Alternatives to Wilderness? Not Needed.

The Buffalohorn drainage in the Gallatin Range is part of a wilderness proposal opposed by mountain bikers. Photo George Wuerthner 

New wilderness designations in Montana is dead, declared conservationist Bill Schneider in a thought provoking editorial. Schneider suggests that to protect Montana’s wildlands, wilderness advocates need to support alternative land management designations which are less restrictive than official Wilderness. I respectivefully disagree with his conclusions.

Bear Creek in the Selway Bitterroot Wilderness. Wilderness is the Gold Standard, and the best way to protect wildlife and wildlands. Photo George Wuerthner 

One concept he is promoting is “backcountry” which would allow for other uses that normally are banned in formally designated wilderness under the 1964 Wilderness Act that currently protect places like the Bob Marshall Wilderness and Selway Bitterroot Wilderness.

Schneider is a long-time advocate of our public lands and wildlands protections, so I respect his desire to find some way to keep our wild country free from development that can compromise the land’s integrity. No one can suggest Schneider isn’t a wilderness advocate.

Basically, Schneider’s idea is to create some other alternative to wilderness which he calls “Backcountry” He argues there would be more support for land protections if more human uses like mountain biking were allowed. Schneider declares that some mountain bikers would support protection of roadless lands if they could ride their machines in the backcountry.

Packing a horse in the Lincoln Scapegoat Wilderness. Photo George Wuerthner 

The idea of a new land use category is not new. When the Lincoln Scapegoat Wilderness proposal was being debated, some conservationists thought the only way to get any protection was to accept a much smaller “backcountry” designation. But Cecil Garland who led the campaign to protect the area refused to compromise and today we have a 240,000-acre wilderness.

The irony for me when I hear wilderness advocates saying maybe we can’t get any more wilderness today due to the hostile politics, I have to say are you kidding me? Back when Garland was trying to protect the Lincoln Scapegoat area, for instance, the timber industry was king in Montana. Mining, ranching, and even motorized recreation were all a bigger part of the economy of the state.

Mountain biking speed, and the tendency to be an adrenaline sport results in greater conflicts with more pedactic activities.  Photo George Wuerthner 

Back in Garland’s day, people opposed to wilderness were fighting for their economic survival or at least that is what they thought. Today, the biggest opposition to new wilderness largely comes from mountain bikers fighting for recreational opportunities—as if there aren’t enough places to ride a bike on public lands outside of proposed wilderness areas.

Getting wilderness designated has never been easy, but at least today there is a bigger recognition that wildlands are critical to ecological health of the land, watershed protection, and fundamental to what makes the West’s quality of life.

Wilderness is not about protecting someone’s recreational use. It is about restraint, humility, and respect for the natural condition of the landscape. Not how we can use it. Recreation is not conservation.

If mountain bikers were truly wilderness advocates, they would support, not oppose, wilderness proposals. If the only reason they support a wilderness proposal is if they can ride their bikes there, then is that really a demonstration of someone who is “pro” wilderness?

All one must do is read the webpages of mountain biking organizations. All they talk about is how many new trails they have created (often illegally). There is almost nothing about promoting wildlands conservation. For instance, open web page of the Southwest Mountain Biking Association it is all about trails and creating new ones. There is nothing on their webpage about protecting wildlands.

Mountain bikers joined with Off Road Vehicles advocates to oppose wilderness protections on the Bitterroot National Forest in Montana . Photo George Wuerthner 

In the case of the Bitterroot National Forest which closed several wilderness study areas to mountain biking, the local mountain bikers joined with ATV advocates to oppose the Forest Service decision. Is this demonstrating support for wildlands preservation? Unfortunately, this same opposition to wildlands protection by avid mountain bikers has been repeated over and over across the country.

Mountain bikers regularly ignore trail closures and make numerous new trails illegally. This is a wide spread problem across the United States. Photo George Wuerthner 

Even worse is that mountain bikers, like many ATVers, continuously create new illegal trails. This is a well-documented phenomenon around the country. To give you an idea of the scale of the problem, in California alone, officials estimate there are more than 13,000 miles of non-system trails located on state and federal lands.

Due to the distances that mountain bikers can travel as well as the speed, the ability to disrupt wildlife is greater than other recreationalist. Photo George Wuerthner 

And because mechanical access increases the distance anyone can travel in a day, the presence of mountain bikes, ATVs, and other machines disrupts wildlife at a disproportionate rate compared to say hikers.

We already have an example of an alternative designation to wilderness in the Elkhorn Mountains Wildlife Management Area near Helena. When it was established, no one anticipated the rise of mountain biking and today mountain bikers are continuously creating new routes, fragmenting the landscape, and negatively impacting wildlife.

The 1964 Wilderness Act in a compromise like the one suggested by Schneider allows livestock grazing, and yet this has not resulted in greater wilderness support from ranchers.

No doubt if one created a designation that allowed ATVs, logging, mining, oil and gas exploration and livestock grazing, you would get no opposition to such a designation. But you would also lose the wildlands qualities.

The San Raphel Reef Wilderness, one of many new wilderness areas recently created in Utah, with one of the nation’s most anti-wilderness Congressional delegations. 

To suggest wilderness is dead also is not reflected in modern day politics. In 2019 Congress enacted 17 new wilderness areas in Utah totaling 663,000 acres. Utah has one of the most anti wilderness Congressional delegations in the US. Currently, there is new wilderness legislation before Congress for Colorado, California, and Washington, among other states.

The point is not that a compromise occurs—all politics is about compromise. Rather it is when that compromise occurs.  As David Brower often reminded more timid conservationists, “Our role is to stake out the high ground and let the politicians cut the deals.”

Wilderness is the Gold Standard for land protection. We should not abandon it.

Ironically it was Bob Marshall who stated that one of the reasons he founded the Wilderness Society in 1935 was because too many people were willing to compromise wilderness away. He wrote “We want no stragglers, for in the past they have surrendered too much good wilderness and primeval which should never have been lost… Above all, we do not want in our ranks people whose first instinct is to look for compromise.”

As conservationists, we have a moral obligation to fight for wilderness designation for all lands that can possibly qualify for designation under the 1964 Wilderness Act. There will be compromises, but we should not be the ones promoting them.






  1. Maggie Frazier Avatar
    Maggie Frazier

    This “compromise” sounds like surrender. Appears that once the bikers are allowed – next is ATV/OTV – then its no longer wilderness! As you said – recreation is NOT conservation – its land USE. The kind of USE that has already done so much damage to our wildlife & their habitat. Frankly, I’ve read & watched too much supposed compromise regarding our public lands, & forests – one really good example is whats being done to our native(!) wild horses. They have no area thats free of livestock
    grazing. Presently, during FOALING season, the roundups are ongoing. FOALING season!!! The numbers of foals crippled or just left behind – I doubt anyone knows. The older horses (20-30 years old)who have survived in the wild their entire lives somehow become euthanized after being rounded up – “pre-existing” conditions! So I guess, as far as I am concerned – compromise in this instance is yet another dirty word!
    Seems to work that way in politics too.

    1. Heidi Hall Avatar
      Heidi Hall

      Equus – the genus of the modern horse – disappeared from North and South America about 10,000 years ago. The horses which are all too often referred to as “wild” are not “native”.

      I am currently monitoring a couple of areas where the rapidly multiplying feral animals are demolishing the habitat of real native species.

      One example is the Sage Grouse which is being considered for endangered status. Then the Pinion/Juniper forests are being decimated to (supposedly) “save” the Sage Grouse. Then there is no home or food for the Pinion Jays and their population has dropped 85%.

      Native wildlife needs areas free of feral animals. They are the ones who suffer the very real consequences of feral animals, motor vehicles and “politics”.

    2. Ida Lupine Avatar
      Ida Lupine

      It’s difficult to watch and read about. It doesn’t seem to matter either which party is in power at the time. Nothing changes.

      And this suggestion of sleight of hand wilderness designations? No way. It’s going on with the 30 x 30 initiative too, it would appear. How much is ever enough for people?

      1. Maggie Frazier Avatar
        Maggie Frazier

        Never is it enough! I think I read somewhere that there was a push to consider the present-day public lands (WITH grazing, mining,drilling,& “recreation”) as part of 30 x 30. Which would defeat the entire purpose of the initiative!

  2. Jean Brocklebank Avatar
    Jean Brocklebank

    Spot on, George! This was true in 1935 (Marshal) in 1970 (Garland) and it remains true in 2022. I shall never forget watching Cecil Garland in 1972 walk up the aisle at a meeting Forest Service in Missoula about R.A.R.E. Cecil took the microphone and spoke eloquently to energize us into action to add Wilderness protection to other lands in Montana, with the Lincoln Scapegoat as our template. Stirred to action that evening, I get goosebumps just typing about this now.

  3. Karl Avatar

    Great stuff George!
    Quid Pro Quo Wilderness is complete crap. We all need to stand up for Wilderness designations.
    We already have recreational access everywhere, and motorized—Petroleum based recreation is everywhere.
    I’m sick and tired of illegal trails created in the margins,as well as non-enforcement of travel via ATV/OHV, among others…

  4. Michael Kellett Avatar
    Michael Kellett

    Thanks, George. Contrary to Mr. Schneider’s editorial, this is not about whether mountain bikers are “good” or “bad.” It is about what will best protect wilderness, which is rapidly shrinking due to resource extraction, industrial development, and mechanized recreation.

    There are plenty of places for mountain bikers to ride where there are already hundreds of thousands of miles of backcountry roads. I have no problem with this use continuing where appropriate.

    But there are not plenty of places that qualify for wilderness protection. We cannot afford to give away one acre of potential wilderness because some people want mechanized access.

    This is about protection of the full range of native wildlife and ecosystems in roadless areas versus the use of these areas for the personal pleasure of some people.

    To me, the choice is easy. I choose real wilderness under the Wilderness Act, not some weak, half-baked “backcountry” designation.

    1. Makuye Avatar

      And which suffers from fragmentation, inability to recover and reproduce?

      Only life, diminishing piece by piece, life by life.

      We have all learned the tenets of “Island Biogeography”, KNOWING that acceptance of human technological “recreation” is directly responsible for this fragmentation of life, as species wink out, unnoticed.

  5. Beeline Avatar

    Most all of those bikes are made in China. China’s way of taking down America- one erosion trail at a time. And by the way some of those bikers are advocating carrying side arms. Get a grip, mountain bikers don’t give a damn about wilderness. They make a ghetto out of it.

  6. Makuye Avatar

    Insufficiently emphasized is the FACT that vehicles enable increased carriage of dead wildlife bodies over much greater distances IN wilderness or any area not truly protected from lethal exploitation. “Wildlife Refuges” are, for example, NOT refuges, and largely concentrated areas where native wildlife can be diminished. There are NO safe places, excepting for limited populations in National Parks. Even NPS-operated “Preserves” fail to be preserves or refuge.
    MOST of you appear to be unaware of WHAT wheeled vehicles, as well as pack trains DO to wilderness and other trails. Those who live near wheeled vehicle – mt bike – trails where wet and runoff seasons occur, however, ARE well aware that trails are turned into smooth bobsled-style mud runs where , due to compaction, neither humans or native large species can gain footing.
    Before advent of wheeled and pack train travel which is NOT NOT NOT “Traditional” in North America, you will find that ungulate and human trails naturally form stepped , rather than “bobsled run” skid trails.
    In EVERY case where mt bikes are allowed and MANY illegal, shovels are packed and severe modifications for jumps or removal of native plants, young trees etc. occur. this ILLEGALLY occurs in EVERY trail.
    Hikers and packers must NOT carry or USE trimming devices.
    In ACTUAL nature, trails change from season to season. Trail “maintenance” is itself so unnatural that it is inherently a problem. I have observed trails overgrow, and new ones form through wild ungulate, bear, and wolf use in North America, and THESE ever-novel natural restorative trails are the most cognitively pleasurable, natural wonders.

    While so long as the world remains overpopulated by humans, we do not see regrowth under cliff/climbing, or destination-oriented hiking trails, SOME limits on maintenance/modification MUST be instituted. The use of trails and public lands for profitmaking, whether “outfitting” for killing native species or for bringing instant-crowd horse-packing “camping” replete with service personnel making lasagna onsite MUST be banned. We can visit cities to hear wildlife-scaring and eliminating din. Our own species rarely traveled in carousing noisemaking groups previous to “Sierra Clubs”, and it is TIME to protect natural ecosystems from this campground modification, din, and mighty-white-hunter killing games.

    WAIT! There’s MORE. ATVs intrusion occurred almost entirely within the last 40 years. Before that, mountain biking was in its 10 year infancy in the hilly redwoods country of Santa Cruz and Marin County CA region. The Japanese had NOT YET latched onto the immense profit of fat sedentary US citizens – ONLY the 1939 advent of “ski-doos, the original “snowmobiles” , which were not taken up until the decade following WW2 for “recreation”, then suddenly used to transport, as I said, guns and mayhem toward wildlife.

    While we were not present during these two immensely destructive periods, they are NOT “traditional” or “freedom” or other such euphemistic terms for butchery of streams, wetlands, mountainsides.

    “Recreation” as a word – re-Creation – is manifestly NOT destruction, and the immensity of longitudinal and transverse destruction by vehicles in wild western streams and rivers by these things MUST be outlawed in perpetuity. Let wheels be for established public roads. Let guns be used for necessary subsistence if at all- we had 250-350 thousand years of human expansion and growth WITHOUT these violations. The Leopard Lilies, the endangered Cedars (look up the species yourself I prefer not to identify where i have been, observing) the diminished wildlife, from tiny frogs so recently become adult amphibians, the wasp family wiped out because too near human hordes camping, the wolf and bear I knew through familiarity, now gone without heirs.

    These, EACH and ALL, have the SAME, or greater integrity and right as the destructive horde descending I saw sign of just last week, without generosity toward other life, though I did not encounter a single human presence in a week. The shotgun shells, the targets of bullet casings, the tread tracks, the arrogation of flowers meant for insects, birds, reproduction taken did not have to be directly witnessed, (for once) to be visible, in cuts, in artificial campfire rings showing evidence of fires far too large for useful cooking , especially in the summer heat.

    What are we, that we demand the “freedom” to destroy?

  7. Ida Lupine Avatar
    Ida Lupine

    “Schneider declares that some mountain bikers would support protection of roadless lands if they could ride their machines in the backcountry.”

    Sure. This sounds like the argument for wolf/grizzly/wildlife hunting, and it only makes it much worse. Give ’em and inch and they’ll take a mile.

  8. Gail and John Richardson Avatar
    Gail and John Richardson

    Absolutely agree with this essay. Preserving our shared biodiversity and wild habitats must be our primary focus.

  9. Chris Zinda Avatar
    Chris Zinda

    Conservation reaps what it sows.

  10. Michael Sauber Avatar
    Michael Sauber

    30 or more years ago New Mexico had its BLM wilderness coalition pushing for many areas throughout the state. At a final meeting with all stakeholders (state land office, BLM officials, ranching industry, us land conservationists and I suppose mining interests) the official asked if we could all agree on the proposed areas. Denny Gentry, head of the cattlegrowers said “I can’t agree on any of them. I’d be shot if I went back and said I didn’t oppose them all”.

    Indeed, even if those hooved locusts are legally allowed in wilderness, they still adamantly oppose any new designation.

    1. Mark L Avatar
      Mark L

      And now for something completely different:

      I didn’t really know where to ‘put’ this, but think it’s worth reading about. Imagine—-An incognito arctic shark that’s hundreds of years old and resembles a slow moving rock hanging in the deep tropics. Interesting implications.

  11. Bill Schneider Avatar
    Bill Schneider

    Well, George, you provided an excellent example of gravity of our problem. Following your lead means the best we can hope for is clinging to the status quo for a few more years with no chance of any real Wilderness bill passing in Montana. True, there might be progress in Utah or Washington or Colorado where conservation leadership is better, but as you know, I was specifically addressing the Montana situation, which based on the feelings of wilderness supporters like yourself might be hopeless.

    What you are really saying is that, in the future, we must be satisfied with the “wilderness” proposals like the Gallatin Forest Partnership, Blackfoot-Clearwater “Stewardship” Act or the Rocky Mountain Front “Heritage” Act because that’s all we can expect in Montana, protection for a few rocky cores of our remaining roadless land with the best of the rest given over to other “stakeholders.”

    It was almost laughable for you to cite the Scapegoat Wilderness designation as an example of what should happen. I couldn’t agree more. I would be the happiest person in Montana if NREPA passed or if we could do repeat the Scapegoat Wilderness victory in the Gallatin Range or East Pioneers or Crazies or Swan Range or many other areas so deserving of Wilderness designation.

    In 1972, 50 years ago, when Cecil Garland did his thing, I was a young advocate working with MWA on saving the Scapegoat. We had Mansfield and Metcalf and Williams and that great environmental president, Richard Nixon. Who do we have now? Who can we expect to have in the near future? Senators Daines and Gianforte and Representatives Rosendale and Zinke? I’m sure they’ll be anxious to pass wilderness bills. You really think the political situation will ever equal what it was in 1972 or even improve anytime soon?

    I understand the strategy. Through political pressure and litigation, delay, delay, delay, until we finally get the right political moment to at least get the S. 393 areas designated as Wilderness. For decades, I agreed with that plan, but now, I have become more realistic. Montana politics is de-evolving and rapidly trending in the opposite direction. I wrote that commentary because it’s now clear to me that no such political moment is forthcoming, and if we don’t act soon, we will not be able to even maintain the status quo.

    Your comments (and those of your commenters) concerning mountain biking expertly illustrate the problem. Here it is in nutshell, folks. If you can’t learn to share trails with mountain bikers, you’re only going to get the collaborative garbage bills that give up productive roadless lowlands and no real Wilderness bills.

    You seriously exaggerate the damage done by mountain bikers and the conflict between hikers and mountain bikers. I’ve hiked with mountain bikers on Mount Helena, the Scratchgrvel Hills and the Rattlesnake for decades and never had a conflict. Don’t get me wrong. I’m sure there are some conflicts, but as I said, that is a tiny pill to swallow to finally protect all our roadless lands from roads and motorized recreation. The vitriol toward mountain bikers only plans into the hands of those who would develop our last roadless lands.

    (Just so you know, I do not even own a mountain bike, but occasionally ride my gravel bike on easy trails around Helena.)
    My concept of backcountry is no timber harvest, no roads and no motorized recreation, including no e-bicycles, only human-powered recreation. That seems so much better than watching our wild lands nibbled away or if some politicians have their way, given over to developers entirely.
    I get why you fear the concept of Backcountry. Once this becomes an established option, politicians will likely favor it over Wilderness. I agree with this fear, but I’m a realist and realize we now need this alternative or we’ll end up with close to nothing because Montana’s conservation leaders continue to give away wilderness to get Wilderness, I do not want to keep splitting the baby in half. I’d much rather share wild country with mountain bikers than see it turned over to extractive industries and motorized wreakreationists.
    I certainly understand tht Wilderness is not about recreation, but nonetheless, this is the hand we have been dealt. Think about it, George, before continuing to stick to a long-standing strategy that simply will no longer work.


George Wuerthner is an ecologist and writer who has published 38 books on various topics related to environmental and natural history. He has visited over 400 designated wilderness areas and over 200 national park units.

Subscribe to get new posts right in your Inbox

George Wuerthner