Sunday, September 13, 2009

Mountain Biking and Wilderness—Not Convinced

By George Wuerthner, 5-12-09

This past weekend, I was hiking in the Mount Hardesty proposed wilderness near Eugene, Oregon. The Mount Hardesty area was among the roadless lands that were included in the 1984 Oregon Wilderness bill. It was cut at the last minute to accommodate an “acreage” limit imposed by then Oregon Senator Hatfield. So the Mount Hardesty awaits wilderness protection.

The Mount Hardesty area is not spectacular—there are no vast vistas or snow capped peaks. It is, however, one of the last unlogged low elevation old growth forest tracts near Eugene. I often took my children there to hike when they were small because the trails were easy to hike, but I would not recommend the trails to parents with children today.

Since my children were born, mountain bike use of this area has increased dramatically. Because Mount Hardesty did not obtain wilderness status in 1984, it is today overrun by mountain bikers. I barely missed being run over this weekend and was run off the trail by several mountain bikers. In some ways mountain bikers are worse than motorized thrillcraft because they are silent. It is easier for them to sneak up on you. After several close calls, I found myself, continuously looking over my shoulder to make sure that another bike wasn’t barreling down on me. It definitely changed what had been a relaxing and contemplative walk into a nerve-racking ramble.

The mountain bikers had torn up the trail in all the wet spots. Finding one’s way around these mud holes may be a small inconvenience, and admittedly as mountain bikers like to point out horses can do as much or more damage to the trails, but does that justify yet another use that degrades the trails or the experience of other forest visitors? So that has me thinking about whether wilderness advocates should accept mountain biking as a potential new use in wilderness areas. Here’s my two cents worth.


I have been thinking a lot lately about mountain biking and wilderness, in part, because New West’s Outdoor Columnist, Bill Schneider, recently published a couple of thoughtful columns suggesting that wildlands enthusiasts join with mountain bikers to protect roadless lands from motorized uses. (To read Bill’s essays )

To avoid endless conflicts over wilderness designation, Schneider suggests that Congress should either permit mountain bikes in designated wilderness or create another category of land designation not quite wilderness, but something protected from industrial development like logging, oil and gas, motorized use, and mining, which nevertheless permits uses like mountain biking, and perhaps other non-motorized forms of recreation like para gliding, skateboarding and whatever else might be invented. Schneider’s goal is to protect wildlands. He is less bothered by the term for these lands than making sure the roadless lands remain protected from industrial development.

I share Schneider’s concerns that the longer we wait to put lands under some kind of land protection--whether it is called wilderness or wilderness lite, the greater the chances that industrial uses will destroy their wildlands value. Though I believe Schneider has some strong arguments and he may still convince me that his ideas should be embraced, I remain at this time unconvinced that opting for permitting mountain bikes in wilderness or supporting some new land designation is ultimately a wise move.

Is it wise to compromise strong wildlands protection to garner support from users who have no interest in wildlands other than using it as an outdoor gymnasium? Those mountain bikers who genuinely care about wild country—which I count myself as one—are going to support wilderness designation whether we can ride a bike there or not.

Before I go further, I want to make it clear that I am not opposed to mountain biking –in appropriate locations. I own a mountain bike. I ride it several times a week in the warmer months. I admit riding on a challenging trail can be fun. But one doesn’t need to ride in wildlands to have fun. There are plenty of old roads that provide miles and miles of access.

It would be nice if mountain bikers worked to close roads, and sought to restore lands previously damaged by mining, oil and gas exploration, logging and other development and lobbied to maintain those areas for mountain biking and other non-motorized recreation. But greater access and intrusion into otherwise undeveloped wildlands is something that I think should be prohibited. What we need is less human access and the problems that excessive access creates.


There are many values to wilderness regardless of whether we “recreate” in it or not: protection of watersheds, wildlife habitat, and ecological processes. People recreate in wildlands as well—fishing, hiking, hunting, camping, canoeing, and so forth are all well-known wilderness activities--but that is not the only reason or the main reason I advocate for wildlands protection.

Wilderness designation is also an act of restraint where we purposely limit our technology—particularly the technology that allows us to pass through the landscape rapidly. Entering wilderness on its terms, not our terms, is part of the value of wilderness. And by accepting this restraint we at least create the opportunity to see the land as something other than just a place to “use” but to come to know it in more intimate terms. Careening on a mountain bike down a steep trail, with your entire focus on the ten feet of trail in front of you doesn’t lend itself to contemplation, or appreciation of the land, other than how it might challenge your mountain biking ability.


There is a lot of what I might call “causal” mountain bikers. We use our bikes primarily as transportation to get from point A to point B, without using a motor. Just as I use my 4WD pick up for transportation, not for challenging myself by tearing up the landscape as many ORVers do. I don’t feel compelled to drive my pick up off road for kicks, nor speed around the backcountry on my bike to challenge myself on bumpy trails or roads. It is not the destination so much as the journey that is important to mine and most other wildlands hikers. In other words, we are out to enjoy the landscape we travel through as much as the final destination—if there be one at all.

By contrast, there’s an implicit selection by mountain bikers for quantity of miles traveled and the challenge of the trail, over the quality of the natural world experience. Riding on a rough trail requires concentration that makes it difficult to observe one’s surroundings. Mountain bikers are often oblivious to their surroundings, except as regards the challenge of the trail. Those who do enjoy those kinds of experiences are more interested in thrills than transportation, and culturally they are no difference in my view than the dirt bikers who love to ride trails and challenge themselves on steep hills. Too many mountain bikers see Nature primarily as a giant gymnasium or sandbox—unfortunately in using the land as a gymnasium, they harm the land.

Obviously there is challenge and thrills that all of us experience at one time or another while wandering wildlands. I get a thrill from a nice downhill run in fresh powder on my skis. I’ve been challenged by a sea crossing among big waves in my kayak. I enjoy running rapids in my canoe. My skis, kayak and canoe are how I travel in wild places, the activity itself is not the prime purpose of the trip.


Mountain bikes do damage the land. They cause soil erosion, soil compaction, create tracks that alter water drainage, and spread weeds, among other impacts. Mountain bikers, because of the greater ability to travel further with less effort, have a greater opportunity to harm wildlife and plants, particularly sensitive species like grizzly bears.

Of course, one can argue that other uses, some permitted in wilderness like horses, also damage the land. But the argument that other uses do damage is no reason to permit the introduction of more damage. It might be reasonable to debate whether mountain bikes do less harm than say horses or hikers, but that is not the issue so it is irrelevant. Hiking is always permitted, and horses are permitted in some places (but not all). The issue is whether mountain bikes damage the land and whether we should expand the areas open for more ecological damage by enlarging the areas open to mountain bikes.

Secondly by the greater distances they can travel in a typical day or outing, even if things like soil erosion were similar between say hikers or mountain bikers, the greater distances that are traveled greatly increases the damage to trails.


This is a spurious argument since mountain bikers already have access—just like everyone else—they can walk. It’s just their thrillcraft that are not welcome everywhere.


Assuming that Congress would create a new “Wilderness Lite” category as Schneider suggests, I can guarantee that it will invite endless legal challenges. No matter how well thought the legislation might be, there will be attempts to push the boundaries. If the law didn’t expressly deny use by say skateboards, would skateboards be legal? Every new invention or modification of an existing use would invite yet more legal wrangling and administrative law. We’d see a lot of energy going into defending the land instead of working towards new wilderness areas. We don’t need another distraction.


I also fear that such a new category will provide a convenient way for politicians to avoid controversy by opting for a less protective land status. Bill even concedes that this may be the case in his essay—that we might see the end of new wilderness areas. I’m not yet ready to give up on wilderness designation. The Omnibus Public Lands Bill proved, if it proved anything, that we can still pass meaningful wilderness legislation without permitting mountain bikes in wilderness.


Like their counterparts in the motorized thrillcraft world, mountain bikers often lack any respect for regulations and the land. I’ve had countless encounters and seen the tracks on trails of mountain bikers which have ignored closure signs. Worse, I’ve seen numerous new trails and routes pioneered across the landscape without any prior agency review or permission. There’s a reason why the Forest Service and BLM plan things like roads and trails –to avoid degrading sensitive environments. But like their thrillcraft cousins, mountain bikers don’t seem to care how their activities affects the land or other users.


There are many reasons why many of us support wilderness designation, but certainly one of the reasons is that it is place where people can connect to the natural world. By going slow and through careful observation, one can gain respect for the surroundings one sees, and is aware of things that we often miss in our daily routines. Certainly not everyone that goes into wilderness is looking for a spiritual revelation or even to experience the natural world, but that doesn’t mean we should give up on the possibility for the realization of those values to accommodate other uses. Just as we would be applauded if someone decided to get their kicks doing tricks on the pews in a church, many of us are revolted when we see mountain bikers performing feats on mountain trails. Not that I don’t think those acts of bravo are not amazing or lack skill, but I do not think it’s something that one needs to do in wildlands.


This brings me back to the issue of wilderness designation. I realize as Bill Schneider does that broadening support for more wilderness designation or at least protection from industrialization is critical. There is a strategic advantage to neutralizing the opposition to wilderness by mountain bikers. Nevertheless, hard core mountain bikers (as opposed to causal bikers like myself) are still a minority, though vocal. Just like their motorized thrillcraft cousins, they make a lot of noise, far more than their numbers would suggest. For myself, I would rather continue to fight for pure wilderness designation than change the wilderness act to accommodate mountain biking. I surely believe it’s worth discussing wilderness proposals with mountain bike activists to avoid conflicts where that is possible. However, where their usage compromises the integrity of a larger protected area, we should not give up on advocacy for the wildlands values, even if that engenders opposition from that quarter. Hopefully over time mountain bikers will recognize that there are reasons for protecting lands that goes beyond their personal desires for an exciting backcountry ride and they will join with wildlands defenders to advocate for the highest possible land protection--namely designated wilderness.

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