Wilderness Can Work for Mountain Bikers

Mike Van Abel is the executive director of the International Mountain Bicycling Association, which since 1988 has worked to create, enhance, and preserve the mountain biking experience.

Mountain biking does not require literal mountains – my home state of Wisconsin hosts some of my favorite rides – but it does depend on access to inspiring, well-preserved public lands. Like other outdoor enthusiasts, fans of knobby-tire bicycling crave opportunities to explore trails and lose themselves in the woods. Mountain bikers want to see the areas where we ride protected, with clean air and clean water, so we welcome opportunities to join with others and help protect America’s shared public lands and help ensure current and future generations can enjoy high-quality outdoor experiences away from development, noise, and pollution.

Most mountain bikers support land conservation measures to protect natural resources and the backcountry experience. But there’s considerable concern in the mountain biking community when that protection comes with closures to otherwise sustainable and highly prized trails.

photo of a mountain-biker on a singletrack through a pretty scenephoto: trailsource.com

That’s why wilderness is such a difficult issue for us. Existing wilderness protections near some of our favorite trails contribute to the peace, quiet, and solitude that make them special. At the same time, wilderness expansions and new wilderness designations sometimes take away bike access to those same trails.

The good news is that land protection proposals can be crafted to include mountain biking – as they recently have been in California, Colorado, Idaho, Georgia, Oregon, Washington, and Virginia. When mountain bike use is properly recognized, the International Mountain Bicycling Association lends its full support to new wilderness proposals.

In addition to wilderness, IMBA champions other land protection solutions – such as National Scenic Areas, Recreation Areas, or National Preserves – that both safeguard the land and preserve local mountain biking opportunities. We believe that there are many tools in the toolbox to protect public lands. IMBA often refers to these non-wilderness protection tools as “companion designations” because they can be deployed to accompany and complement wilderness parcels.

Lands that are managed under companion designations are subject to specific guidelines set out by Congress in a piece of legislation, similar to wilderness designations. Unlike Wilderness Areas, there is no legislation that controls what is to be permitted or prohibited within the area. The management proscriptions are set forth in the individual designation, and therefore they vary greatly. The advantage of this is that each area can be specifically tailored to meet the environmental needs of the land and provide a place for the experiences the people want when visiting the area.

For example, the King Range National Conservation Area in California has proven to be a great success. A broad range of stakeholders was able to agree on a plan to use wilderness and a companion designation to protect a very unique and beautiful ecosystem and accommodate the development of an incredible new mountain biking trail system.

More recently, in Colorado, federal legislation has been considered in order to protect land in the state’s central mountains. Beginning in 2010, IMBA began a campaign to secure bike-friendly adjustments and companion designations, helping to shepherd those designations through the legislative process.

The Wilderness Workshop is one of a number of conservation groups that have worked to incorporate the interests of IMBA’s chapters as a way to enhance public support among Coloradans. “The challenges to successful public land conservation efforts are daunting,” says Wilderness Workshop Executive Director Sloan Shoemaker. “Now more than ever, people who share conservation as a common core value need to join hands and work together if we are to protect the natural areas that sustain us.”

IMBA has worked closely with the legislative sponsors of the recent land protection proposals. For example, we worked with US Representative Jared Polis and Senator Mark Udall (both Democrats from Colorado) on The Eagle and Summit County Wilderness Preservation Act, which used boundary adjustments, special corridors and companion designations to protect public lands while making accommodations for mountain biking. Several IMBA chapters – specifically the Vail Valley Mountain Bike Association, Summit Fat Tire Society, and Roaring Fork Mountain Bike Association – have partnered with land protection proponents to enhance the congressional proposals. Working closely with conservation groups, they’ve had success in suggesting joint adjustments, including bike-friendly special management areas that enhance recreational values while protecting natural resources.

As mountain bikers, it’s in our interest to seek lasting alliances with the conservation community. We have far more in common than what sometimes divides us. We believe it’s in our mutual best interest to work together. Conservation organizations can help to preserve and enhance mountain bike access to public lands. Mountain bikers can add a valuable new voice to campaigns to protect America’s forests, water, wildlife, and scenic landscapes.

For an opposing view, read what George Wuerthner has to say.

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