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.
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
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.
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."
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.
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.