry that is more about physical exercise, challenging one’s prowess on a machine and use of our public lands as outdoor gymnasiums than about appreciation of natural systems and/or protecting the ecological integrity of the landscape. It’s about speed and domination.

Challenging oneself isn’t necessarily bad. We all, I think, enjoy challenges. And mountain biking is great fun. I ride my bike regularly on trails specifically designed for mountain bike use.

However, we must recognize that unlimited access to public lands whether by extractive industry like logging, mining or livestock grazing or recreational users, can threaten the wildlife and ecological whole of the land.

We have so few landscapes specifically set aside to preserve ecological integrity that we must make protection of natural function a primary function.  This is an idea that seems foreign to many mountain bikers, just as it seems incomprehensible to many motorized recreationists or a smaller sub-set of bird watchers, hikers and backpacker.

In the end, we must accept limits. One of the lessons one teaches young children as a parent is the need for restrictions on behavior. You can’t always get what you want, but you can get what you need.  Far too many mountain bikers remind me of spoiled children who put on a tantrum when they are told that no they can’t do something.

I may be optimistic, but I am hoping to see a maturing of the mountain biking culture. After all you don’t need to bike in roadless lands to get an adrenaline high.  You do need to consider one’s impacts on other people and critters.

We need wild places for a host of reason, including protecting sensitive wildlife, ecological processes, and scenic beauty. But perhaps one of the most important reasons for creating wilderness areas is that it teaches us humility and self-limits. These are lessons the mountain biking community could use.

More articles by:

George Wuerthner has published 36 books including Wildfire: A Century of Failed Forest Policy. He serves on the board of the Western Watersheds Project.

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