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?
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
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.