Keeping It Wild – The Mountain Bike Divide

We are stewards of wild places. We value the positive impact that preserving wild places can have on ecosystems, individuals and communities. We stand as agents to serve these special places so that we may give wilderness areas to future generations across the arc of time. We value the places that make up the National Wilderness Preservation System, and we value the ideas behind the Wilderness Act itself.

Wilderness is an anchor on one end of the spectrum of public lands representing a concept of humility, and our decision to put the resource first, to protect a place for its own merit – at the other end of the spectrum are highly developed and curated greenspaces across towns and cities. In between Urban Greenways and Wilderness Areas are an incredibly varied array of common spaces – State Parks, Wildlife Refuges, National Forests, State Game Lands and of course our National Parks.

Today our public lands are facing incredible threats. There is a focus on using more public lands for energy generation and extraction (see the decision to reduce Bears Ears and Grand Staircase Escalante National Monuments or the tax bill that opens the Artic National Wildlife Refuge to industrial oil drilling sites). Wilderness is threatened by efforts to allow roads (Department of the Interior stated position to allow a road through the Izembek Wilderness) and to allow non-conforming recreation use (the Mountain Bikes in Wilderness bill). It can be a bit overwhelming to an avid group of wilderness proponents.

As a regional Wilderness Stewardship non-profit, we can lead from where we are when it comes to defending our public lands. Our primary role is to preserve the wilderness character of the places we serve while protecting access, and defending the management direction prescribed in the original Wilderness Act of 1964. As individuals we voice our desire to stand by our public lands, but as an organization we focus on what we do – stewarding wilderness!

The threat that we respond to the most here at the end of 2017 is the effort by some to amend the Wilderness Act to open wilderness areas to mountain bike use.

The 1964 law is clear – no mechanical transport – so no mountain bikes. The primary author of the ’64 Bill – Howard Zahnhiser, and those in Congress that championed the passage of this landmark legislation, saw that we, as a society, could ultimately strip away any remaining vestiges of wildness and spread our impacts as a species. They summed up the intent clearly in the law itself;

“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. For this purpose there is hereby established a National Wilderness Preservation System to be composed of federally owned areas designated by Congress as “wilderness areas”, and these shall be administered for the use and enjoyment of the American people in such manner as will leave them unimpaired for future use and enjoyment as wilderness, and so as to provide for the protection of these areas, the preservation of their wilderness character, and for the gathering and dissemination of information regarding their use and enjoyment as wilderness”

Do they mention “use and enjoyment” – yes. They intended for us to be able to go in and enjoy the wild nature of these places. But then they took the extraordinary step to defining prohibited uses – among them;

“No use of motor vehicles, motorized equipment or motorboats, no landing of aircraft, no other form of mechanical transport”

The argument that proponents of mountain bike use in wilderness often state is that mountain bikes really were not “a thing” in 1964, and had they been, bikes would have been allowed. We disagree with this often-shared concept. The authors of the Wilderness Act (which was rewritten over 60 times) recognized that the places preserved were also to be experienced, but experienced in a way compatible with the concept of curbing our desire to dominate. It is not a question of keeping anyone out, but a question of how we interact with the resource. Quoting the Act again;

“A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain”

Mechanical transport allows us to “dominate the landscape”. The language in the Act meant to guard against those activities.

The law goes on to outline areas that meet the definition of wilderness maintaining a “primeval character” and yet provides for a “primitive form of recreation.” The law was not meant to lock anyone out, but to challenge us to experience land in a way compatible with the intent of preserving wildness.

The team at SAWS works year in and year out to help the National Forest staff of the Southern Appalachians to preserve the wilderness character of the 45 wilderness areas we serve. We educate the public about the resource, we maintain trails so that others may experience the wild, and we interact with other partners to promote the value of all public lands. This effort to change the Wilderness Act is not only something we strongly oppose, but is something that is pulling the public lands community apart (there is a strong case to be made that this effort is doing that by design).

Do we hate mountain bikers? Of course not. Most of our staff mountain bike themselves and value having opportunities to ride in wild places, just not in designated wilderness. As an organization we have stood side by side with mountain bike clubs across our landscape to define places appropriate for wilderness and places better positioned for other designations to preserve for current and future mountain bike use. We want mountain bikers to come enjoy the wilderness, just leave the bike behind for a time.

If allowed, the goal of enabling mountain bike use in wilderness will become a wedge between groups that all value public lands. If you pay attention to the legislative champions of the Mountain Bikes in Wilderness Bill, you will see the same names that want federal lands handed over to the states, states that have a track record of selling off the public commons.

We will not fall victim of the wedge, we will stand by defending the Wilderness Act, and by our word to collaborate with groups like the International Mountain Bike Association (IMBA) to do what is right for wilderness while addressing the concerns of the mountain bike community around places to ride. But make no mistake – we stand for wilderness and we will steward the wild in the halls of Congress if we must.