Among the many threats to our public lands now before Congress is House Bill HR 1349 which would amend the Wilderness Act to allow mountain biking throughout the nation’s wilderness preservation system. A similar bill was introduced in the Senate. The legislation is being promoted by a mountain biking group with the happy sound inclusive name of the Sustainable Trails Coalition.

The House Committee on Natural Resources will vote next Thursday, 12/7/17 on this legislation. It’s critical that public lands advocates contact their representatives to oppose this legislation.

Many folks, including myself, see this as the camel’s nose under the tent that poses a threat to all public lands, as some members of Congress, particularly in the GOP, attempt to dismantle our public lands conservation systems.

All one must do is look at the sponsors of this legislation to know there is a hidden agenda. One sponsor is Rep. Tom McClintock, a pro-industry development advocate, who has a 4 percent lifetime rating from the League of Conservation Voters. The other is Utah Rep. Rob Bishop. Both McClintock and Bishop are the strong advocate of eliminating the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase Escalante National Monuments in southern Utah and crippling the Antiquities Act so that future Presidents will have less authority to protect deserving landscapes.

For years a relatively small number of aggressive mountain bikers have pursued a goal of having all public lands open to their sport. One of the targets is the 1964 Wilderness Act which prohibits “mechanical transport”, in other words, bicycles as well as other wheeled access like dirt bikes, ATVs and so forth.

The same aggressive mountain bikers are also among the greatest opponents of new wilderness designation.

Mountain bikes pose a threat to many of the intrinsic values of wilderness. One of the most important values is self-restraint. In our designated wilderness areas, we effectively say these are lands which are not open to the same uses and development of other landscapes.  We as a nation see these lands are deserving special treatment as part of our collective national patrimony.

There are other issues as well. Mountain bikes due to their speed, shrink wild places, allowing human access to areas that are ordinarily remote. These remote parcels of our public domain are sanctuaries for sensitive wildlife. This is particularly critical due to the overwhelming increase in all recreational pursuits on public lands where the landscapes without human disturbance is shrinking rapidly.

And the Wilderness Act implies that these lands are places where people can learn to appreciate and contemplate the greater natural order and wildness. Speeding down a trail, eyes focused on the path in front of you, does not promote this kind of examination.

OUTDOOR GYMNASIUM

For too many in the aggressive mountain biking community, the only thing important is their self-interest. They see public lands as an outdoor gymnasium for their personal enjoyment.

Some mountain bikers start with the assumption that the Wilderness Act was designed to protect recreation and thus, by their logic, it is discriminating against the bicyclist. However, proponents of this perspective would do well to read the original debates leading up to the creation of our National Wilderness System. The focus was not on protecting recreational uses, but rather on protecting wildness.

Indeed, the Wilderness Act’s opening paragraph says as much. “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.”

FALSE ASSERTIONS

The proponents of this legislation argue that the Forest Service decided in 1984 to discriminate against bicycles in wilderness. However, the Wilderness Act is clear on its intention, proclaiming in 1964 that [T]here 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.” Bicycles are obviously a kind of mechanical transport.

One of the rallying cries of mountain bikers is that they are “losing” access to public lands. As someone who lives part of the year in a major mountain biking community of Bend, I find such assertions to be laughable.  There are new mountain biking trails and trail systems being constructed everywhere on public lands—indeed—many of them illegally and without oversite.

There are 700 million acres in our public domain. Some 109 million acres are within the National Wilderness Preservation System, with more than half in Alaska.  There are perhaps at best another 100 million acres are eligible for inclusion in the system. That leaves roughly 500 million acres for mountain bikers and anyone else to use.  In the lower 48 states, we have a mere 2.7% of the land within the wilderness system. Is it too much to ask that this tiny fraction of our country be set aside primarily for wildlife, wildlands, and natural processes?

HIDING THE REAL PURPOSE

Among the uses listed in the mountain biking legislation is the use of wheelchairs. The idea is to suggest that handicap people are prohibited from wilderness areas and are victims of discrimination as well. However, in 1990 with the passage of the Americans With Disabilities Act, wheelchairs are expressly permitted in wilderness. Not to mention there are other options for access as well such as canoeing or riding a horse in designated wilderness areas.

PROTECT WILDNESS

We all need wilderness as a sanctuary for self-willed lands. We don’t have nearly enough lands protected under the 1964 Wilderness Act, and it is no time to begin dismantling the underlying philosophical goals of this foresighted law.

You can send a letter to your Congressional representative here. http://bit.ly/2pzxqHa

 
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About The Author

George Wuerthner

George Wuerthner is an ecologist and former hunting guide with a degree in wildlife biology

9 Responses to Oppose Mountain Biking Legislation

  1. avatar Ida Lupine says:

    Self-restraint, I fear, is something that people no longer value or aspire to, and haven’t for a long time.

  2. avatar Susan Parker Chapman says:

    I completely and absolutely oppose mountain biking legislation in our parks and wild lands. Indeed, we need to expand lands protected by the 1964 Wilderness Act .

  3. avatar John Fisch says:

    “Many folks, including myself, see this as the camel’s nose under the tent that poses a threat to all public lands, as some members of Congress, particularly in the GOP, attempt to dismantle our public lands conservation systems.”
    Actually, exactly the opposite is true. Backcountry cyclists share the same conservation ethos as backcounty hikers and equestrians. We want nothing more to preserve our wild places. By actually allowing us to use our equally low impact, human powered form of transport will only strengthen our resolve to do so, and turn us from opponents of new Wilderness into allies. How great that we would all be able to work together to in the creation of new Wilderness and the protection of existing Wilderness!

    “All one must do is look at the sponsors of this legislation to know there is a hidden agenda. One sponsor is Rep. Tom McClintock, a pro-industry development advocate, who has a 4 percent lifetime rating from the League of Conservation Voters.”
    Standard logical fallacy: ad hominem attack, and a rather disingenuous one at that. The congressmen who wrote and sponsored the legislation creating new Wilderness in the Boulder White Clouds had equally bad environmental records, but not one Wilderness advocate claimed that was a bad bill based on who was putting it forward.

    “…Act which prohibits “mechanical transport”, …”
    First, at that time, the word “mechanical” was used to mean things with motors, not things human powered. This is confirmed in the Congressional Record. Second, other forms of mechanical transport are allowed and not opposed (i.e. boats which mechanical oarlocks, touring skis with mechanical bindings). Lastly, subsequent Wilderness legislation removed all doubt by listing cycling right alongside hiking and horseback riding as “primitive recreation,” reiterating the intent and specific wording of the original Act.

    “The same aggressive mountain bikers are also among the greatest opponents of new wilderness designation.”
    What else would you expect from an equally conservation minded user group which has lost access to over 1,000 miles of traditionally ridden trail in the last 5 years alone? Again, we should be allies here.

    “The focus was not on protecting recreational uses, but rather on protecting wildness.”
    As noted above, “primitive recreation” was specified as a primary purpose of the original Wilderness Act. Congress then went on to list cycling as primitive recreation.

    “In our designated wilderness areas, we effectively say these are lands which are not open to the same uses and development of other landscapes.”
    And mountain bikes require no additional development. They use the same trails hikers use. Again, if mountain bikers were actually allowed to use these trails, they would be even more mobilized to join the chorus in demanding their protection and preservation!

    “These remote parcels of our public domain are sanctuaries for sensitive wildlife.”
    Multiple studies show bikes having no more impact on wildlife than hiking… and often less. Hikers are more likely to go off trail, thus encroaching on otherwise undisturbed wildlife habitat. When sighting wildlife, hikers are also more likely to approach the wildlife.

    “They see public lands as an outdoor gymnasium for their personal enjoyment.”
    As do many hikers and equestrians. Hikers are out there because they are enjoying a recreational opportunity.

    “…lands designated for preservation and protection in their natural condition…”
    Since bikes affect said land no more than hiking, this is yet another argument that fails to define a reason for allowing one and not the other. To see the fallacy of this argument, all one need do is look at the newly created Wilderness in areas like Idaho’s Boulder White Clouds, West Virginia’s Dolly Sods, and others throughout the West. These areas contained many popular cycling routes. Yet even with all that cycling use, the areas were deemed to have “wilderness character” suitable for formal designation. Clearly, cycling did not disturb those lands in any meaningful way, and no more than hiking.

    “In the lower 48 states, we have a mere 2.7% of the land within the wilderness system.”
    A horribly misleading, disingenuous, and self-serving argument. Most of the other 97.3% is PRIVATE land. After that, much of the public land is logged, mined, grazed, criss crossed with roads, etc. Nature loving backcountry cyclists don’t want to ride those areas any more than backcountry hikers want to hike them. In most states, 70 – 85% of the backcountry is designated Wilderness. If the roles were reversed and hikers were excluded from 70-85% of their most cherished lands, they wouldn’t even dream accepting making this argument.

    There is no basis, not in science, not in morality, not in equity, and not in history or the law, to support, or even accept a blind blanket ban on bikes in our backcountry. Allowing bikes can only strengthen our support for the backcountry. The time to put an end to this indefensible ban is now!

    • avatar Max says:

      You should write an article, John Fisch! Well done! Spot on!

    • avatar Hiker says:

      This from the same guy who attacked me on the internet over off trail riding in Arizona. He accused me of crimes and posted photos taken of me from a hidden camera on Forest Service land. Speaking from experience most bike riders are respectful of other users, but George, once again, makes more valid points than John Fisch. John has boasted of creating new trails for mountain bikes. I have witnessed bikes going off trail many times. Is this what we want? People doing what they feel is right? Disregarding the law and then clamoring for the law to be changed? There is very little true Wilderness left. Keep the bikes out.

    • avatar Ida Lupine says:

      The more people encroach into wilderness, the more conflict with wildlife there will be. Hikers and horse riders, going slow, are more likely to be aware of the conditions around them, and carry bear spray. I don’t go off trail, ever, and I don’t think there would be any incentive for hikers to do that.

      What’s a mountain biker going to do?

    • avatar Patrick says:

      I get that mountain bikers might want access to wilderness areas, but wilderness areas should be designated for non-mechanized travel only, which includes bikes. There is no compelling reason why bikers need access to more land since there is already plenty of BLM land and other public land available. Your statistics are wrong. Just considering BLM land, there is 248,345,551 acres available, according to 2015 statistics (see https://www.blm.gov/public_land_statistics/pls15/pls2015.pdf). Total public land designated as wilderness is 109,142,230 acres (see http://www.wilderness.net/NWPS/fastfacts), or less than 50% of that total. That doesn’t consider state or county forest lands, much of which is designated multi-use. Much of the nonwilderness land is not heavily utilized, and has miles of forest roads and trails that are well suited to bike use There is no compelling reason to allow bike access to wilderness. Bikers shouldn’t be so self-interested and recognize how important it is for maintaining wilderness for its intrinsic, quiet solitude…a place you can access without bikes and with minimal impact like everyone else. I will just agree to disagree with you on this issue.

  4. avatar rork says:

    How much no-bicycle land are cyclists willing to give us? Cause that’s what I really want.

    Sorry, but I don’t want to share designated wilderness with bikers. My reasons are not theoretical. I share local places with them now – it’s not like we have no experience with what that is like. It is bad. Experience shows more erosion – it is obvious even on trails closed to bikes which they use illegally. Where legal it is often very ghastly. My experience shows that bikes are very unpleasant to put up with – people yelling allot, making you need to stay more alert, increasing human traffic, decreasing my chances of seeing animals in an area even when I’m off trail. In theory they could be no worse than an equal number of walkers, but the fact is that traffic is increased, because there’s more people, and some of them are moving faster and greater distance (always ignored in their arguments). The result: those of us wanting quiet and beautiful experiences in the green world do not go where there are bikes – that is the actual result for me and many others. Bikers repeatedly hold out that we can use their trail too, as if they have done us a favor – many an irony meter was broken. Such land is essentially condemned in my view. Again, this in not in theory, this is the fact.

    The way they talk you’d think that bikers can’t walk. So victimized. The ones I observe have one item on their outdoor agendas – more bike trails –and this focus makes them pretty good at their task. I’ve ask at meetings how much trail would be enough to satisfy them, and there is no answer. Their participation in public service for non-bike-trail related work is essentially zero in my area. Instead we are mostly people interested in botany, other natural history, evolution. Bikers have not even taxed their gear yet like hunters and anglers do, and have bought essentially no land in my state (MI) for their use.

    Let me summarize: I judge them by their actions and not their endlessly regurgitated polished words, and bikers have thus far always proven to be my enemy.

    • avatar Nancy says:

      “The way they talk you’d think that bikers can’t walk. So victimized. The ones I observe have one item on their outdoor agendas – more bike trails –and this focus makes them pretty good at their task”

      + 10 rork.

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‎"At some point we must draw a line across the ground of our home and our being, drive a spear into the land and say to the bulldozers, earthmovers, government and corporations, “thus far and no further.” If we do not, we shall later feel, instead of pride, the regret of Thoreau, that good but overly-bookish man, who wrote, near the end of his life, “If I repent of anything it is likely to be my good behaviour."

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