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Mountain Biking and Wilderness

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Across the country, the growing popularity of mountain biking is increasingly a threat to our wildlands, even in designated wilderness. Some mountain biking advocates promote the idea that their sport is compatible with the goals, and even the legal obligations of federal land management agencies that manage wilderness.

Yet my feeling is that mountain bikers and their machines are a threat to the legal, ecological, and philosophical foundations of the Wilderness Act and public lands management. I say this as someone who regularly rides a mountain bike.

A small minority of the most aggressive mountain bikers have formed the Sustainable Trails Coalition (STC) to sponsor legislation to open designated wilderness to mountain biking. Republican Congressman Tom McClintock of California introduced HR 1349 to Amend the Wilderness Act to allow wheeled vehicles like bicycles and Republican Senator Mike Lee of Utah has introduced the introduced the Human-Powered Travel in Wilderness Areas Act, S.3205 to the same purpose. Both pieces of legislation are aimed at busting open the 1964 Wilderness Act to biking and other uses.

Of the six sponsors of current House Bill, 5 of them have a 0% Rating and the 6th one has a whopping 3% Rating by the League of Conservation Voters in 2016.

One must question why they would be so interested in sponsoring legislation that modifies the Wilderness Act if not for some nebulous purpose.

Indeed, if mountain bikes are permitted in Wilderness, why not other forms of mechanical advantage?

The threat posed by this legislative effort is opposed by 133 organizations that signed a letter to Congress opposed to weakening or modifying the Wilderness Act. Indeed, to its credit, even the International Mountain Biking Association or IMBA has opposed this legislation.

A common distortion utilized by the aggressive mountain biker community to suggest they are being treated unfairly is the idea that the Wilderness Act did not specifically ban bicycles. As the STC proclaims on its web site “When the President of the United States signed the Wilderness Act of 1964 he wasn’t banning bicycles, wheelbarrows, and strollers.”

In fact, the Wilderness Act is clear in its intent. The opening preamble declares “In order to assure that an increasing population, accompanied by expanding settlement and growing mechanization, does not occupy and modify all areas within the United States and its possessions, leaving no lands designated for preservation and protection in their natural condition, it is hereby declared to be the policy of the Congress to secure for the American people of present and future generations the benefits of an enduring resource of wilderness.”

It is clear the Act was intended to be an antidote to “growing mechanization.”

The Act goes even further by declaring that federal agencies must “preserve the wilderness character”.

Finally, in its prohibition of uses, the Wilderness Act says: “there shall be no temporary road, no use of motor vehicles, motorized equipment or motorboats, no landing of aircraft, no other form of mechanical transport, and no structure or installation within any such area.”

The Wilderness Act clearly intended to exclude any “mechanical transport” which includes bicycles. The fact that the Wilderness Act didn’t specifically mention mountain bikes has a lot to do with the fact that there were no mountain bikes in 1964. The Act does not specifically ban snowmobiles, jet skis, paragliding, hovercraft and a wide array of other forms of “mechanical transport” but the intent of the Wilderness Act is clear. No mechanization and mechanical transport.

The purpose of the wilderness act is to preserve the wilderness character of the areas to be included in the wilderness system, not to establish any particular recreational use. Howard Zahniser, who authored the Wilderness Act, made this clear when he testified before Congress. “Recreation is not necessarily the dominant use of an area of wilderness.  This should be clearly emphasized.”

Beyond the clear legal mandate to ban mountain bikes, there are ecological reasons to oppose the growing plague of mountain bikes on backcountry trails. Unlike non-mechanical means of access such as hiking, mountain bikes, and their mechanical advantage permits more rapid travel. The distance that a mountain bike can cover in a day means that many previously remote areas of our backcountry and wildlands are intruded upon by human activity.

Many wildlife species experience increased tension and anxiety when there is human presence. For instance, a study published by UC Santa Cruz scientists from found that mountain lions in the Santa Cruz mountains are disturbed by the sound of human voices. These fearful encounters are causing the carnivores to flee their kill sites and reduces their feeding time by 50%.

Certainly, mountain lions will react to hikers just as they may to mountain bikers, but the greater distance that a bike can cover in a day means the chances for encounters between wildlife and humans is greatly increased.

Wilderness is the “gold standard” for conservation. Wilderness designation not only protects wildness but evolutionary processes and influences like wildfire, floods, and predators.  Mountain bikers suggest that land classifications such as National Recreation Area, Conservation Area, Backcountry or other designation can achieve the same results of land protection as Wilderness. I know of no examples that are as good for land protection as Wilderness.

For instance, the Rocky Mountain Front in Montana had the highest wilderness rating under RARE11 in the entire lower 48 states, yet the bulk of this outstanding area was designated a conservation area by the Rocky Mountain Heritage Act, in part to appease mountain biker opposition to wilderness. And unlike designated Wilderness, the Conservation Area allows the construction of “temporary roads”, use of motorized vehicles for “vegetation management” a euphemism for logging, as well as motorized access for managing grazing, and weed control. It also authorizes logging for fuel reduction and insects. It further mandates construction of more mountain biking trails. While the new designation is better than the status quo, this is hardly as good as wilderness.

As anyone who has studied Conservation Biology knows, the largest habitat island, the more species it can support. By “shrinking” wilderness through additional access, we reduce the habitat effectiveness of the areas. With the mechanical advantage offered by modern mountain bikes which are increasingly efficient, the places where there is human intrusion is growing proportionally.

With the burgeoning human footprint upon the Earth, we need to provide wilderness landscapes where human intrusions are minimized and provide security and safety for wildlife.

Some mountain bikers argue that bikes do less damage to trails than horses which are permitted in designated wilderness. Notwithstanding the fact that horse use is not widespread in many wilderness areas, the horses are worse argument is a red herring. How does increasing wilderness access with another form of transportation reduce horse impacts? It only adds to the cumulative effects of all access.

It is not only designated wilderness that is threatened by mountain biking advocates. Many existing Wilderness Study Areas and roadless lands that have been identified for their wilderness qualities as potential new wilderness are under attack from mountain bikers.

For example, recently the Freedom Riders, a mountain bike group in Wyoming supported Congress Woman Lynn Cheney’s efforts to open the Palisades Wilderness Study Area to mountain biking.

There are also philosophical reasons to oppose mountain biking. The Wilderness Act states and implies that the primary purpose of our national wilderness system is to preserve the “natural condition” and “wilderness character” of the land. It is not about protecting or creating recreational opportunities.

Mountain biking is exemplified by speed and requires concentration. We are separated from nature in so many ways today with cell phones, cars, videos and the like that we seldom have a quiet interaction with the natural world. Speed robs you of the natural interactions.

All you must do is look at the covers of mountain biking magazines where riders are often airborne and careening downhill to understand what is important to the aggressive mountain biker. Indeed, the aggressive mountain bikers do not differ significantly from dirt bikers and other thrillcraft in their appearance and behavior.

Or scan the names of mountain bike brands. There is Cannondale Bad Habit, Cannondale Scalpel Cannondale Trigger, Evil Bikes, GT Aggressor, GT Fury, Marin Attack, Scott Voltage, and Titan Punisher. What kind of behavior do you think these bike manufacturers are promoting?

At its heart the basic premise of the Wilderness Act, it is about restraint and humidity. It is about countering the paradigm of conquest, domination, and exploitation.

Our obligation is to pass on to future generations wild places. Mountain biking diminishes that wildness.

The reason we protect wilderness is not about me or us. It’s about protecting landscapes for the rest of life that we share the planet with and providing those creatures a viable home as well as preserving the wildness in nature.

What we do when we protect wilderness is we create an alternative to the prevailing paradigm of domination, conquest, and colonization. Wilderness preservation offers a new narrative about communion and reciprocity. About humility, wonder, and reverence.

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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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