High Country News
March 12, 2016
I shouldn’t be writing this, and you shouldn’t be reading it. Far more pressing issues face our public lands. But a vocal minority is drudging up the long-resolved question of mountain biking in wilderness. They have even drafted a bill for somebody to introduce in Congress — the Human-Powered Wildlands Travel Management Act — that would open wilderness to biking. That means we have to pause and rehash the facts.
First, no legal argument supports biking in wilderness. Unambiguously, the 1964 Wilderness Act states there shall be no “form of mechanical transport” in wilderness areas. The discussion should end there, but a few claim that “mechanical transport” somehow does not include bicycles. They allege that the law unintentionally excluded an activity that emerged after it was enacted. Or they tout an early Forest Service misinterpretation of the law, which initially allowed bicycles in wilderness but was corrected over 30 years ago.
The arguments have no legal merit. Worse, they ignore the historical context and foresight of the Wilderness Act, one of our foundational environmental laws. In doing so, they distract people from truly understanding our public lands. That’s not good for people or the land.
We should remember that the Wilderness Act grew from a half-century of public-lands battles, fought by America’s most influential conservation thinkers, including Aldo Leopold, Bob Marshall, Olaus Murie, and the indefatigable Mardy Murie, among others. Theirs was a multigenerational struggle to safeguard a vestige of the nation’s public lands from the advances of population and technology.
The technology part is important. The framers of the Wilderness Act knew human ingenuity was not somehow petering out in 1964. In fact, they lived in an era of fantastic invention. Forms of transport being tested at the time included jetpacks, gliders, aerocycles, and various new wagons, boats and bicycles.
That the law anticipated future invention is indisputable, but it benefits us much more to know why it does. The reason was most concisely expressed by the bill’s principal author, Howard Zahniser, who in 1956 defined wilderness as a place where we stand without the “mechanisms that make us immediate masters over our environment.”
Zahniser was a Thoreauvian pacifist deeply troubled by the Holocaust and other horrific events during his lifetime. In wilderness, he saw a suite of biophysical and social values that carried the potential to make us better people. But to fulfill its promise in modern times, by offering an opportunity for raw challenge, humility and solitude, wilderness had to remain a place of human restraint. For eight years, Zahniser worked with Congress to ensure that the law enshrined that ideal, with clear limits on acceptable activities in wilderness.
Some pressing for bikes in wilderness conveniently ignore this central principle. Instead, they focus on issues of trail erosion or impacts to visitors and wildlife, where they front overly rosy claims. In diminishing the purpose of wilderness, they hawk a dumbed-down version of the public estate.
Similarly, it is unhealthy to conflate the ban on bikes with a ban on a certain group of people. That tactic may stir emotion, but it undermines serious public-lands discourse. Nevertheless, some are using the trick, including Bike Magazine editor Vernon Felton, whose recent video casts bikes in wilderness as a civil rights issue. That’s an affront to anyone who has worked for voting rights, fair housing, protection against hate crimes or other actual civil rights.
Felton and others also oversimplify prohibitions on bikes in wilderness study areas, calling them overreach by conservationists or the feds. But such bans are essential to the purpose of these study areas, which must be carefully managed to preserve their eligibility as wilderness pending congressional action.
Another claim is that banning bikes turns people against wilderness, or even broader conservation issues. But I think those misrepresenting the facts are the ones driving a wedge. Either way, diminished support for wilderness is not good news. But nor is it new. The historical trajectory toward better land stewardship has always been the fight of the few.
One last thing to consider is the issue’s scale. The wilderness system is limited to roughly 53 million acres outside Alaska. Smaller than Colorado, that portion is scattered across 43 states. And while most of the land is in the West, most of it is also rugged and unbikable. Meanwhile, hundreds of millions of acres remain open to biking.
Still, some will demand that bikes be permitted in wilderness. And they will join logging, mining, off-roading, and other interests in whittling away at the boundaries of pending wilderness proposals. At a time when so many more serious issues confront our lands –– climate change, ocean acidification, plastics pollution, sprawl and much more –– it seems a misguided use of energy.
Tim Lydon is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News. He writes from Girdwood, Alaska.