Get off and walk – wilderness is for wildlife

  • Michael Carroll

  Like many mountain bikers, I’m happiest when I’m charging up and down hills through the West’s spectacular public lands. I live in Durango, Colo., arguably the mountain bike capital of the world, and I ride every day. While I’ve spent most of my cycling years on roads, in the last five years I’ve been spending more time on trails.

But I believe there are places my bike doesn’t belong, and ranking first is wilderness. I have thought about this a lot lately, because some of my fellow cyclists think mountain biking should be legalized within our federal system of protected wilderness.

I am against this, because it would violate the letter and spirit of the Wilderness Act of 1964, whose section 4 (c) says: " … there shall be no temporary road, no use of motor vehicles, motorized equipment or motorboats, no landing of aircraft, no other form of mechanical transport … " Under any reasonable definition, mountain bicycles are a form of mechanical transport.

In defining wilderness, even before mentioning the word recreation, the law mentions "earth and its community of life" and "outstanding opportunities for solitude." It refers to primitive recreation, not just recreation. That was no accident. There’s a line between activities that belong legally in wilderness and those that don’t. The Wilderness Act drew that line clearly.

Wilderness areas were always meant to be more than playgrounds. They not only protect nature, they also provide us with the opportunity to connect with nature at a basic level. I take my bicycle almost everywhere I go, but I am not wedded to it. I enjoy trails by foot just as much.

We are spoiled here in Colorado, which recently won the International Mountain Bicycling Association’s highest rating for riding opportunities. But we can easily lose these opportunities. The threats we face are oil and gas development, sprawl, logging and mining, which lock us out of areas and close trails. These are the threats we should focus on, rather than squabbling over access. This is especially true now that the Bush administration is charging ahead with its drill-log-and-mine agenda.

Once wilderness areas are designated, the Wilderness Act requires that they be managed in a manner that "will leave them unimpaired for future use" and ensure the "preservation of their wilderness character." Sure, all-terrain vehicles are more damaging than bikes, but we’re kidding ourselves if we claim that we don’t also take a toll on the places we ride through.

What’s more, since mountain bikes were developed some 15 years ago, our impact has magnified. Bikes can go places that were all but inaccessible before, thanks to advances that have led to lighter and stronger materials, suspension systems similar to those on off-road vehicles and gearing that enables riders to conquer steep slopes.

While most mountain bicyclists have continued to ride on dirt roads and well-established, multiple-use trails, these changes have enabled some to venture farther and blaze new trails — just like some dirt bikers and off-road vehicle users. The result is a dramatic cultural shift in the bicycling community toward extreme aspects of the sport, including "downhilling" and "freeriding."

There are plenty of places outside the wilderness system to ride, and we should work together to protect both those areas and our remaining wild places. Aldo Leopold, in A Sand County Almanac, wrote, "Mechanized recreation already has seized nine-tenths of the woods and mountains; a decent respect for minorities should dedicate the other tenth to wilderness."

Forested mountains dotted with lush meadows may be great places to ride mountain bikes, but these are also the places that make ideal summer range for elk, where even the presence of people causes elk to flee to areas where they have less access to nutrient-rich meadows. Many wilderness areas are already under stress from a variety of sources, and adding mountain bicycles to this list will only continue to degrade the land. Though only 2 percent of the land in the Lower 48 is part of the wilderness system, I think we all know that this 2 percent is under increasing pressure as our population booms.

I believe that most mountain bikers are conservationists who want to join me in the fight for the trails and areas we love. We can and should work together to protect these special places, without endangering what little safeguards we have in place.

Michael Carroll s a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado. He works in The Wilderness Society’s support center in Durango, Colorado.