If you’re a mountain biker, you’ve been banned from nearly 110 million acres of America’s wildest and most pristine public lands. The trail in the photo above? It's called Castle Divide and it was one of the best mountain bike trails in Idaho. "Was" being the operative word since it was just closed to mountain biking.
If you don’t live in the States, you might wonder why you should give a damn about that fact at all. I get it. I also understand that you might simply shrug your shoulders at the notion of unrest in America because, let’s be blunt, America is always in a state of unrest. Same-sex, gun weddings, whether or not Jesus rode a dinosaur to school, the right to burn a flag in a public restroom…. If it’s something that can be fought over, we will be the first person in the bar attempting to tactfully convey our position with a broken bottle and a punch to the throat. America has trails, so, of course, we’re brawling over them too. How predictable.
Still, I’m going to suggest that you keep reading because this fight over whether or not bikes belong in wild places, is a fight that all mountain bikers have a stake in. When mountain bikers are successively marginalized and kicked off trails in one corner of the world, it becomes a precedent to do the same in the next corner. On the other hand, when we successfully band together and maintain access to our trails, it builds momentum in our favor. We can all use some momentum right about now.
This Wilderness thing matters.
Rather than bite off the entire story in one chunk, I’m splitting this piece into a couple columns and interviews. Here we go….
WHAT IS WILDERNESS...
AND WHY ARE WE BANNED FROM IT?
Let’s start with the basics—about 110 million acres—roughly five percent of the entire United States’ landscape—have been put aside as Wilderness. Voted into being by Congress and then approved by the President of the United States, these parcels (765 of them to date) are given the highest level of environmental protection by the law (the Wilderness Act of 1964).
The Wilderness Act is designed to keep these lands in their pristine state. No roads. No cars. No new buildings. No motorized vehicles of any kind… It’s a worthy goal. While the United States is a decent chunk of dirt, it is also increasingly criss-crossed and subdivided by highways, cities and suburban sprawl. The Wilderness Act is a modest stopgap measure.
Bikes were not initially banned by the Wilderness Act. No surprise—mountain biking wasn’t a “thing” in 1964. By 1984, however, the US Forest Service (one of five agencies that manages Wilderness areas) had gotten an earful from traditional environmental groups. The Sierra Club and the Wilderness Society, in particular, were clamoring for the agency to ban bikes from all Wilderness areas.
The Forest Service had always interpreted the Wilderness Act as only restricting mechanized transport powered by a non-living source (i.e., a motor). From 1984 on, their regulations restricted all mechanized transport. Or, to be more accurate, bikes. You can argue that horses, skis, snowshoes and kayaks all provide a mechanical advantage—but they weren’t the target here. 1984 marks the beginning of the end for mountain biking in Wilderness areas. The other agencies that manage Wilderness areas followed the Forest Service’s lead and that was that.
|There is no environmental merit to banning bikes. None. Many opponents of bikes in Wilderness acknowledge this. Bikes, they argue instead, simply don't belong. This is less an environmental thing and more a social thing. Hikers and horseback riders don't like mountain bikers. It's as simple as that.|BECAUSE WE DON’T LIKE YOU….
You might wonder what evidence was actually given for banning mountain bikes. After all, if the goal of the Wilderness Act is to preserve land, you’d logically assume that bikes were banned because they proved at odds with that goal. Nope, that wasn't the case here at all. In fact, when the ban first went into effect, no studies had been conducted into the matter at all. But that has long since changed.
Since 1984, several independent studies
have shown that bikes have about the same amount of erosive impact as hiking and considerably less impact than equestrians. There is no environmental merit to banning bikes. None. Many opponents of bikes in Wilderness acknowledge this. Bikes, they argue instead, simply don’t “belong”. It’s less a science thing and more a social thing. Hikers and horseback riders don’t like mountain bikers.
The basic argument here is that seeing a mountain biker on the trails destroys the sense of peace and serenity enjoyed by equestrians and hikers. Our technologically-advanced bikes and the way we interact with the environment are said to be inconsistent with the larger goal of creating timeless places, unsullied by man and modern technology.
There’s no shortage of hypocrisy here as the same people who oppose bikes in Wilderness areas so often roam the same areas with carbon-fiber hiking poles, GPS devices, personal locator beacons, smart phones, 3-season tents and all manner of modern marvels. They are not actually against technology, per se. They're against our
technology. Trail runners are also welcome, despite the fact that they move at a higher rate of speed than hikers and, like mountain bikers, generally aren’t stopping to smell the roses either. Why is that kind of Wilderness experience acceptable for a runner yet unacceptable for a mountain biker?
But here's a more fundamental question: Why should one group’s feelings trump another’s? To wit, if a hiker can get bikes banned by simply being offended by the sight of a mountain biker, why couldn’t a mountain biker make the same argument against hikers? If I were to say that the mere glimpse of a hiker ruined my mountain biking experience in wild places, would that be considered sufficient grounds for outlawing hiking in Wilderness areas? Of course not. At best, it’d only be proof that I am intolerant and operating under a grandiose sense of entitlement. And yet that very ludicrous rationale is the very root of why you will never ride some of the best trails in North America.
Public policy is supposed to be objective and rational. Science and fact are supposed to dictate matters of law. That, however, is not the case here. Instead, we have a public policy affecting millions of people that is founded purely on one group’s intolerance of another. That's not good enough.
DEMOCRACY IS A NUMBERS GAME
Here’s the bottom line: Mountain bikes are banned from Wilderness areas because there were fewer mountain bikers than hikers in 1984. Back then, mountain biking was just getting off the ground. The first commercially available bikes were only beginning to appear in bike shops. The Sierra Club and Wilderness Society rallied early and in force—effectively beating us down before we gained any kind of critical mass.
Mountain bikers, frankly, were outnumbered by the haters, which is why the International Mountain Bicycling Association
did not (and does not) oppose the ban on bikes in Wilderness Areas. Instead, mountain biking’s leading advocacy group works to preserve as much trail access as possible by lobbying for both adjustments to proposed Wilderness boundaries (to maintain access to trails already used by mountain bikers) and for alternative preservation designations (such as National Recreation Areas) that offer similar levels of environmental protection while still allowing for mountain biking.
For decades, it was hard to argue with IMBA’s position on the matter. Mountain bikers were vastly outnumbered by their critics—they were in no position to demand a change in policy. IMBA's approach to the ban on mountain biking absolutely preserved access to trails that would have been lost otherwise.
THINGS ARE GETTING WORSE
In recent years, however, a growing number of mountain bikers have come to the conclusion that it’s time to fight the ban. There are, after all, several million more mountain bikers in the United States than back in 1984. Though still outnumbered by hikers, the demographics are shifting.
What’s more, an increasing number of trails are being closed to mountain bikers—in some cases, as much as a hundred miles of trail at a time—not because they are located in Wilderness areas, but because the Forest Service is merely recommending that the area one day become Wilderness.
This shift in policy has accelerated the rate at which mountain bikers in the United States are getting kicked to the curb. Ten years ago you could have shrugged off this whole Wilderness issue. It's rare for members of Congress to stop throwing poo at one another, vote a new Wilderness into being and then get the presidential sign-of. The Forest Service’s new, unwritten policy, however, has effectively widened the reach of the ban by bypassing Congress entirely and creating de facto Wilderness areas. You need look no further than Montana, where mountain bikers are on track to lose access to nearly 800 miles of singletrack within a decade's time. The loss of key backcountry singletrack routes outside of Sun Valley, Idaho, this past August, spread the pain further. At present, the Forest Service is considering Wilderness additions in North Carolina's famed Pisgah National Forest--there's hope that the Forest Service will consider an IMBA-backed plan that would preserve access to Pisgah's famed mountain bike trails, but nothing is guaranteed.
This doesn’t sit well with everyone.
A NEW GROUP ENTERS THE FRAY
A new group, the Sustainable Trails Coalition (STC)
, arose in 2015, intent on overturning the blanket ban on bikes in Wilderness Areas. In less than a year’s time, the group has drafted a legislative proposal (think of it as a “baby bill”), raised more than $100,000 and hired a lobbying firm out of Washington D.C. to represent them. Their aim is to bypass the US Forest Service (which has shown no interest in overturning the ban) and go straight to Congress. In truth, many members of Congress are actually unaware that mountain biking is even forbidden in Wilderness areas. STC hopes to change that and, more to the point, convince a few legislators to sponsor the bill and carry the fight through Congress.
The draft legislation would not
open all trails in Wilderness areas to mountain biking. Instead, the current version of the legislation would require that the agencies managing Wilderness areas actually consider the pros and cons of allowing mountain biking on some trails. Land managers could still say no to bikes. What would change is that they’d have to give bikes a fair chance. That, in and of itself, would prove a monumental shift in policy.
Not everyone is throwing their weight behind STC’s initiative. IMBA, most notably, is not a fan of the proposed bill. IMBA contends that STC’s proposal would sour the relationships IMBA has forged with land managers and other environmental groups over the years. IMBA also maintains that many of its members are satisfied with the organization's current approach to working around the Wilderness Act and would not support STC's legislation. Other critics of the proposed law argue that STC's bill could be tweaked in Congress, so as to open Wilderness areas to motorized transportation and all manner of industrialized land raping. This, they contend, is hardly the time to go about mucking with the Wilderness Act.
For the first time, there is not only a divide between mountain bikers and hikers on the Wilderness issue—there’s true division within the mountain bike community itself over the ban. Why is that? What does it mean? What's next?