Photo by Josh Woodward/Coffee House Media
Jim Hasenauer is more than a little familiar with the International Mountain Bicycling Association's policy on mountain biking in Wilderness areas. As a co-founder of IMBA, he helped shape IMBA's strategy of working around the Wilderness Act's ban on bikes, rather than outright challenging it. Today, however, Hasenauer is breaking publicly with the past: He’s still a supporter of IMBA, but Hasenauer now also supports the Sustainable Trails Coalition, which unlike IMBA, is pushing hard to directly contest the ban on bikes.
You can scroll down and check out Hasenauer’s letter to the world. It’s a good read. Still, I wanted to know more: Why, after nearly 30 years, has Hasenauer had a change of heart?
Here’s his answer.
Oh, and if you’re wondering what this whole ban on bikes in Wilderness is all about, this story
will bring you up to speed.
Photo by by Adrian Marcoux
THE STORY BEGINS WITH A ROAD TRIP
It’s 1985 and Jim Hasenauer is road tripping with some friends. There are bikes in the back of the car, a tent, some sleeping bags and a dog-eared copy of The Fat Tire Flyer—the first magazine dedicated to mountain biking. At this point in the game, if you are even riding a mountain bike, you are sort of surfing a whole lot of “firsts”. The first mass-produced, knobby-tired machines are just now hitting bike shops in force. Mainstream America is just now waking up to this mountain biking thing and if you actually own one, it’s like you know the secret handshake to a club that most people have only heard about.
Hasenauer, for his part, has heard a lot about Point Reyes, “There were stories about it in Fat Tire Flyer. It was supposed to be this amazing place to ride. Besides,” recalls Hasenauer, “it was in Marin. We had to go.”
So there’s Hasenauer and a few buddies, heading for the holy land—Northern California. “We spent the night in Muir Woods, got up in the morning and drove over to Point Reyes,” here Hasenauer drifts off for a moment. “One of the first things we see is this sign reading 'No Bikes'. We were in a Wilderness area.”
Photo by Dave Trumpore
Less than a year before Hasenauer’s road trip, the Forest Service—under pressure from groups such as the Sierra Club and the Wilderness Society—changed their own Wilderness regulations, effectively outlawing mountain biking in Wilderness areas. The boom had come down and caught early mountain bikers entirely unaware.
“There were essentially no more mountain bike legal trails around there. And it really pissed me off,” says Hasenauer. “That was my first real awareness of the personal impact of the Wilderness ban. Right from the start, I ran up against the ban on bikes and, in a way, it feels like I’ve been running up against it ever since.”
That day in Point Reyes and the subsequent closure of some of Hasenauer’s favorite Southern California trails profoundly impacted Jim Hasenauer. He became an advocate—co-founding IMBA and helping lead the advocacy group in its early years; that’s one reason you’ll find his name on the lists of inductees to the Mountain Bike Hall of Fame.
Which makes today’s announcement all the more interesting.
|I have pushed IMBA to take up the fight against the Wilderness ban on bikes in a more direct and systematic way. But IMBA continues to choose a different path and I have grown more frustrated. I think it is time for us to do something here. There is enough national attention to make a change. The time is right for staking out a new campaign and trying a new approach.|
Photo courtesy of Jim Hasenauer
An Interview with Jim Hasenauer
Vernon Felton So why did you write this open letter to the mountain bike community?
Jim Hasenauer The ban on bikes in Wilderness areas is something I’ve been working on since I started riding. I’ve seen so many trails that I either rode on a frequent basis, or had the dream of one day riding, just be taken away from all of us mountain bikers. We were screwed back in 1984 and we’re still being screwed today. Bikes should be able to ride on some trails in some Wilderness areas.
Vernon Felton Okay, let’s play devil’s advocate here. You feel the ban is wrong, but you’re a mountain biker. You want to selfishly ride your bike wherever you want to ride it. Maybe you’re not supposed to be able to ride there in the first place because you’re devastating to the environment. What do you have to say that argument?
Jim Hasenauer People who oppose mountain bikes in Wilderness areas publicly hang their hat on one sentence in the Wilderness Act that says “In the Wilderness there shall be no mechanical transport.” Their argument is that bikes are machines and since there is not supposed to be any mechanical transport, bikes should clearly not be allowed in Wilderness.
But to really understand what Congress meant by “mechanical transport” you have to go back in the legislative history and see how that term was being used at the time. What they meant by mechanized transport was actually motorized transport. The legislative record is full of congressmen talking about their concern about the development of roads and roadside attractions like gas stations and motels...big infrastructure things that put a permanent, ugly stamp on the outdoors. That was the issue.
Congress was not concerned in the least about something like a bicycle. That’s why the Forest Sevice’s initial regulations explicitly defined mechanical transport as any conveyance propelled by a non-living power source. Once again, they were taking about motors here.
The ban on mechanical transport never had anything to do with bikes.
Photo by Sven Martin
Vernon Felton If Congress never intended to ban bikes in Wilderness areas, why did bikes get the boot in the first place?
Jim Hasenauer Look, there were legitimate concerns when mountain bikes first came on the scene. Nobody knew what our environmental or social impacts were going to be. I can understand people and policy makers exercising the cautious option back then. But now? Here we are 30 to 40 years later and there is tons of research showing that bike impacts are not significantly different than hiker impacts.
And we’ve proven ourselves. We've shown—whenever we’ve been given the chance—that bikers and hikers can co-exist on trails without conflict. And that’s why, to a large degree, the tides have changed on trail access in so many non-Wilderness areas. IMBA has been absolutely instrumental in making that happen and they deserve a lot of credit here. Trails have re-opened to us and land managers have realized those early bans weren’t actually good public policy. The stance on bikes in Wilderness areas, on the other hand, has just stayed frozen in time. It wasn’t right then and it certainly isn’t right now.
Photo by Tim Zimmerman
Vernon Felton So, what's your position now?
Jim Hasenauer What the Sustainable Trails Coalition is trying to do, and what I wish IMBA was trying to do, is go after that definition and bring it back to its original meaning—that “mechanical transport” in the Wilderness Act means things powered by a non-living source. A motor.
Vernon Felton The problem seems so cut and dry. So simple. Just change the wording of the regulations back to how they read before 1984. But if it’s so simple, why has it proved so impossible to make that happen?
Jim Hasenauer There are definitely a lot of mountain bikers in America now, but there are a lot more people loosely associated with this Wilderness Society and Sierra Club. Those are both gigantic organizations and when they ask their members to write letters or go to a meeting, they turn out in force. There are at least another eight big, traditional environmental organizations that work together and lobby in Washington DC, and have a strong influence on Forest Service planning. They are politically powerful. The mountain bike community has made great strides in advocacy and extending our influence, but in any kind of a head-to-head confrontation with large environmental groups, the history is that we get creamed.
Vernon Felton Wait, are you saying that we are getting beat up because we just can’t match their numbers or are we getting beat because we mountain bikers don’t band together and make better use of the numbers we actually have?
Jim Hasenauer Both. We are outnumbered, but more importantly, we aren’t politically active enough. People just want to go for a ride. I totally understand that. We ride to escape things like politics. And as long as people’s own trails aren’t threatened, people just kind of shrug their shoulders and move on with their lives. But if we aren’t being active on big-picture issues like Wilderness, those trail closures will come your way. Count on it.
Photo by Harookz
Vernon Felton Part of being outnumbered, it seems to me, is that we have traditionally relied on one organization—IMBA—to do everything for us. IMBA is somehow supposed to fight every fight for us, yet it has to prevail against dozens of groups that philosophically oppose mountain bikes. Isn’t that, fundamentally, too much to expect of IMBA or any single organization?
Jim Hasenauer IMBA has done a great job of sticking to its mission of creating and enhancing trail opportunities for riders. But IMBA has been neglecting this issue and I know we have because I was on the IMBA board for 16 years and we were always afraid of taking on the environmental organizations head on in any kind of a political fight. For starters, we were environmentalists ourselves. We wanted to protect and preserve these places too; we didn’t want to fight with people that we generally agreed with. Second, we just didn’t want to get creamed. So we were very, very cautious.
We took a different approach, by working with these same organizations. We wanted to be valuable to them as they pushed for environmental protections and if we could come to agreements with them—agree to change a Wilderness boundary and preserve access to a trail that was important to riders, then that was a victory for everyone.
We came up with lots of creative solutions to the Wilderness ban, but we came up with them all because we were fundamentally afraid to say, Hey, we’re bicyclists. We are low impact and we should be able to ride in the Wilderness.
We were afraid to lose that bigger fight.
Photo by Paris Gore
Vernon Felton It seems to me that we’re still afraid of losing that fight. IMBA has made several statements reaffirming their commitment to that approach. So why have you changed your mind about that strategy now?
Jim Hasenauer I have pushed IMBA to take up the fight against the Wilderness ban on bikes in a more direct and systematic way. But IMBA continues to choose a different path and I have grown more frustrated. I think it is time for us to do something here. There is enough national attention to make a change.
Vernon Felton But what about losing? That’s still a very big risk.
Jim Hasenauer Look, we’ll never win if we never try. It’s time to try. Could we lose? Sure. And if we lose, then we need to re-organize, improve our approach and try again. That’s what mainstream environmental groups always do. They keep trying. That’s why they’ve made progress. We have to do the same.
Photo by Mark Skovorodko
Vernon Felton So what do you want people to do after they read your letter?
Jim Hasenauer There are two things that I’m hoping for. Right now there are a lot of people siding with either STC or IMBA, but not both. They are casting one group as right and the other group as wrong. That’s a mistake.
I want people to support both organizations. We are all in this together. These internal fights—whether it’s roadies versus mountain bikers, downhillers versus cross-country racers or IMBA versus the STC—all we’re doing is wasting our energy by dividing ourselves.
I want to see us work together and move together towards the same goal. That’s why I wrote the letter. I also want people who might not have been paying attention to any of this, to get involved. Make a difference wherever you live.
AN OPEN LETTER TO ALL RIDERS
Dear Mountain Bikers,
The new Idaho Wilderness designation with its devastating loss of mountain bike trails; the emergence of the Sustainable Trails Coalition attempting to secure congressional legislation opening up access to some trails in some Wilderness; the increased activity from pro Wilderness groups around the country and IMBA's release of its 2016 Advocacy Position have generated a long overdue conversation about bicycles in Wilderness. Several people have asked me for my position.
I believe that mountain biking is compatible with the history and philosophy of Wilderness designation. We should be allowed on some trails in some Wilderness areas. We should certainly be allowed on trails we rode before they were designated Wilderness. We've lost far too many.
In the United States, designated Wilderness is the label we apply to the wildest, most natural, most undeveloped places and until 1984, early mountain bikers rode in the Wilderness. The very essence of mountain biking is to ride through places like this; to experience the sights, sounds, and smells; to feel the bike as it moves along the trail, to taste the air, the sweat and the dirt. The idea that mountain biking is or is not compatible with the wildest places spills over into all other access arguments. The facts are with us on this one and it's a battle we must win.
The Wilderness ban is bad public policy and it's clearly not what the authors of the iconic 1964 Wilderness Act intended.
When bikes were banned, 20 years later in 1984, anti-bike environmentalists and other trail users were applying pressures to land managers to ban us everywhere. NORBA, only one year old, was fighting the good fight for land access, but was not prepared for the pressure that the Sierra Club and the Wilderness Society put on the Forest Service. The Sustainable Trail Coalition has well documented the policy history. Anyone who studies it will understand that the Wilderness bicycle ban was not rooted in the philosophy nor legislative history of Wilderness. It was an expression of early user conflict, at best an implementation of the cautionary principle and at worst of human selfishness, territoriality and bias. In the ensuing years, thanks to IMBA and local organizations, most land mangers have opened their trails to mountain biking, and welcomed the energy, sweat equity and support the mountain bike community brings. The Wilderness ban is a vestige of early fears and misunderstandings of what mountain biking is about.
Photo by Andrew Meehan
I support the Sustainable Trails Coalition. They've taken on the difficult but focused task of making a law that ensures mountain bike use will be considered on Wilderness trails. That's an elegant solution to the Sisyphus like task of fighting dozens of individual battles over proposed Wilderness. I also support IMBA. Twenty eight years of advocacy have helped mountain bicyclists create an organization that has legitimacy, credibility and a proven record of creating and enhancing riding opportunities.
It's not unexpected that inside any movement advocates will argue about strategies and tactics. That's healthy. What's unhealthy is when these disagreements undermine each other's good works and the momentum of our movement. While I'm tremendously disappointed by IMBA's lack of support for the STC, I'm also troubled by the idea that riders would drop their support of IMBA. To gain and maintain access to riding in wild places, our community must pursue all approaches to secure access for bikes. We must support each other's efforts.
The STC has a single focus and is proposing a top down approach creating legislation that will eliminate the ban on bicycles and leave the decision to local Wilderness land mangers. Historically, IMBA's got a much broader focus, and takes a bottom up approach. It will not try to change the Wilderness ban directly. Instead it emphasizes being at the table when new Wilderness is proposed and negotiating to protect mountain bike trails by carefully drawing boundaries or finding other land protection designations that will still allow bikes. The goal is to provide the greatest amount of protected land while trying to ensure bike access to existing trails. IMBA's new 2016 advocacy plan promises to be more aggressive, to work to redraw some boundaries in existing Wilderness and to use the courts to challenge unjustified bike bans. Traditional environmental groups are going to oppose both the STC and IMBA. The agencies will resist change.
|Right now there are a lot of people siding with either STC or IMBA, but not both. They are casting one group as right and the other group as wrong. That is a mistake. We are all in this together..|
Photo courtesy of Jim Hasenauer
Our community needs both the STC and IMBA. As importantly, perhaps more importantly, it needs grassroots organizing and the ability to generate letters to decision makers and bodies at meetings. Our greatest vulnerability is our comparative weakness compared to the well honed mobilization abilities of the traditional environmental community. They bowl us over because they can. Both the STC and IMBA need to cultivate and share the phone trees, email lists and club networks that can quickly generate political pressure. We need to create a powerful political constituency that is pro-mountain bike.
The STC is initiating a political campaign that will likely take years to come to fruition, but if successful it will completely change the dialogue about Wilderness designation. I encourage all mountain bicyclists to dig deep, give what you can to the STC and be prepared for the grassroots political action that will become necessary when the bill is introduced. At the same time, renew your IMBA membership, monitor new Wilderness proposals and be at the table when they're being finalized. There' so much to do and we're all in this together.
Hasenauer was a co-founder of IMBA, its early spokesman, on the Board from 1988-2004, and its president from 1991-1996. In 1998, he was inducted into the Mountain Bike Hall of Fame.