Wilderness. The word conjures up images of snow-capped peaks, of meadows in full bloom, of distant ridgelines spanning the horizon. In an America increasingly divided and subdivided into so much concrete, broken glass and urban sprawl, it’s comforting to know that there are still places untarnished by all of mankind’s “progress”.
Wilderness…we love it, yet we are also torn over it. Or, more exactly, we’re at war with one another over the question of who does and doesn’t belong in it. Since 1984, we’ve been told that bikes don’t belong in Wilderness areas. At the risk of sounding cavalier, let me just call bullshit on that right here and now.
THE BAN HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH THE ENVIRONMENT
Why did bikes get the boot in the first place? You might guess it was because mountain bikers proved to have more of an impact on trails or wildlife than hikers or equestrians. Nope. When the Forest Service decided to ban bikes back in `84, they did so merely at the behest of a few outspoken members of the Sierra Club and Wilderness Society who simply didn’t like bikes. No studies on mountain biking’s impacts were conducted back then. In the years since, the vast majority of studies have shown that mountain bikers have no more impact on trails than hikers and considerably less impact than equestrians.
This ban? It has nothing to do with actually preserving the environment. If the ban sought to preserve Wilderness in its untrammeled state, the same forces that oppose mountain biking would also be up in arms over horseback riding, mining and cattle grazing—all of which you can find in America’s Wilderness areas. Cue the sound of crickets chirping.
More than 30 years have passed since bikes were banned and the rationale for excluding bikes still amounts to no more than this: We just don’t like you mountain bikers.
It’s really that simple.
Look, it’s okay if one group of trail users harbors animosity towards another. Humans are fickle and divisive that way. It’s not acceptable, however, for our government to simply aid and abet one group’s intolerance. And that’s precisely what’s happened here with our regulatory agencies. Public policy is supposed to be neutral. It should be based on sound science. In this case, it is anything but objective.
BUT BIKES DON’T FIT THE WILDERNESS ETHIC…
Since proponents of the mountain biking ban don’t want to come across as close-minded, they tend to wrap their stance in high-minded justifications. They contend that bikes don’t fit into the Wilderness ethic—that the Wilderness Act of 1964 was meant to ban all mechanical devices. Bikes are mechanical, thus they don’t belong. It sounds dead simple; it’s far from it. The devil’s hiding in the details.
For starters, there’s plenty of congressional testimony detailing the actual intent of Congress. The age of the automobile was in full swing. The country was being smothered in asphalt and Americans were growing increasingly soft and out of touch with the backcountry. Congress wanted to turn the tide.
Members of Congress repeatedly went on record stating that they wanted Americans to get out and explore the Wilderness under their own power. The Forest Service, one of four agencies managing Wilderness areas drew up its Wilderness regulations in 1966 and their regulations perfectly captured Congress’ intent: there would be no mechanized transport powered by a non-living source…in other words, no motors. In fact, in 1980, Congress specifically mentioned biking as an appropriate activity in the new Rattlesnake Wilderness they were creating in Montana.
As soon as mountain bikes began cropping up in the hills of Marin County, California, members of the Sierra Club and Wilderness Society began pushing hard on the Forest Service to broaden its definitions. It took several years of flip-flopping, but eventually the Forest Service caved in to the pressure and took out the non-living source language and explicitly banned bikes. This increasingly us-versus-them approach to Wilderness angered the Wilderness Act’s sponsor, Senator Frank Church, who wrote:
“Time after time, when we discuss Wilderness, questions are raised about how developed an area can be and still qualify as wilderness, or what kinds of activities within a wilderness are consistent with the purposes of the Wilderness Act. I believe, and many citizens agree with me, that the agencies are applying provisions of the Wilderness Act too strictly and misconstruing the intent of Congress as to how these areas should be managed.”
THE HEART OF THE MATTER
Forgive me if the last few paragraphs got a bit overly-wonkish, but the facts are important because the people who have advocated for mountain bikers’ exclusion from the Wilderness have been repeating the opposite for so many years, that the storyline has become something akin to the Word of God.
Bikes are consistent with the Wilderness Act and the Wilderness ethic as conceived by Congress.
True, the Wilderness’ Society’s Howard Zahniser might have felt differently (we’ll never know), but even if he did, he was not a member of Congress. All of us owe the man who initially drafted what would eventually become the Wilderness Act a huge debt, but Congress’ intent is what actually matters here and we know Congress would never have banned mountain bikes. In fact, many legislators today don’t even know that bikes are banned from Wilderness areas. The mountain biking ban is not, after all, a particularly intuitive policy.
But bikes ruin my hiking experience! They bring modernity into places that are supposed to be primitive. I hear these arguments all the time, from the same people who walk into the Wilderness with iPhones, digital cameras, four-season tents, fleece jackets, carbon-fiber hiking poles, GPS devices and all manner of modern marvels that somehow don’t tarnish the primitive experience for them. There’s no shortage of high-minded hypocrisy at play here.
DIVIDED WE FALL
There will be people who claim that mountain bikers who advocate for a return to Wilderness areas are dividing the environmental movement at the worst possible time. These are, no doubt about it, scary times for anyone who gives a damn about our open spaces. There’s a growing movement to sell off our public lands to the highest bidder. There are Senators and members of the House who want nothing more than to frack and clear cut as much Wilderness as possible. How can mountain bikers be so childish and self-important as to pick this moment to splinter our unified force?
Do you believe that? Really?
You can’t expect a group of people—those who you’ve made second-class citizens—to support your causes. The number of mountain bikers who have dropped out of organizations such as the Sierra Club are legion. There are millions of us riders in America. And, yes, I agree we riders should be buttressing the ever-graying membership rolls of the Sierra Club, Wilderness Society and Wilderness Watch. If, however, you think that all of us are keen to join the groups pushing us off public lands, you have to question your grip on sanity. You divided the environmental movement way back in 1984 when you redefined “environmentalist” as someone who only hikes or rides horses.
And you divide us still today.
The Forest Service (under legal pressure from hiking groups) has begun a campaign out west of kicking mountain bikers off of hundreds of miles of trails each year—not because the trails are currently in Wilderness areas, but because they are on land (Wilderness Study Areas and Recommended Wilderness) that might one day be brought into the Wilderness inventory. This is the last straw.
The Wilderness Act isn’t simply being used to exclude mountain bikers from Wilderness areas, but, potentially, from millions of acres of land that may never even become Wilderness.
It’s worth noting that all of this has happened following decades of mountain bikers working within the system, teaming up with environmental organizations, showing up on trailwork days in vast numbers. We’ve played ball—accepting this ban and hoping you’d eventually see reason—and it’s been our downfall.
There are plenty of traditional environmental groups who continue to do a world of good—and I readily include the Wilderness Society and Sierra Club—among them. We should be joining forces. We should be advocating—together and in far greater numbers—for more Wilderness. But as long as these groups continue to advocate for our exclusion, that will never happen.
I can’t pretend to speak for all mountain bikers. There are some riders who accept the Wilderness ban, but I hear from a great many more who have come to see the Sierra Club, the Wilderness Society and many other traditional organizations as the enemy. That’s a pity. But this division is only going to widen as long as mountain bikers are summarily excluded from these areas on grounds that amount to nothing more than “The sight of you ruins my day.”
And if you’re thinking, “Mountain bikers aren’t banned from Wilderness areas—they just have to leave their bikes at home and walk or ride a horse instead,” I want you to stop and just reverse that sentence in your own head.
What if I told you that you could only enter the Wilderness on a bike? It’d be ludicrous, right? Laughable, at best, and intolerant in the extreme.
Welcome to our world.