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 capital W.
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.
But 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 protection.
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.
The 46 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.
Most wilderness 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 equipment.
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.
Jim Hasenauer is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado. He is a professor of communication studies at California State University at Northridge and a board member of the International Mountain Bicycling Association, though his opinions are his own.