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Recreational Bulldozing

I recently got a survey from a mountain biking advocate asking me if I agreed with the premise that bikes belong in designated wilderness.

This person justified mountain bike access to wilderness and recommended wilderness areas because they maintain trails and create new trails that are open to hikers and horse riders. And oh, by the way, shouldn’t they have the “right” to use all public lands because they are part of the public too.

I once had an acquaintance (wouldn’t call him a friend) who played around with bulldozers to be exact. A D-9 cat which he used to uncover gold-bearing gravels in Alaskan rivers. He was what he called a “recreational” bulldozer. He felt, like some mountain bikers, that because he paid taxes, that gave him the right to run his D-9 cat anyplace on public lands.

He used the same logic about improving access as the mountain bikers as well. He claimed he was “improving” the land by making it more accessible by making trails. He used to tell me that his trails were open to everyone else. Hikers, dirt bikers, horses, and I suppose even mountain bikers.

This acquaintance is quite the mechanic and recently told me he had been able to create a prototype electric bulldozer so his machine was very quiet. I.e. he would soon be an example of “quiet” recreation.

He argues that has just as much right to create new trails and use his bulldozer on all public lands as any mountain bike. After all, he is older and “needs” a machine to carry him up the mountain.

Of course, he can walk, just like most mountain bikers can walk, but he loves his “yellow metal” about as much as most mountain bikers love their machines.

If mountain bikes are allowed on all public lands or just about all public lands, why not recreational bulldozing?  Given the cost of bulldozers, I don’t think we have to worry too much about the widespread impact of recreational bulldozing, though certainly new roads are created by bulldozers for logging, mining and so on every year.

The impact of one bulldozer is far greater than a single mountain bike, and there are vast differences in the degree of impact. I would not argue that a mountain bike effect is the same as a single bulldozer. I’ve seen entire hillsides for miles ripped up by “recreational bulldozing” that is far worse than anything that a mountain bike or even a horde of mountain bikes can do 5o the land.

I make this absurd comparison to make a point.

I’m sure even most mountain bikers would agree that we should not allow people to drive bulldozers willy nilly on public land just because they enjoy the activity.

I  am suggesting that the attitude that it’s my land and I should be able to do whatever I choose for “recreation” can be questioned. More importantly, there are cumulative impacts from all recreation that should be of concern to everyone. In terms of effects upon wildlife, a single pass by a bulldozer may disturb more ground, but a hundred passes by a mountain bike or even a hundred hikers may have a greater displacement effect on wildlife

While I am not worried that recreational bulldozing is about to take off as a new fad, I do believe the growing technological improvements in bikes and perhaps the evolution of electric bikes will continue to erode what biologists call wildlife security habitat. The distances that can be ridden in a day and the terrain that can be “conquered” by growing mechanization is problematic. The tendency to create new trails that fragment the landscape, often without any oversight or authorization from land management agencies is a growing concern.

Don’t misinterpret my position. I think bikes are great forms of transportation. I fully support more bike lanes, biking friendly changes in our cities to encourage bicycling for both recreation and as a means of getting from point ‘a to point b.  And as someone who rides a mountain bike on public lands, I believe there is a place for them among the mix of recreational opportunities. I am not against mountain bikes as much as I am for wildlife and wild places.

The rogue attitude, aggressive nature, and the idea among some mountain bikers that I can and should be allowed to go anywhere I am capable of riding my machine is a threat to our common heritage.  In the era of global climate change, loss of tropical forests, and other huge environmental concerns, mountain biking impacts may seem rather trivial. And by comparison to the impacts of even recreational bulldozing, they are. Mountain biking is certainly not a global threat to the world’s ecosystems.

However, the self-centered attitudes that mountain biking engenders in some participants, and the fact that our wildlife is being squeezed by urbanization, agriculture, forestry, and yes even climate change, means that our “refugia” for wildlife are even more critical than ever before.

One of the great values of wilderness designation is that one of the underlying philosophical principles is about limits and restraint.  The idea that we put aside these lands for the wildlife, for the watersheds, for themselves as “self willed” landscapes is fundamental. While the original advocates of our wilderness systems were not against human use of these areas, they did recognize that mechanization was a threat in that it overcomes the natural limitations of human abilities.

I am glad there are many people who want to spend time in the outdoors. But the crush of humanity’s footprint is severely testing the ability of our lands to support the native species that live there. Limiting mechanical access at least in some places gives the rest of the creatures we share the Earth with some breathing room.

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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