In Both Practice And Spirit, Mountain Bikes Do Not Belong In Wilderness

Two years before the looming threat of a national monument designation led to the creation of the Hemingway-Boulder, White Clouds, and Jim McClure-Jerry Peak Wilderness areas in central Idaho, I stood a short distance from one of the many 10,000-foot passes that made permanent protection for the area so attractive.

The previous evening, my companions and I had left the trail to scramble over a narrow notch and camped beside a small cirque, far from any neighbors. By the time we reached the pass the next day, we hadn’t seen another soul, except for cutthroat trout, for nearly 24 hours. Amid mountains streaked with a litany of mineral deposits and 400-year-old, gnarled whitebark pine trees that once provided late season nourishment for grizzly bears, we ploddedslowly through an otherworldly landscape.

But any plans to lose ourselves in the moment were dashed when a mountain bike, coming over the pass, raced by us at a speed incomprehensible to a tree that stood long before any white man had visited the region. A minute later, another biker, head down, streaked by. And five more, riders all heads down, screamed past before we could continue our uphill march to the pass. “It just doesn’t fit the pace of the place,” declared one of my companions.

What is the difference between communing with nature, humbly, methodically, respectfully learning from it versus treating it as a gym where the head-down focus is on giving the body a workout, not bearing witness?

This October, the 3rd annual SHIFT conference will take place in Jackson, Wyoming. SHIFT, which stands for Shaping How We Invest For Tomorrow, seeks to unite land managers, environmentalists, and recreation interests that have fragmented over the past decade in order for them to realize their common interests.  Its tagline is “where conservation meets adventure.”

While the three-day conference will tackle a number of subjects, the issue of mountain bikes in Wilderness areas will be one of the most highly anticipated. Over the past few years, organizations such as the Sustainable Trail Coalition (STC) have actively sought increased access for bikers, and the 2015 designation of wilderness in the Bounder-White Clouds, which barred mountain bikers from the area, aggravated many in the biking community.

Over the past year, STC has developed legislation with Utah Senators Orrin Hatch and Mike Lee – both of whom have a 10 percent lifetime score from the League of Conservation Voters – that would allow forest managers to decide on a case-by-case basis whether mountain biking would be an appropriate use for certain wilderness areas. Unfortunately, this approach neither corrects the original fallacy that Congress intended to permit the use of mountain bikes in wilderness nor does it comfort environmentalists, skeptical that the mountain bike community will act as equal partners on issues not directly impacting trail access.

As the theory goes, by opening Wilderness to this form of mechanical transport, these lands will enjoy increased support from a growing number of recreationists. However, it is unproven.

We are reflections of the people we choose to be our allies, to be our champions, and it’s time we acknowledge there is a difference between those who are only out for recreation as a thrill ride versus conservation-minded recreationists who are reverent of special places and the wild creatures making them their home.  This contrast is writ large in attitudes about wilderness.

Unlike other environmental legislation of the 1960s and 1970s, the Wilderness Act was founded on values, not science, and from the 1930s to the present, those values have taken various shapes. In the 1930s, the men who founded the Wilderness Society did so to stem the growing system of roads that crept deeper and deeper into the backcountry. Howard Zahniser, the chief architect of the bill, was motivated by certain Judeo-Christian philosophies as well the restorative powers of nature, and by the 1970s, uncontrolled logging and mining had become the greatest threats to our undeveloped wild places.

While the surface-level specifics have shifted over time, for 80 years the one theme that has remained constant is protecting ourselves from the “bigger, faster, stronger” mantra that has driven American history that has resulted in the near total conquest of nature. Throughout the twentieth century, this threat assumed various forms, but today, it includes mountain bikes as much as it did roads eight decades ago.

Even if mountain bikes still conflict with the spirit of wilderness, the most dedicated mountain bike proponents insist that Wilderness needs new supporters. As the theory goes, by opening Wilderness to this form of mechanical transport, these lands will enjoy increased support from a growing number of recreationists.

However, it is unproven, particularly with certain groups saying—vowing—that unless a proposed protected area allows their special use, they will stand opposed to conservation. And, despite assurances they are growing the movement in ways that advance conservation overall, groups like STC have failed to weigh-in on other environmental issues. This suggests they are only pursuing their own self-interest.

The argument “you need us” could ring true if mountain bike advocates demonstrate an ability and willingness to oppose the numerous attempts by the 114th Congress to undermine landmark laws like the Endangered Species, Clean Water or Clean Air Acts.  But they’ve been missing in action.  If the mountain biking community is as powerful as it claims to be—and not about using access as a front for selling more product— it has yet to demonstrate this strength. And if environmentalists are looking for a reason to trust this new would-be ally, then they should wonder why STC chose legislators with such poor environmental records to carry their bill?

We are reflections of the people we choose to be our allies, to be our champions, and it’s time we acknowledge there is a difference between those who are only out for recreation as a thrill ride versus conservation-minded recreationists who are reverent of special places.

We’ve seen this in other places, with Jackson Hole packrafters, for example, entering into an alliance with retiring Congresswoman Cynthia Lummis of Wyoming, who has a dismal, if not hostile, environmental voting record on issues that real conservationists care about.  The packrafters asked Lummis to introduce legislation that—get this—would override the concerns of a conservation-minded national park superintendent and his scientific staff—and open Yellowstone’s ecologically important river corridors to boating. The side of conservation is clear and they are not on it.

Over the past decades, our wild places have increasingly become the backdrop for athletes and their sponsors to seek glory, attention and self-promotion of their “brand”. The operative word is feeding individual egos. As participants prepare for this year’s SHIFT conference, we need to remember that these wild lands were protected not to feed our obsession with “bigger, faster, stronger,” but to guard against it.