Mountain Biking Is Inappropriate In Wilderness

George Wuerthner is an ecologist and former hunting guide who has written or edited many books including, Thrillcraft: The Environmental Consequences of Motorized Recreation. He has personally visited more than 400 designated wilderness areas.

I just got back from a mountain bike ride. The trails outside of my hometown of Bend, Oregon have numerous loops and degrees of difficulty, and riding my mountain bike is a pleasant way to unwind, get some exercise, and enjoy pedaling without the fear of being hit by a car. The trails are located in previously logged forests on the edge of town. These lands do not qualify for wilderness or other special protection, and thus are an appropriate location for mountain biking.

The key words here are “appropriate location.”

That is the same qualifier I would have for my four-wheel drive vehicle as well other “thrillcraft.” I am grateful to have a four-wheel drive vehicle when driving in snow, muddy roads and the like, but that doesn’t mean I feel it’s appropriate to drive it everywhere it can go. Similarly, just because my mountain bike can climb steep hillsides and traverse meadows, doesn’t mean I think it’s appropriate to use wherever I might feel like it.

Mountain Bike Star Passphoto: on Flickr

Although I can’t speak for all mountain bikers, I think my experience while on my bike is representative of most cyclists in that I am more focused on the trail and the sense of movement than I am aware of and in tune with my surroundings. In other words, the natural world I am traveling through is more a stage for my cycling experience. Whether that stage is wildlands or not is irrelevant to my biking experience. This fundamental indifference to landscape is the primary conflict between mountain biking and the Wilderness Act’s goals.

This is not to say that mountain bikers do not enjoy wildlands or that they are immune to the beauty of nature. Indeed, when I stop cycling, I often look around and appreciate the setting. But the reason I am biking is not primarily to observe nature, and I think it’s safe to say that most mountain bikers would agree. When careening down a mountain we must, by necessity, be focused on the trail in front of us, not the natural world around us.

Our wildlands are not outdoor gymnasiums or amusement parks. Part of the rationale for wilderness designation is to provide an opportunity for people to contemplate and observe natural systems.

It is clear from a reading of the debate around the creation of the Wilderness System that recreation is not the prime rationale for wilderness designation. The act says little about preserving recreational uses or adapting new types of recreation. In testimony before Congress in 1962, Howard Zahniser, the chief architect of the Wilderness Act, stated clearly: “Recreation is not necessarily the dominant use of an area of wilderness.” In an essay he authored in 1956, Zahniser wrote about the spiritual benefits of wilderness, which he considered one of its highest purposes: “Without the gadgets, the inventions, the contrivances whereby men have seemed to establish among themselves an independence of nature, without these distractions, to know the wilderness is to know a profound humility, to recognize one’s littleness, to sense dependence and interdependence, indebtedness, and responsibility.”

I do not believe mountain bikes contribute to the development of humility, nor a sense of dependence, interdependence, and responsibility. There are four major reasons why mountain biking should not be permitted in officially designated wilderness areas or in any areas that are strong candidates for wilderness designation.

Legal. The Wilderness Act is unambiguous about the kinds of activities that are deemed acceptable in designated wilderness – namely travel without “mechanical advantage.” The rationale for the law, as stated in its opening paragraph, is “to assure that an increasing population, accompanied by expanding settlement and growing mechanization, does not occupy and modify all areas within the United States and its possessions, leaving no lands designated for preservation and protection in their natural condition.” Mountain bikes are part of that growing mechanization. The sophisticated advancement of mountain bike technology reduces the natural limits imposed by primeval character, whereas those walking or traveling by horse remain within natural limits.

Ecological. Bike proponents often suggest that mountain bikes may do less damage than a pack of horses or even a Boy Scout troop. This is a specious argument. The cumulative effects of numerous tires create additional erosion, sedimentation in streams, and potential for trail damage. The idea that some activities do more damage than another is not a reason to expand damaging activities. There is a cumulative impact from all uses, and adding to existing use can only increase impacts. The main goal of wilderness designation is to preserve wild nature, not to preserve recreational opportunity.

Sociological. Any mechanical advantage – whether it is a dirt bike or a mountain bike – shrinks the backcountry. This has several effects. Those walking are easily surpassed by those using mechanical means, which can psychologically dismay other users. On heavily used trails, the threat of a fast moving bike changes the experience for other trail users. If you are a hiker, the ability to relax and soak in the natural world is impeded when one is anxious about having to jump out of the way of a bike.

Philosophical. The spirit and letter of the Wilderness Act is to protect lands that retain their “primeval character and influence.” The more advanced the technology that we drag along with us, the greater our alienation from the spiritual values of wilderness areas. To many who are walking in quiet contemplation of nature, mountain bikes are an intrusion. They are no different to many wildlands enthusiasts than if a bike were to invade the Sistine Chapel or were ridden in the Arlington National Cemetery. The fact that many mountain bikers are oblivious to the spiritual values inherent in wildlands is one reason why those walking find mountain biking obnoxious at best, and even disrespectful.

For me – and many of my fellow wilderness advocates – the goal of conservation is to preserve the remnants of wild nature, not to protect self-indulgent recreational opportunities. With ever more technological gadgets available for distraction and diversion, we need the sanctity and self-restraint that Wilderness Areas represent more than ever.

For an opposing view, read what Mike Van Abel has to say.

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