Wolke On Wheels

Wolke On Wheels

By Howie Wolke

howie 05 03 13 201A slightly edited version of this essay appeared in our Summer 2016 newsletter.

Our readers will note much discussion about mountain biking in this issue of Wilderness Watcher. As I reflect upon my early years in the conservation movement (the mid-1970’s), the primary opponents to Wilderness were the timber, mining, oil, livestock and off-road vehicle industries. Mountain bikes simply did not exist. But times have changed, to say the least.

If, in 1975, I could have peered into a crystal ball and seen that groups of mostly young, physically fit people would replace extractive industry as the primary organized impediment to Wilderness designations and to keeping Wilderness wild, my jaw would have dropped. Yet that’s exactly what has happened.

It’s not that the traditional wilderness foes have disappeared. Rather, off-road mountain bikers have emerged as an organized anti-wilderness lobby every bit as fanatical as typical four-wheel drive or extractive industry proponents. Almost wherever there are endangered roadless lands, off-road bicyclists emerge to oppose or diminish potential Wilderness designations.

But that’s just part of the problem. Radical mountain bikers are also lobbying to open the National Wilderness Preservation System to mountain biking. They’ve even convinced two U.S. Senators, Republicans Orrin Hatch and Mike Lee (both from Utah) to introduce the so-called “Human-Powered Travel in Wilderness Act” (S-3205) that would amend the Wilderness Act to allow for mountain biking at the discretion of the managing agencies! This is a dangerous bill, for once we amend the Wilderness Act for bicycles, will snow-machines be next? And will we also tarnish the Wilderness Act for who-knows-what contraptions that have yet to be invented?

Please contact your elected representatives and ask them to oppose the Hatch/Lee bill.

One of the most egregious mountain biker claims is that the Wilderness Acts’ authors never intended to exclude bicycles from designated Wilderness. Hogwash! In fact, the Wilderness Act did not specifically preclude mountain bikes because these contraptions didn’t exist in 1964, and the authors couldn’t even imagine them. Yet with impressive foresight, the Wilderness Act specifically excludes “mechanized”, not just motorized transportation.

What really sticks in my craw, though, is that these people claim to be “conservationists”, who just want the rules changed to accommodate their “harmless” muscle-powered recreation. Yet mountain biking in wild country is anything but harmless. Bikers destroy fragile vegetation by riding off-trail. They also rip up trails. And studies show mountain biking to be particularly disturbing to sensitive wilderness-dependent species such as grizzly, lynx and wolverine, because the quiet, speedy approaches startle animals. And, as a recent fatal incident near Glacier National Park illustrates, backcountry biking in griz country is bad for both the bear and the biker!

In addition, mechanized speed renders the deep interior of wild country more accessible and less remote. Wilderness landscapes become effectively smaller, and for non-mechanized human travelers, the “wilderness experience” becomes more ordinary, contrasting less with civilized environments. And make no mistake; mountain biking is about speed and adrenaline. Otherwise, bikers would be content to walk. And they wouldn’t need to wear the padded lycra suits with helmets.

Conservationists? Hardly. With exceptions, mountain bikers are just another self-interest group, willing to sacrifice land protection for their own selfish purposes. Wilderness, by contrast, is about selflessness, a statement that we humans ought to simply let nature prevail wherever possible, while we still have the chance. Off-road mountain bikers are, in general, as selfish as any organized anti-conservation lobby.

There are so many reasons to designate new Wilderness areas and to keep the National Wilderness Preservation System as wild as possible. It almost seems frivolous to spend so much energy on bicycles. But in modern America, where the political discourse constantly sinks to new lows, nothing surprises me. The mountain biker problem is real. It has already kept millions of deserving acres out of the Wilderness System. And some of these people want to kick the door in for a wheeled invasion of designated Wilderness, too. It is time for the conservation movement to take the gloves off and oppose these alien invaders of Wilderness and potential Wilderness with all of our resources.


Howie Wolke, President Wilderness Watch
& Co-Owner, Big Wild Adventures
Emigrant, Montana


Howie Wolke co-owns Big Wild Adventures, a wilderness backpack and canoe guide service based in Montana’s Paradise Valley, near Yellowstone National Park. He is an author and longtime wilderness advocate, and is the president of Wilderness Watch.

 

Recent comment in this post
Guest — Russ Hanbey
So what's next? Unicycles on the Pacific Crest Trail? X Games on Mt. Rainier? Skateboards in the Canyonlands? Tramway to bottom of... Read More
Saturday, 10 September 2016 17:14
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Wilderness: A Place to Unplug

By Gary Macfarlane

Gary Macfarlane"The temptation for wilderness users themselves to resort to practices that modify through convenience their own wilderness experiences is indeed one of the great threats to the maintenance of wilderness. When this temptation is used by administrators and other friends of wilderness areas to attract more people into the wilderness the result is a compound threat.”  Howard Zahniser, 1949

Howard Zahniser, the author of the 1964 Wilderness Act and the single person most influential in developing the idea of Wilderness, was perhaps prescient. This quote foreshadowed, more than 60 years ago, one of the most insidious threats to Wilderness, technological communication gadgets. Cell phones and GPS units are the most obvious examples with the second generation of tech toys also including satellite and smart phones, notebook computers, eBook readers, digital cameras and video recorders, personal locator beacons, and MP3 players. And if that isn’t enough, new devices formerly undreamed of are being developed right now.

By using these devices, the user diminishes Wilderness and the wilderness experience for himself and other visitors. Real time web-posting of trips to sensitive, “undiscovered” places can lead to overuse and a loss of solitude, which the Wilderness Act seeks to protect. Viewing photos and/or video of a wilderness spot online certainly diminishes one’s sense of discovery and mystery upon seeing the “real thing.” The GPS-supported sport of geo-caching has led some people to leave illegal caches of junk and litter all over some Wildernesses. Evidence suggests that cell phone use is increasing visitor requests for motorized rescues in Wilderness. Gadgets provide a false sense of security and people fail to prepare for the unexpected conditions inherent in wild places, rather than rely on self-sufficiency to keep themselves safe in wild country. And for those of us who value wilderness as a place to unplug, meeting someone shouting, “Can you hear me now?,” certainly lessens our wilderness experience.

The agencies are also using these devices in Wilderness. They radio-collar wildlife, destroying the wildness of wildlife and wilderness.  There ought to be a few places where we don’t poke, prod, and collar wildlife, where they can live out their lives as wild creatures, and where our science is done the way Aldo Leopold used to do it: with a notebook and field observation. If not in Wilderness, then where? Neither should human visitors be tagged and collared with miniature satellite tracking devices on backpacks, even if agencies believe doing so will improve user management in Wilderness.

A few years ago the idea of radio collars for humans would have been considered absurd.  Already, there are chips embedded in drivers licenses and passports. All too soon, visitors may be required to carry tracking beacons, at least in certain areas. Thus we will be, in effect, tracked and collared wherever we wander. This will be sold as a safety device and a way to better provide a “quality” wilderness experience. All it would take would be a location chip embedded into the wilderness permit, something the agencies have begun discussing in the name of “safety.”

As usual, the agencies and most environmental groups are way behind the curve on this major wilderness threat. The outdoor industry’s aggressive marketing and promoting of gadgets certainly doesn’t help. Indeed, some environmentalists may support and see nothing wrong with the use of these wilderness-destroying technologies.

Aldo Leopold and Howard Zahniser both issued warnings against technology in wilderness. Leopold despised the technology of his day—guidebooks and hunting gadgets. How far we have sunk in the decades since his death! The academic community issued a direct warning, in 1998, about the very kinds of devices that have proliferated (see Wilderness @ Internet: Wilderness in the 21st Century—Are There Technical Solutions to our Technical Problems? Wayne Freimund and Bill Borrie, International Journal of Wilderness Volume 3 Number 4. P. 21-23).  The few warning voices in the environmental movement have been literal voices crying in the wilderness. Scott Silver of Wild Wilderness has written passionately about this problem. Wilderness Watch addressed the issue at a conference in the late 90s when the threat was emerging.

You can do something for Wilderness to keep it wild. Don’t take tech toys on your next wilderness visit. Instead, learn outdoor survival and route-finding skills and be prepared for the unexpected. Learn how to read a map or better yet, navigate by sight or teach yourself to follow a rough game trail. You will be amazed by how much you may experience if you are not always consulting that small luminous screen. Perhaps you will catch a glimpse of a wolf, hear a hummingbird fly by, smell the decomposing leaves on a wet forest floor. Your wilderness experience will be real and authentic if you shed the gadgets. Not only you, but wildness itself deserves no less.

Gary is the ecosystem defense director for the Friends of the Clearwater, an advocacy group in central Idaho's Wild Clearwater Country. For nearly 30 years, Gary has been one of the country's most dedicated public lands' activists working throughout the Intermountain West and Northern Rockies. He serves on the WW board of directors.
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Wilderness and Overpopulation

WILDERNESS AND OVERPOPULATION
By Howie Wolke


pc1702902 03 02 11Nobody knows how many species inhabit this lovely green planet, but estimates range from 10 to 30 million. Yet just one of these species, Homo sapiens, now consumes or otherwise utilizes over half of the plant biomass produced each year on Earth, funneling it into an ever-expanding human population plus related support structures and activities.

Nearly 7 billion humans are creating the greatest mass extinction event since the late Cretaceous Era, when an asteroid crashed into the Earth. As the Earth’s human population grows at the rate of about 76 million additional humans per year, we alter the Earth’s climate, deplete its fisheries, pollute its atmosphere, oceans, rivers and soils, and continually carve civilization into its remaining wild habitats. Overpopulation is at the root of nearly all of our problems, yet few work to tame this beast. That includes the U.S. government, which has no population policy.

Here in the United States, we are slowly increasing automotive fuel economy and building better energy efficiency into new structures. Renewable energy industries are growing. Yet in 2010, we spewed out more carbon and methane than ever before. Why? It’s simple. The technological gains are being overwhelmed by population growth (over 300 million and increasing).

Historically, as humanity grows and spreads, true wilderness has been the first thing to go. Forest are cut, soils plowed, prairies and deserts fenced and over-grazed, rivers dammed, and various habitats are dug up and drilled for oil, gas, coal and metals. Also, millions of miles of roads and highways dissect the landscape. And of course, cities and suburbs sprawl across the planet, gobbling up habitat like a hungry teen-ager gobbles up lunch.

In the U.S. south of Alaska, about 9% of our total land area remains in a wild or semi-wild condition; that is, it’s roadless and more or less natural in chunks of 5,000 acres or larger. About 2-½% of the landscape is protected as designated Wilderness. Yet even as the National Wilderness Preservation System grows, the overall amount of wild country shrinks, as unprotected wildlands in the United States and around the globe succumb to the ever-expanding human hoard.

Population growth also lowers our expectations for wild places. As humans experience increasingly crowded and unnatural living conditions, they settle for “wilderness” that’s decreasingly wild. As wilderness becomes less wild, so does the human soul. Daniel Boone probably wouldn’t consider much of today’s wilderness to be very wild.  Nor, I suspect, would Teddy Roosevelt. Nowadays, even tiny chunks of degraded wildland – for example, over-grazed areas infested with exotics – are viewed by many as “wilderness”.

In the past, I have referred to this phenomenon of decreasing expectations as “Landscape Amnesia”. As ensuing generations experience less wildness and increasingly unnatural landscapes, they begin to collectively forget what real wilderness and healthy habitats are. So we settle for wilderness that’s less wild than ever before. Designated Wilderness becomes less wild and more impacted by the expanding population’s increasing pressures and demands. It is the inevitable result of population growth.

If you read Wilderness Watcher or the Guardian, you know that overcrowding, overgrazing, motor vehicle incursions, illegal water and other construction projects, predator control, pollution and various attempts to manipulate natural processes plague designated Wilderness, and they increase as population grows.

Obstacles to halting and reversing population growth are formidable. For one thing, the momentum of population growth IS the history of our species, so concurrently we tame, subdue and subjugate wild nature partly because we know no other way.

Many on the political left view jobs and social issues as more important than the environment; they miss the numerous connections to overpopulation. And they oppose the tough immigration policies that could halt continued growth (in the U.S. today, population growth is mostly a function of immigration) in the United States. Meanwhile, the political right worships at big industry’s altar of growth at all cost. In addition, religious fundamentalists of nearly every ilk believe that it is their duty to overwhelm all others with their progeny.

And the environmental movement, at least here in the U.S., remains oddly silent on overpopulation.

The solutions to overpopulation are no secret. Economic policies based upon stability, not perpetual growth, are essential. Better health care and education plus political and economic empowerment of women – especially in poorer countries – are equally important. Family planning services must be integral, safe, and available to all, everywhere. Also, men must assume greater responsibility for their obvious role in population growth. In the United States, immigration must be brought under control. We also need to create tax and other economic incentives for smaller families. But none of this will happen if overpopulation continues to elude the discussion.

Until overpopulation is recognized, the United States and many other nations will continue to fail to develop and implement population policies, and humans will continue to obliterate not just wilderness, but most remaining natural ecosystems on Earth. Oh well, it’s obvious that humans can endure in horribly over-crowded, polluted, denuded and impoverished squalor. That’s proven each day in many corners of the world. The flip side of that problem is that so many other forms of life cannot.

Howie Wolke is a Montana-based wilderness guide/outfitter, board director and former Wilderness Watch President, and long-time advocate for wilderness and other wild habitats.
Recent Comments
Guest — Maggie Frazier
I, too believe the over population of this planet - not only the US - is a huge part of the destruction of our very planet. Of co... Read More
Friday, 04 September 2020 08:00
Guest — Lenore
Mr Wolke, Thank you! Thank you for bringing up a topic so few will broach, even in simple conversation among friends. I am not ... Read More
Tuesday, 23 April 2019 10:26
Guest — erikloomis
Upon reading Howie Wolke's response, largely to my critique, I should like to reply. I will say that I am mildly outraged that my ... Read More
Friday, 11 March 2011 00:50
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