I’m a mountain bicyclist. The pleasure of my life is pedaling through wild places, experiencing the views, the changing colors and textures of the plant life, the occasional animal sightings. On the trail, I’m renewed, and my commitment to public-land preservation is strengthened. I think that’s the way most mountain bikers feel, and historically, we’ve been eager to back conservation efforts.
We’re troubled, though, that designated wilderness, the
highest level of protection, is encumbered with regulations that
ban bicycling. Across the country, wilderness advocates are
advancing new proposals while mountain bicyclists struggle to find
a meaningful place at the table. It’s a wedge issue with a
The 1964 Wilderness Act is a remarkable tool.
Once Congress acts, wilderness areas are protected in perpetuity
for their own sake and for the recreational and spiritual
sustenance they provide visitors. Wilderness recreation offers
adventure, discovery, solitude and awe — exactly the kinds of
experience most valued by bicyclists like me.
wilderness advocates, like kids with a jackknife, are inclined to
use the tool at hand. They mark their accomplishments in acres
designated and their losses as anything less than wilderness as
proposed. Though bicyclists should be natural allies of the
wilderness movement, because of the bike ban we’re
understandably reluctant to embrace proposals that would kick us
off cherished trails.
It would certainly be easier for
cyclists to oppose wilderness outright, but that’s not who we
are. We value wild places. We’ve endorsed preservation of all
roadless areas as the foundation of real resource
We try to support wilderness where possible,
and when proposals include significant bicycle trails, we work to
find ways to protect the land and still preserve the riding. These
tools include boundary adjustments, cherry-stem trails and land
designations that provide wilderness-like protection from roads,
motors and extraction, but still allow bikes.
Unfortunately, many wilderness advocates see these measures as
losses, discounting alternatives as "wilderness-lite." They
characterize bicyclists as selfish and uncooperative. The cost of
this infighting has been acrimony, poisoned relationships and lost
time, energy and trust. Meanwhile, the Blue Ribbon Coalition and
other anti-wilderness groups court cyclists.
million U.S. mountain bicyclists are a giant constituency of
public-land enthusiasts. They’re increasingly committed to
wild land protection, but they’re understandably wary of
wilderness designations. That’s why it’s clear to me
that there ought to be a way to work for wilderness protection that
doesn’t ban bicycles. If the regulation were changed, and
bikes were allowed on some trails in some wilderness, the entire
nature of this debate would shift.
advocates are astonished to learn that the Wilderness Act did not
ban bicycles. It banned "mechanized transport," which was defined
in Forest Service regulation as "powered by a nonliving power
source." Bicycles were allowed and ridden in some wilderness until
1984, when a ban first introduced in 1977 was made final. This is
significant because it means the bike ban is regulatory, not
statutory. It was imposed 20 years after the Wilderness Act by
folks who mistook mountain bikes for motorcycles.
It’s time to get past this. Bikes are muscle-powered,
human-scale, quiet and nonpolluting. The tradition and history of
bicycle use on the wild lands of the West goes back to the 1880s.
Bicycling is trail-based recreation. We may range as far as horses
and runners, but our impacts on the trails and on plants and
animals have been shown to be similar to those of hikers. Yes,
bikes do provide a mechanical advantage, but it’s only a
degree of difference from oarlocks, suspension poles, skis and the
high-tech alloys and composites associated with other outdoor
I believe that if mountain bikers were allowed
on some wilderness trails, cyclists would overwhelmingly endorse
new wilderness. Rest assured: Trails would never swarm with bikes;
most would still be earmarked for hikers. Yet in the same way that
backpackers cherish wilderness regardless of whether they ever
visit it, mountain bikers would support more wilderness, both in
principle and at the ballot box.
It’s time to make a
niche for mountain biking in the push to preserve wild places.
Cyclists, with their commitment, passion and numbers, could swell
the ranks of a new, more inclusive movement. The only difference
between wilderness now and wilderness future would be the presence
of bicycles on some trails and much, much more wilderness.