Mountain bikes and wilderness don’t mix

To loosen wildland restrictions now starts us down a slippery slope.


My first wolverine sighting in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem happened on a warm July afternoon in 2012. On a pass above northwest Wyoming’s West DuNoir Creek, I watched as the elusive animal scaled a rock face and then ambled away. Under prehistoric conditions, wolverine populations were thinly spread across big landscapes; in 21st century America, wolverines veer toward the endangered species list.

Wolverines need wilderness to survive. That’s one reason that conservationists for four decades have promoted wilderness designation for the DuNoir, which is contiguous with the designated Teton and Washakie wilderness areas.

The roadless DuNoir landscape is stunning; its wooded basins and sprawling tundra provide rich wildlife habitat for many species native to Greater Yellowstone. Unfortunately, it also appeals to a growing cadre of mountain bikers, who sometimes speak louder than wildland defenders. The Shoshone National Forest is on record as opposing wilderness designation for the DuNoir, as the Forest Service plans a bike route through the heart of the area.

Turn back the clock 50 years to when Congress passed the Wilderness Act, our foremost land protection law. Its authors had the foresight to forbid “mechanized” and not just “motorized” travel in wilderness. Under this carefully worded law, wilderness areas must remain “untrammeled” and their “wilderness character” maintained. Designated wilderness is primeval nature, a landscape of human restraint, where natural conditions and self-sufficiency prevail. Sure, there are other land protection options such as national monuments or recreation areas, but nothing equals wilderness for protecting a vestige of America as it was for eons before the spread of civilization.

When mechanized mountain bikers demand access to proposed and designated wilderness, they fail to understand that if they succeed, owners of unimagined future contraptions will certainly demand equal treatment. So will modern-day snow machine and all-terrain vehicle owners. To loosen wildland restrictions now starts us down that slippery slope.

In addition, mountain bikers are not traditional users, such as hikers or horse-packers. Mountain bikes were not commercially produced for off-road use until the early 1980s. By allowing them to proliferate in roadless areas, the Forest Service nourishes yet another anti-wilderness constituency. A cynic might suggest that’s no accident.

Let’s be frank: Backcountry biking damages the land. Bikers often veer off trail just to keep from crashing. Last year, I sent the district ranger photos of mountain-bike damage to vegetation at Kissinger Lakes in the DuNoir, but the problem persists. Because mountain bikers ride fast, they startle wildlife more than hikers or horseback-riders do. They also make formerly remote areas more accessible, thereby reducing solitude and increasing the disturbance of wilderness-dependent species such as lynx and wolverine. Like trail runners with ear pods, mountain bikers inadvertently “troll for grizzlies,” as demonstrated by the 2004 mauling of a DuNoir mountain biker. Speeding mountain bikers also endanger horse-packers and hikers on steep trails. Let’s face it: Mountain bikers need all that protective gear because they’re not always in control.

Generally speaking, the place for mountain bikes is on roads, not in relatively pristine backcountry. At this point in our history, I believe that public land management should be about preserving wildness and doing what’s best for the land and wildlife. Recreation can adapt. Though some  -- certainly not all -- mountain bikers apparently view our public lands as outdoor gyms, that is not their function. Nor is a wild place a metaphorical pie to be divvied up among “user groups” or local “stakeholders,” to use federal bureaucratese. The authors of the Wilderness Act would be appalled at the Forest Service’s eagerness to mollify every recreation group that decides its particular form of recreation trumps all else.

As a backpack trip outfitter, I’ve guided hikers throughout the West, including the DuNoir, since the 1970s. When these Lycra-clad speedsters zip past our groups, ripping up vegetation and spooking critters, it diminishes our clients’ hard-earned wilderness experience.

But that’s not why I believe that the DuNoir -- and other qualifying wildlands -- should be designated wilderness. It’s because wilderness designation is best for the land. Wilderness is about humility, the acceptance that we humans don’t know it all and never will. More than any other landscape, wilderness takes us beyond “self”; in it, we are part of something greater. It is a shame that the Forest Service, many politicians and some recreationists are so wrongheaded -- stuck in a self-indulgent and myopic worldview regarding the DuNoir and so many other fragile endangered wildlands. Wilderness is timeless, transcending short-term concerns. Above all, wilderness celebrates the intrinsic value of wild nature. We need to let it be.

Howie Wolke is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News. He co-owns Big Wild Adventures in Montana with his wife, Marilyn Olsen, and has been guiding and outfitting backpack trips in the Greater Yellowstone and elsewhere in the West since the 1970’s.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at

Oliver W Smith
Oliver W Smith Subscriber
Feb 04, 2014 03:07 PM
Hear, hear. Well said Mr. Wolke.
Chris Cppl
Chris Cppl
Feb 04, 2014 03:11 PM
Howie Let’s be frank: Backcountry backpacking and horsepacking damages the land. Hikers often veer off trail just to climb to the top of peaks, snap photographs, visit off trail locations, setup campsites, to go the bathroom, to get a closeup of wildlife, and for many other reasons. While they are doing this they keep on trampling virgin vegetation. Last year, I sent the district ranger photos of multiple backpacker and horsepacker camps ringing the high mountain lakes in and outside of wilderness the damage to vegetation was extensive. The tents scar the land around these high mountain lakes and then there are countless fire rings which leave black scars on the land. Unfortunately the problems persists. Backpackers and horsepackers startle wildlife all year and then come fall they venture off trails and start shooting and killing animals. Modern backpacking equipment has made formerly remote areas more accessible, thereby reducing solitude and increasing the disturbance of wilderness-dependent species such as lynx and wolverine.

When the wilderness act was written they just could not envision that the backpacking gear of the 60s that weighted 50 to 60lbs is now only weighting in at around 20lbs. This dramatic decrease in pack weight has allowed hikers to visit places previously inaccessible to them just 10 years ago. Let’s face it: Hikers and horse packers are now voyaging further and into more remote areas because they have there GPS smart phone and spot device to bail them out. Modern gear should just be banned!

Generally speaking, the place for hikers and horsepackers bikes is on roads, not in relatively pristine backcountry. Recreation can adapt.

Finally the best thing you could do is to shut down Big Wild Adventures and stop bringing people into these pristine areas! What is more important? Every one of your trips has an impact on wildlife and vegetation.
Adam Neff
Adam Neff
Feb 04, 2014 03:42 PM
Good thing this is clearly labeled an opinion piece. The actual research on the subject concludes the mountain biking falls somewhere on the spectrum between hiking and horseback riding for effects on wildlife and physical impacts to the environment. The most damage is done not by any particular user group but by idiots or careless individuals of all groups. A horseback rider on a wet muddy day can damage a trail for years, same as a mountain biker. And negative impacts to wildlife are far greater with a group of camera wielding idiots hiking off-trail trying to snap a close up then they are of a mountain bike that stays on the trail and is gone in a matter of seconds.
Jim Elias
Jim Elias
Feb 04, 2014 03:55 PM
Please. While I sympathize with the author’s sentiment, his comparisons between mtn bikers and outfitters lie somewhere between misguided and downright silly. Horse hooves vs. mtn bike tires. Cowboy hats vs. lycra. And as for his “clients’ hard-earned wilderness experience,” let’s not forget that those experiences are enabled by pack animals, and cyclists aren’t carried into the backcountry. But the best: “trolling for grizzlies?”…lions and tigers, oh my.

Bottom line is that the author makes his living selling trips into wilderness areas. While I agree that mtn bikes simply don’t belong in many of those places, Mr. Wolke would do better to make a clearer-headed case and leave the histrionics at home.
Jeri Edwards
Jeri Edwards
Feb 04, 2014 06:14 PM
Mr Wolke's opinion, while I join him in his passion about the preservation of wilderness and all things wild is the continuation of a stalemate that I fear will have a negative impact on the future of wilderness. When someone like Mr. Wolke goes hyperbolic against one group, in this case mountain bikers, and paints them as the "bad guys" there is no more room for open dialogues on how we can try to come together and be on the "same team" to save and preserve what we all love. I believe he would be much more effective if he were to be a loud voice, as Adam Neff points out in his comment, lambasting the abusers of wilderness unfortunately found in every group using backcountry wilderness, i.e., those hikers who carelessly camp too close to a stream or lake, don't dispose of their waste properly, clearly leaving their polluted imprint behind, or horseback riders and mountain bikers who selfishly and carelessly ride in muddy conditions. We've become so fractured by opinion makers like Mr. Wolke, pointing fingers of blame instead of joining forces and coming up with ways to continue to preserve the places we love. I have witnessed first-hand how this belligerent attitude divides and then makes any voice for wilderness ineffective. Let's do more to get the abusers in every user group off our trails and/or heavily influence their behavior change and respect each other's love for wild places. For the sake of the wildlife and wilderness Please.
Roger Rouch
Roger Rouch
Feb 04, 2014 06:46 PM
When it comes to a comparison of environmental damage caused by hiking, biking, or horse travel, all are guilty as charged to some degree or another. Rather than anecdotal or emotional evidence I would rather depend on specific studies and believe many are available or in progress and may be specific to certain locations. There are places where mountain bikes do not belong as much as there are places where camping impact by hikers should be limited, as well as campsites and trails having heavy use from outfitters. There is enough space for everyone to enjoy their form of recreation within limits.

While we don't want to love out outdoors to death, the mere fact that people are getting out to enjoy their wilderness experience in itself is a means of inspiring people to preserve what is there. I have trouble thinking that mountain bikers are only athletes out to prove their abilities and may appreciate their outdoor experience as much as I do hiking or another might with a horse outfitter.
Robert Krantz
Robert Krantz Subscriber
Feb 04, 2014 07:27 PM
Biased much, Mr. Wolke? (and perhaps with a mercenary motivation?)
Ralph Bradt
Ralph Bradt Subscriber
Feb 04, 2014 07:55 PM
Certainly mountain bikes have more impact on trails than hikers, and it’s debatable whether horses have more or less impact than mountain bikes. Personally, from what I’ve seen, the linear groove mountain bikes tend to wear in a trail damages waterbars and encourages water to run down rather than off a trail in a way horses do not, but others may see things differently.

Still, when it comes to bikes in Wilderness, it’s less the trail damage and more the easy access that disturbs me. Wildernesses are set aside for preservation and protection in their natural condition. Mountain bikes, with their speed, would allow and encourage more people to penetrate more deeply into the Wilderness we’re trying to preserve. Human disturbance would be brought to a much greater area. I’m not saying hikers don’t cause disturbance, but the slower pace and the greater effort required, is a natural limitation on the extent of human impact on the natural environment. This limitation also preserves opportunities for those going to the Wilderness seeking solitude. I may have to haul a bunch of junk on my back to reach a point a mountain biker could zip in and out of in a day, but the effort of the journey and seeing few others are my rewards.

It is so difficult to protect and preserve Wilderness, particularly near large population centers, that any compromises of the restrictions on use provided by the Wilderness Act will inevitably bring an increased human presence and subsequent degradation of the natural qualities of those areas.
Not far from me, there is an area primarily for motorized recreation. I don’t go there, but I’m glad those folks have their place to go. Another area, for non-motorized use, sees heavy use by mountain bikers and many of the trails have been designed for bikes. I hike there fairly often and I’ve had good experiences with all I’ve met on the trails. I’m glad there’s a good place for the mountain bikers to ride.

With Wilderness, I’m glad there’s a place where nature is relatively undisturbed and I have a place to go where, though I have to work for it, I can find the solitude I’m looking for.
Carol Johnson
Carol Johnson Subscriber
Feb 04, 2014 08:00 PM
Thank you Howie and Ralph - as a hiker, backpacker and horseback rider in wilderness, and a person who enjoys the solitude of wilderness, I agree 1000%.
Buzz Burrell
Buzz Burrell
Feb 04, 2014 08:01 PM
That was a frightening and depressing editorial. At a time when we really need to rally together, when the environmental agenda is losing even with a Democrat in the White House, a self-proclaimed defender-of-the-faith publishes a full-on rant, so full of bias and innuendo as to be embarrassing if it wasn't so damaging to what we need to do to move forward. Substitute a few words and it was like listening to Jerry Falwell preach against the sins of rock and roll.

I actually don't know if bikes should be in wilderness or not, but I do know it should be a rational discussion, a little bit of science wouldn't hurt, and we need to respect all people who love the outdoors, no matter what form they prefer, because we need all the help we can get.

Because like rock and roll, bikes are definitely here to stay. And while I very much respect equestrians, as a hiker I'd much rather step in a bike track than a horse you-know-what.
Eric Kessler
Eric Kessler Subscriber
Feb 04, 2014 11:37 PM
Mr Wolke. Your opinion piece brought out many issues and the fine commenters above have addressed what I wanted to respond. I humbly offer you this opinion. Know your enemy Mr Wolke, it is not mountain bikers. The real enemy of our precious wilderness is big energy. There is energy beneath the ground all around the west and mountain bikers as much as backpackers, horsepackers, outfitters, hunters, and a wide range of different groups can join together and become one voice in standing up to exploitation that can and does actually destroy wilderness.
Adam Neff
Adam Neff
Feb 05, 2014 09:37 AM
I actually support Ralph's opinion that increased access to wilderness would lead to a deterioration of its "wild" component. I can, on a mt bike, see more terrain in one day that I could in 3 days on foot. And although one could argue which approach impacts the land more I do not support this increase in access (though i probably would for select national parks, that are already over run with people). What I don't see mentioned here by anyone else is that if we really want to enhance our "wild"ness experience we must decrease the ease of access. Horses should be banned. In particular, commercial horseback operations should be the first to go. You can't get any easier than horseback, it's not quite as easy as sleeping but it's damn close. I've had numerous great hikes and hunts ruined by a pack string of 15 plus horses bringing in everything from wood stoves and coolers of cold beer to exploding targets and ar-15s, along with a half a dozen fat drunk bastards out to "enjoy the wilderness". They didn't do any actual work to get there, outside of opening up their wallet, and absolutely don't deserve to be there.
Gene Hamilton
Gene Hamilton
Feb 05, 2014 02:30 PM
Well, at least you started a dialog about bikes in Wilderness! Many of your assertions are false (studies show hikers and mtbrs do about the same amount of trail damage and horses do much more. What does being a traditional user mean (when did said tradition start) and why should traditional users have more rights? If we are going to traditional users we will have to outlaw white people as the traditional users of these lands were Native Americans. Horses are not native (brought here from Spain), they massively damage trails because of their weight and they poop everywhere! As a few people have stated, mountain bikers are not the enemy, if mountain bikers and hikers would join forces it would help save the Wilderness from big energy and loud, motorized vehicles.
Andrew V Sipocz
Andrew V Sipocz
Feb 05, 2014 03:55 PM
Wilderness designation excludes all wheeled vehicles including canoe portage carts. Essentially just a pair of wheels and an axle used to roll one end of a canoe. There's not much argument about the damage these cause, it's next to none, but they're banned because the wheel of any sort "shrinks" wilderness by speeding human travel through it. There is much literature on the philosophy of wilderness and a lot of thought went into the original legislation. Wilderness rules were debated for over a decade before the law was enacted.
Ralph Bradt
Ralph Bradt Subscriber
Feb 05, 2014 05:28 PM
Well put, Andrew. The concern is less the trail damage than the “shrinking” effect on the Wilderness. The slower pace of non-mechanized travel provides a natural limit on human occupation of Wilderness. The Wilderness Act is a well-crafted piece of legislation, passed by bipartisan consensus. The first line sums up the philosophy behind it:

“In order 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, it is hereby declared to be the policy of the Congress to secure for the American people of present and future generations the benefits of an enduring resource of wilderness.”

By limiting travel/transportation to non-mechanized means, the Wilderness Act limits human use and human effects on the natural environment. The Act says nothing about “traditional use”, but does limit the permitted use of Wilderness areas “for preservation and protection in their natural condition”. Reducing the use limitations set forth in the Act reduces protection of these areas.
Kyle Klain
Kyle Klain
Feb 05, 2014 10:14 PM
Boy, talk about dividing your own army. I'm both a wilderness advocate and a mountain biker and articles like these do more to alienate me from groups like the Sierra Club and other wilderness advocates. While there are decent and understandable reasons to ban wheeled travel in most wilderness areas, pulling up BS arguments and making emotional noise just creates a rift with otherwise a very large and economically powerful ally in land conservation, use, and protection. Way to continue making the people concerned for these spaces seem less out of touch than ever...

By the way, look up the Columbine-Hondo Wilderness here in beautiful New Mexico. Things haven't gone to hell there...
Sam Branton
Sam Branton
Feb 06, 2014 08:56 AM
I can't count the ways that this opinion - which is exactly what it is, as it is not based on any facts that may be proven - is wrong. First, the tone is alternately oblivious, patronizing, outdated and divisive. Second, the facts are all wrong. Mountain bikers do no more harm to the landscape than hikers - fact - and less so than horseback travel - also fact. Second, mountain bikers cannot cover nearly as much ground as horseback riders and do not generally stay on the land - it's an in and out trip 90+% of the time. As noted in other comments, those who pack in with animals and backpacks stay on the land and destroy the wilderness character by establishing campsites and other semi-permanent sites. Fact. Further, if all "mechanized" forms of travel are prohibited, then why are boats with oarlocks or cross country skis - which are no doubt mechanized and which no doubt allow the user to traverse the landscape more quickly than one could possibly do on foot - allowed? For that matter, why should any modern convenience be allowed? That would include backpacks, sleeping bags, campstoves, tents, etc. - anything that is not "wild" in character. As a resident of the state represented by one of the primary sponsors of the original act, whose name is affixed to one wilderness area - Senator Frank Church - I find your stunning lack of ignorance of the basis for the wilderness act appalling. The act had two purposes - preserve the character of the land by prohibiting development AND encouraging human-powered recreation! People like you always gloss over or dishonestly fail to note the second purpose of the '64 Act. Go read the legislative history and get back to us. In the early to mid 1960's, there was national concern that the country was growing soft due to increasing use of motorized vehicles for recreation. The Wilderness Act was enacted to encourage human-powered recreation! Fact. And the ban on mountain bikes was a late-adopted regulatory bastardization/misinterpretation of "mechanized." The mechanized word was placed in the act as it related to construction/development, not recreation. Fact. Finally, I find your opinion to be completely misguided and ultimately counter-productive. Here in Idaho, mountain bikers are a growing community, while hikers like you are a dying breed. An effort to create a new wilderness area in Idaho was defeated over and over again because the majority of the constituents disagreed with its reasoning and purpose and scope. Rather, the same area is now under consideration for National Monument status, which is tantamount to preserving the character of the land as wilderness, while maintaining human-powered recreation. A coalition of mountain bikers and other users are actively working to achieve NM status because, shockingly, mountain bikers want protection of our outdoor spaces and would like to continue to have access. By pushing "wilderness" over national monument status, you alienate a large and wealthy user group and create a situation whereby a natural ally becomes an opponent. Bottom line - if you want the land to be protected, you must have in the 21st century a coalition of all human-powered user groups. Otherwise, given that the number of "hateful old hikers" like you is rapidly dwindling, land protection of any kind is not going to happen. And, if you really mean what you say - that we need to maintain the "wild" nature of the land, you need to close your business, because using your logic, any people using the land destroys its nature. I think your motives are selfish, irresponsible, short-sighted and, in the end, downright self-defeating for anybody who wants to see land protected from development but still open to human-powered use.
John Fisch
John Fisch
Feb 06, 2014 09:45 AM
1. The author introduces his rant with an emotional appeal to preserving wildlife and returns to this theme throughout. His statement, however is completely unsubstantiated. In fact, every piece of research conducted on user group impact on wildlife has shown bikes to be equally or, more often, even less, disruptive to wildlife. Here are just a few examples:
a. Christopher Papouchis, Francis Singer, and William Sloan, reported in 2001 on "Responses of Desert Bighorn Sheep To Increased Human Recreation" This research noted that Sheep fled from hikers 61% of the time while they only fled from bikers 6% of the time.
b. Spahr (1990), in studying responses of eagles to human activity, noted that eagles flushed 46% of the time compared to 15% with hikers.
c. Herrero and Herrero (2000) noted that there was no difference in hiker and biker impacts on grizzlies and concluded that there was no basis for managing these activities differently.

2. The author states "When mechanized mountain bikers demand access to proposed and designated wilderness, they fail to understand that if they succeed, owners of unimagined future contraptions will certainly demand equal treatment."
This is the classic "slippery slope" fallacy and never serves as a rational argument. Any "future contraptions," like bikes (or feet or hooves), must be evaluated on their actual impact, not some user group's perceived impact. If feet and hooves are allowed, then other equally low impact modes of transport should also be allowed.

3. Speaking of impact, the author then makes yet another unsubstantiated, and demonstrably false claim: "Let’s be frank: Backcountry biking damages the land." This is at least false in the sense that mountain bikes have no more impact on the land than feet and far less than hooves. Again, independent, peer-reviewed research backs this up:
a. Wilson and Seney (1994). Horses have by far the greatest impact. Trails studied with bike impact showed no difference from control trails that saw no bike traffic.
b. Marion (2006) noted the greatest difference in trail erosion due to construction (i.e. fall line vs. traversing) but not by user group type. In fact, his research showed the least erosion on trails used for biking.
c. Goeft and Alder (2001) also concluded that trail design was a significant factor in erosion while user type was not.
These are just a few--there are many more. Most interesting is the fact that horses are by far the most damaging of the three, yet the author is an outfitter employing horses in the Wilderness. Pure hypocrisy here.
d. A 2006 study by the National Park Service concluded that "Horse and ATV trails are significantly more degraded than hiking and biking trails...[T]he proportion of trails with severe 24% for ATV trails, 9% for horse trails, 1.4% for hiking trails and 0.6% for bike trails."

4. That same hypocrisy grows further with the statement “They also make formerly remote areas more accessible, thereby reducing solitude” At best, the author is ignorant and has never ridden a mountain bike on a backcountry trail. It’s hard work—it takes effort, sweat and commitment. The bike is, after all, human powered, unlike his horses, which allow any lazy, unmotivated slob with a Visa card to purchase their backcountry experience. The author says “it diminishes our clients’ hard-earned wilderness experience.” That doesn’t even pass the giggle test.

5. The author then gives his most ridiculous statement of all, thus proving his either irrational or self-serving bias: "Generally speaking, the place for mountain bikes is on roads,"
????? The place for road bikes is on roads. The place for mountain bikes is off road. Duh!
6. The author purports to know what the original framers of the Wilderness Act would say about this. Again, he is at best ignorant or at worst, deliberately misleading in the pursuit of his self-serving agenda. First and foremost, people have been riding bicycles in the backcountry since the 1800s—the Wilderness Act was signed in 1964, and the bike ban was not added until the late ‘80s. He quotes the “untrammeled” word, yet ignores the fact that the bike “trammels” no more than a hiker and far less than his horses. A study of the original wilderness intent shows that the goal was to preserve (as we have already shown, bikes do not affect this any more than feet), and to get Americans out in the woods under their own power and to prevent the encroachment of the infrastructure necessary to support automobiles. A bike needs no more infrastructure than a boot. In a 1965 address to Congress on the need for conservation of our wild places, President Johnson said: ”The forgotten outdoorsmen of today are those who like to walk, hike, ride horseback or bicycle. For them we must have trails as well as highways. Nor should motor vehicles be permitted to tyrannize the more leisurely human traffic.” Confirming all this is the 1966 Wilderness regulations which defined “mechanical transport” as “propelled by a non-living power source.” Clearly, the intent was to get people off their duffs, not to preclude adventurous, self sufficient, challenging, human-powered travel.
7. The author also asserts that “By allowing them to proliferate in roadless areas, the Forest Service nourishes yet another anti-wilderness constituency.” Again, a ridiculous and deliberately misleading statement. Most cyclists who ride roadless areas are among the most conservation minded of our citizens. Mountain bikers also put far more of their own sweat equity into trail maintenance and sustainment. Our country has no shortage of hiker only trails which are degrading or disappearing through neglect while most trails popular with cyclists remain viable and often improve over time. If you’re really concerned with preservation, you should be seeking allies, not alienating one of your potentially strongest partners in that goal.
“A man on foot, on horseback or on a bicycle will see more, feel more, enjoy more in one mile than the motorized tourists can in a hundred miles.” — Edward Abbey
Justin Fredrickson
Justin Fredrickson
Feb 06, 2014 10:00 AM
Whatever the author's motives or intentions with this piece, he has succeeded in sparking a passionate dialogue about what Wilderness means to different folks. I thoroughly enjoyed most of the comments. Ralph, I particularly enjoyed your views on the subject. Adam Neff, I was disappointed that you quickly changed your opinion from, “The most damage is done not by any particular user group but by idiots or careless individuals of all groups," to a rash generalization about packing outfitters and their clientele as being the worst offenders. Sure, there are groups like the one you describe but they are just the knuckle heads that exist in any user group that paint other respectful users in a bad light.
John Fisch
John Fisch
Feb 06, 2014 11:29 AM
Having a discussion about what Wilderness means to different folks is great. However, what the anti-bike movement claims Wilderness means to them and their real agenda are two different things.

When they say we can’t allow bikes because they “shrink” the Wilderness, they ignore the fact that the bike is human powered while the horse is not, allowing many people to penetrate deeper on horseback than they could on a bike. Yet they fail to apply this criteron to horses.

When they say Wilderness is a place to be preserved in its natural state, they ignore the fact that the trail, regardless of who it’s open to, is itself a scar on the land. They further refuse to acknowledge that any additional impact on the land caused by bikes is similar to what they create as hikers and far less than that by horses. Again, they apply this criterion only to one user group.

When they say we’ve got to protect the wildlife, they ignore the research that shows hikers having at least as much, and usually more, impact on wildlife than hikers. If they honestly believed this was a valid criterion, they would ban themselves even before cyclists.

When they say the Wilderness is not a place for mechanical devices, yet ignore all the other mechanical devices which are allowed, they again selectively apply a criterion. When they say the Wilderness is not a place for technology, but have no qualms with carrying an ultralite tent with space-age fabric and aerospace grade titanium poles, a 5-oz cookstove which burns fossil fuels to boil a quart of water in under 5 minutes to rehydrate compact, lightweight, calorie-rich, freeze-dried foods, and a hand-held GPS unit that can pinpoint their location anywhere on the globe to within a couple feet by triangulating a signal from a constellation of orbital space satellites, they again invalidate their own position.

The inescapable conclusion from this, and all the other fallacious arguments is that, for many anti bike zealots, none of the above are the goal—they simply don’t want to share the land with an equally low impact user group, which just happens to offend their personal aesthetic.
Adam Neff
Adam Neff
Feb 06, 2014 11:34 AM
Justin, I most definitely didn't change my opinion. If horse are allowed then mt bikes should also be allowed. Most of the damage IS done by idiots of user groups not just one user group.

However, if I were the supreme decision maker I'd vote to remove both horses and prevent bikes from accessing at least some wilderness areas, limiting them to foot travel only. I would love to have less access to wilderness areas. I'm young and in good shape. I love solitude. By limiting it to foot travel only I'm betting I'll see fewer people, have more solitude, and a more genuine "wild"erness experience.

The fact that I called out commercial outfitters is that in my opinion they are the largest current contributor to the unwild-ing of the wilderness.
John Fisch
John Fisch
Feb 06, 2014 11:48 AM
Thanks for you honest and straightforward post. As an avid backpacker and mountain biker (one who also loves solitude), let me offer some additional perspective.

People disturb solitude, regardless of their means of locomotion. Banning bikes does indeed increase our chance for solitude—but is it fair to provide that solitude by arbitrarily banning an equally low-impact user group? If we need to limit the number of people to preserve the wilderness experience, then we should do that—but fairly. Backcountry areas in some national parks, as well as designated routes in Wilderness areas already employ a permit system to limit use and preserve the experience. It’s only fair that any who can quietly and sustainably enjoy those trails have equal opportunity to do so.
Bob Skogley
Bob Skogley
Feb 06, 2014 12:15 PM
This opinion piece is shallow and poorly reasoned. The only reasoning behind allowing horses in wilderness areas is "traditional use." (One "traditional use" of wild lands used to be scalping Native Americans; just because it's been done for a long time does not make it right.) In my many years of backpacking wilderness areas, I am always disappointed with trails dug into 2' deep ruts by horses, with the ruts filled with horse shit that draws flies. Then large horse camps are established, tearing up the wilderness further. Mountain bikes have far less impact on the land than horses, yet are not allowed. I would be fine with keeping bikes out of wilderness areas if horses (and llamas and whatever else you can pack with) were not allowed either. The author points out that "the best place for mountain bikes is on roads." This shows a complete lack of understanding of what a mountain bike is! If this is the case, the best place for horses is riding in an arena, so why would we allow them in wilderness areas?
Tyler Nelson
Tyler Nelson
Feb 06, 2014 12:40 PM
I completely disagree, and it would appear you're working more to protect your personal interest and guiding business than protect the wilderness as a whole. Horses and guide services enable more people to enter the wilderness, in turn increasing traffic, which in turn causes more damage. Wilderness laws were originally written before mountain bikes were popular. To allow horses who cause more damage and require much less personal effort to access remote areas, while disallowing bikes is ridiculous.
Sam Branton
Sam Branton
Feb 06, 2014 02:38 PM
What has not been noted is that Mr. Wolke is a founder of "Earth First!" I think that pretty much explains his opinion.
Fubeca Doze
Fubeca Doze
Feb 06, 2014 03:23 PM
I'm a former BMX rider and now mountain biker who has biked 1,000's of offroad miles on all types of terrain and with all forms of mixed users. Articles and sentiments like these are divisive elitist BS! I have encountered bear, fox, wolf, cougar, raccoon, possum, chipmunk, birds, reptiles of all sorts etc... and there were no incidents. However, I have heard of significant incidents and harm when equestrians encounter them omitting them from your comparison is a weak argument platform. Backcountry "solitude" as defined here is a subjective one suiting your perspective only. How does one count the amount of destruction a horse causes by eating native grasses in high volume? Or the effect of horse manure on other animals which; hunt, migrate or hide based on the scents and dung native animals leave behind? Your solitude apparently trumps that of native animals and THEIR habitats?

I have seen more standing water, mud bogs, crushed (l)edges, widened singletrack and trail destruction from horses than MTB tires make, perhaps even more than motorcycles. I've used many of Colorado and Utah's full mixed use trails Hike/Bike/Equestrian/(even motorcycle).

My grandfather was a blacksmith and having been stepped on by 1,000 lb horse with steel horseshoes and a 200 lb rider on top digs deeper and presses harder per square inch than a 30 lb bike with a 185 lb rider. If anyone ever says that a horse does less damage I question their integrity. I'd gladly challenge anyone to accept a 10 horses and riders stepping on your foot vs. 10 MTB and riders on my foot. We'll have a podiatrist on site to give expert opinion on which foot is more damaged. Sound fair? Now transfer that thought to trail erosion and psi!

Just look at any mixed use dirt parking lot you'll see the broken up dirt from horse hooves, whereas a hike/bike only lot remains mostly hard packed. Try riding on BLM land where cows share the trail they are pulverized into 3" deep talc!

As for snow machines and 4x4's demanding access it's easy, no fuel powered vehicles gas, electric etc...or how about a 300 lb weight limit per visitor person gear etc...? (but that might exclude equestrians).

In the end, accessing the wilderness should include mountain bikes, should include trail maintenance days.

Also I would like to see volume limiting lotteries allowing only certain numbers of users per day/week including odd/even weeks where hikers and equestrians have it one week, bikers the other.
Kirk Hohenberger
Kirk Hohenberger Subscriber
Feb 06, 2014 03:35 PM
When we talk about damage, and loss of wild in our wilderness areas, no one mentioned the damage done by cattle grazing.For the most part wildlife in this country is declining, loss of habitat is the problem, cows eat habitat, leaving less cover and food for everything else, less wildlife and diversity .Everyday more land is plowed, grazed, mined,drilled, roads built where there were none, wind farms go up, how much has ever been reclaimed? So our lands that have been protected to some degree are even now more important then ever for wildlife, and wildness.Yet one thing we could do to give back to nature that would have the greatest possible benefit, would be to get cows off our wilderness lands and wildlife refuges.
Adam Neff
Adam Neff
Feb 06, 2014 04:52 PM

You make a great counter point, one that I could/would easily support over the current management strategy. Restricting the number of users into an area would enhance the experience. Unfortunately, in the areas I've encountered this system the number of users allowed seems to be geared to the maximum number of users with acceptable environmental degradation. Nowhere I've been has limited the number to such a degree as to actually create the wilderness experience I've after. The closest areas I've seen were areas with less than top notch scenery that were overshadowed by far more spectacular areas nearby that drew the crowds.

One last thing, I don't understand why we manage all wilderness areas the same (or nearly the same). Why can't some allow mt bikes while others provide only walk in access, others that limit the number of people to create that true (ish) "wilderness" experience, and some that restrict overnight camping? Seems like a good compromise to me.
John Fisch
John Fisch
Feb 06, 2014 05:07 PM
There is actually a good deal of variation in management of various Wilderness areas. Some restrict use via a limited number of permits, some don't. Some allow pets and some don't (I have backpacked Wilderness areas at times with my dog, other time's I've had to kennel him). Some allow off-trail travel and some don't. Some restrict overnight camping as well. Some have different maximum allowable party sizes.

The one uniform policy, though, is no bikes.
Robb Cadwell
Robb Cadwell
Feb 06, 2014 06:48 PM
I wish they'd stop the commercial use of Wilderness. I hate carrying in all the gear for a cold weather hunt only to find an outfitter has come in the other way complete with a bevy of high dollar customers and seven wranglers, guides, cooks, and photographers to service them. Rent out pack animals fine but cut the guided excursions like by the Original Poster.
Nathan Brown
Nathan Brown
Feb 06, 2014 07:10 PM
Wow Howie, you just lost my respect. To quote you "the authors of the Wilderness Act would be appalled at the Forest Service's eagerness to mollify every recreation group that decides it's particular form of recreation trumps all others." You might think about a long cold hard look in a mirror.
Troy Freet
Troy Freet
Feb 07, 2014 03:05 AM
Well stated Nathan. Howie's self serving fallacious arguments are not based on fact.
Warren Piec
Warren Piec
Feb 07, 2014 07:48 AM
Is (W)ilderness Dead?

Has the Golden Age of (W)ilderness passed us by?

Not as a general concept or definition of (w)ilderness - or lines drawn on current maps of the hallowed (D)esignated places - but as a viable land protection tool of the future? Has D.C. been passing those Wilderness bills lately? Didn't think so. But I digress…

With all the religion-like fervor that a (W)ilderness designation incites, it is important to note that the democratic disciples that fought to pass the Wilderness Act DID NOT ban bicycles – the Forest Service did so in 1984 through a sneaky move that did an end-around the public process. Do doubt the framers of the ACT that are no longer with us are spinning in their graves as they bear witness to what the (W)ilderness Machine has become.

In the face of all the extractive pressures on our remaining wild lands, I would suggest that if the (W)ilderness advocates are truly interested in protecting these places (and not just their cushy employment opportunities), that they will embark on creating the next organic act that will replace (W)ilderness as the new Gold Standard of protection. And guess what? It will allow bicycles.

And what shall it be called?

Wilderness Lite?

Wilderness B?

Conservation Management Area?


Warren Piec
Warren Piec
Feb 07, 2014 08:00 AM
and one more thing - bicycles are currently allowed in all (w)ilderness areas that are not designated (W)ilderness or otherwise restricted.

Stop the manipulative grammatical subterfuge!
Ann Harvey
Ann Harvey Subscriber
Feb 07, 2014 10:47 AM
The Wilderness Act of 1964 specifically bans mechanical transport. The "democratic disciples" who wrote the Wilderness Act clearly intended that no mechanical transport be used in Wilderness--otherwise why would they use those words in the Act? They didn't name bicycles specifically, because it would be another 20 years before mountain bikes were even beginning to be used in the backcountry. They couldn't have foreseen the proliferation of mountain bikes, any more than we can foresee other potential forms of mechanical transport that may invade Wilderness in the future (drone-kiting, anyone?). They also didn't name other specific forms of mechanical transport. They simply stated that 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, and no structure or installation within any such area." Given the clarity of the language, I don't see how you can argue that the authors of the Wilderness Act actually intended that mountain bikes should be allowed in Wilderness. They are mechanical. They are a form of transport.
Why should Wilderness advocates work on creating a new Act that will replace Wilderness and that will allow bicycles? As a Wilderness advocate, I don't want bicycles or any other form of motorized or mechanical intrusions in Wilderness. I think the authors of the Wilderness Act knew what they were doing, and they got it right.
Ralph Bradt
Ralph Bradt Subscriber
Feb 07, 2014 11:02 AM
Warren, I must disagree with your assertion that the Wilderness Act does not ban bicycles. In Section 4(c) under Prohibition of Certain Uses, the Act reads:

"Except as specifically provided for in this Act, and subject to existing private rights, there shall be no commercial enterprise and no permanent road within any wilderness area designated by this Act and, except as necessary to meet minimum requirements for the administration of the area for the purpose of this Act (including measures required in emergencies involving the health and safety of persons within the area), 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, and no structure or installation within any such area."

This prohibition applies to any Wilderness, whether Forest Service, Park Service, BLM, or Fish and Wildlife Service.
Warren Piec
Warren Piec
Feb 07, 2014 11:07 AM
"Why should Wilderness advocates work on creating a new Act that will replace Wilderness and that will allow bicycles?"

Because the (W)ilderness or nothing dialog/solution is becoming less politically viable everyday? So do you want help in getting Wildlands protected, or just leave it for the extractive free-for-all while you hold out for the (W)ilderness (D)ream? Tick Tock Tick Tock...
Ralph Bradt
Ralph Bradt Subscriber
Feb 07, 2014 11:36 AM
There are non-Wilderness alternatives to protect wildlands, which can be less restrictive than Wilderness designation. In Colorado, the James Peak Protection Area, Bowen Gulch, Tabeguache, Roubideau and Piedra Areas are designated non-Wilderness protected areas.
Warren Piec
Warren Piec
Feb 07, 2014 11:42 AM
Bingo - that is the solution for future Wildland protection. Big (W) advocates don't like it? Maybe it's time to roll up yer sleeves and put the legal teeth and permanence into these companion designations - new organic act?

To protect, or not to protect - the 50 year-old question.
John Fisch
John Fisch
Feb 07, 2014 11:58 AM
Your analysis is superficial--a more in-depth discussion is necessary.

If you were to actually study the intent of the Wilderness Act, you would find nothing incongruous behind it and the inclusion of bicycles. The intent was two-fold:
1. To preserve. As has been proven time and time again, bikes carry impact similar to feet and far less than hooves.
2. To encourage Americans to enjoy their wild places under their own power. I bicycle fits neatly into this intent.
During the House debate on the Act, the chairperson of the House Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs, Representative Wayne N. Aspinall Colorado, made it clear that the Act was intended to bar obtrusive infrastructure. Another House member asked, "[o]n page 17 of the bill . . . the language is as follows: 'has outstanding opportunities for solitude or a primitive and unconfined type of recreation.' I wonder what 'a primitive and unconfined type of recreation' might be?" Representative Aspinall responded, "it just simply means that there will not be any manmade structures about in order to embarrass and handicap the enjoyers of this particular area." A bicycle requires no such infrastructure.

Representative John P. Saylor of Pennsylvania asked to have included in the record a 1961statement by Senator Clinton P. Anderson of New Mexico, made when Senator Anderson introduced a prior version of the Act in the Senate. In a passage titled "Wilderness Recreation," Senator Anderson stated:
Yet we must recognize and emphasize more than we have the values of wilderness recreation in providing for the health and vigor of our citizens."Physical fitness is the basis of all the activities of our society," and I say this in the words of President-elect John F. Kennedy writing thus in the December 26, 1960, issue of Sports Illustrated. In an article entitled "The Soft American," this great and vigorous leader warns that this "age of leisure and abundance can destroy vigor and muscle tone as effortlessly as it can gain time." "Many of the routine physical activities which earlier Americans took for granted," he points out, "are no longer part of our daily life. A single look at the packed parking lot of the average high school will tell us what has happened to the traditional bike to school that helped to build young bodies. The television set, the movies, and the [myriad] conveniences and distractions of modern life all lure our young people away from the strenuous physical activity that is the basis of fitness in youth and in later life."
This, and all subsequent testimony at the time points to human powered transport being not only acceptable, but encouraged in accordance with the intent of the Wilderness Act.

Between the signing of the Act and the writing of the regulations which would implement the Act, President Lyndon Johnson made his intent clear as well:
”The forgotten outdoorsmen of today are those who like to walk, hike, ride horseback or bicycle. For them we must have trails as well as highways. Nor should motor vehicles be permitted to tyrannize the more leisurely human traffic.”

Backing this up is the first regulation put into place to implement the law. It states: "there shall be in National Forest Wilderness . . . no use of motor vehicles, motorized equipment, motorboats, or other forms of mechanical transport” Anti bike zealots are quick to latch onto that word “mechanical,” which a bicycle certainly is. Fortunately, the architects of the original Wilderness regulations were very specific in what they meant by “mechanical transport” as the regulation goes on to define clearly “(a) Mechanical transport, as herein used, shall include any contrivance which travels over ground, snow, or water on wheels, tracks, skids, or by floatation and is propelled by a nonliving power source contained or carried on or within the device."

“Propelled by a nonliving power source” says it all. Bicycles should be lumped in with those mechanical devices which are driven by life forms, not those which are propelled by artificial means.

Congress reinforced their legislative intent in the Rattlesnake Wilderness act of 1980 which led to the creation of the Rattlesnake Wilderness Area in Montana. In this legislation, they specifically called bicycling as a primitive form of recreation fitting for Wilderness.
(a) The Congress finds that—(1) certain lands on the Lolo National Forest in Montana have high value for watershed, water storage, wildlife habitat, primitive recreation, historical, scientific, ecological, and educational purposes. This national forest area has long been used as a wilderness by Montanans and by people throughout the Nation who value it as a source of solitude, wildlife, clean, free-flowing waters stored and used for municipal purposes for over a century, and primitive recreation, to include such activities as hiking, camping, backpacking, hunting, fishing, horse riding, and bicycling;”
IMPORTANT NOTE: This is the one and only place that the Congressional record specifically addresses bicycling with regard to Wilderness. While some of the original 1964 – 1966 language might be asserted as ambiguous, the intent here removes any doubt. Combine the original language which clearly stated that “primitive recreation” is a valid purpose of Wilderness with this language declaring cycling as a primitive form of recreation, and the loop is neatly closed. Intent is clear . . . . and it makes sense, unlike the anti-bike hysteria which seeks to twist the words and meaning of the purpose of Wilderness.
John Fisch
John Fisch
Feb 07, 2014 12:36 PM
You should also do additional research on the full context of the Wilderness Act, the intent behind it, and the history its regulation since its inception. My post immediately above dispels the usual myths.
David Nix
David Nix Subscriber
Feb 07, 2014 12:48 PM
I'd have to agree with the no bikes in Wilderness Areas crowd. Bikes have their place in the landscape of recreational opportunities but run contrary to the intent of WAs where traditional and primitive uses are embraced and preserved. As an avid trail runner in Utah, I actively avoid places with Mtn Bikes. I've been run off the trail too many times. Their damage to trails is considerable (e.g. take a look at the Wasatch Crest Trail, Desolation, and Millcreek trails). For some, their speed and lack of control on descents is irresponsible. To see this in WAs would be a major step backwards in the preservation of these sacred places.
John Fisch
John Fisch
Feb 07, 2014 01:18 PM
This year I took the family on a multi-day backpack. Miles of trail were badly eroded and rutted, exhibiting the worst trail damag I’d ever seen. Now, here’s the kicker—the entire duration of this trip was spent within the confines of the Holy Cross Wilderness area on trails which have never seen a knobby tire! I have repeated this experience of navigating badly eroded trail many times on many different trails which are not used by mountain bikes.

Conversely, I make a couple trips each year to one of mountain biking’s great Meccas, Fruita. These trails receive an exceptionally high volume of bike travel throughout the year. In the spring and fall, thousands of cyclists descend on these trail networks each day. Yet these trails show none of the degradation you attribute to bikes. In fact, they remain in better shape than the majority of hiker only trails I've been on.

The fact of the matter is that there are numerous factors which contribute to trail damage and hasten negative impacts. Bikes as opposed to hikers is not one of them. I don’t just rely on my own personal anecdotal experience, either. I look to independent, unbiased research to help prove or disprove the conclusions I might draw from my own experience. In this case, my experience is validated by experts who are not mountain bikers:
1. Wilson and Seney (1994). Horses (which are allowed and I have yet to hear any anti-bike zealot argue against despite this fact) have by far the greatest impact. Trails studied with bike impact showed no difference from control trails that saw no bike traffic.
2. Marion (2006) noted the greatest difference in trail erosion due to construction (i.e. fall line vs. traversing) but not by user group type. In fact, his research showed the least erosion on trails used for biking.
3. Goeft and Alder (2001) also concluded that trail design was a significant factor in erosion while user type was not.
These are but a few examples. There are more and each and every one of them come to the same conclusion—that there is no significant difference in trail impact between hiking and biking, and wherever included, equestrian use has significantly more impact than either.

You also misrepresent, either intentionally or honestly by false assumption, the intent of Wilderness as it was constructed and implemented. See my post above for a more complete demonstration of this.
It’s also funny that you say “For some, their speed and lack of control on descents is irresponsible.” For some hikers, their cutting of switchbacks, establishment of campsites or relieving of bodily waste within 100 ft of water sources, building of illegal and land-scarring fire rings, or reckless smoking (either tobacco or marijuana) in drought stricken or other high fire danger back country areas is also quite irresponsible. If you think it appropriate to ban all because of the irresponsible actions of a few, you must apply that to all user groups, not just the ones you wish to cast out.
Warren Piec
Warren Piec
Feb 07, 2014 01:30 PM
Personally, I think trying to get quiet, human powered bicycles into existing Wilderness areas will be an enormous, time consuming poop show with little upside (other than some amazing wheeled opportunities for sharing the solitude). That said, David Nix, how do you propose we protect '(W)ilderness' quality (w)ilderness landscapes that have a long, invested history of bicycle access? (W)ilderness or nothing? If so, I'm afraid we'll be left holding an empty bag while we wish for the Gold Standard of yester-year to save the day.
John Fisch
John Fisch
Feb 07, 2014 01:48 PM
Unfortunately, Warren, the Wilderness or nothing crowd is pretty much having it's way, regardless of opposition, in some areas. In Montana, a suit was brought claiming that not enough was being done to preserve the Wilderness character of Wilderness Study Areas while they await a decision on their ultimate status (Wilderness or not) and that the only way to preserve that Wilderness Character is to effectively manage them as though they actually are Wilderness. A federal judge agreed and cyclists lost hundreds of miles of trails they had traditionally ridden for decades. So, in essence, what happened was that an executive branch agency (USFS) declared a Wilderness Study Area, and a judicial branch representative (the federal judge) directed the treatment of this area as Wilderness, thus creating a de facto Wilderness area, completely sidestepping the judicial process, which legally, is the only way to create legitimate Wilderness.
David Nix
David Nix Subscriber
Feb 07, 2014 02:32 PM
Warren, why not establish these areas as National Monuments that are bike friendly? Then you could use the quota/ permit systems in the parks to regulate access? I deal with this for river running permits. Quotas on all use groups are coming, its just a matter of time. WAs serve a different purpose. Ann's post above very much echo's my own beliefs, especially with regard to existing WAs.
Warren Piec
Warren Piec
Feb 07, 2014 02:40 PM
So it's de facto (W)ilderness or nothing? By hook or by crook. Bummer.
David Nix
David Nix Subscriber
Feb 07, 2014 02:54 PM
Hmm I'm a bit confused Warren, why not use a land protection method appropriate for the location? WA's are the most restrictive short of some wild life preserves. It is not appropriate for all wilderness caliber places. Especially those with established mechanized uses (bikes, jeeps, motorcycles...). Take Escalante. Although initially hated by many use groups and locals it has been nothing short of a huge boon in terms of bringing jobs and dollars to a depressed region. It protects the landscape at the same time as allowing a variety of recreational activities. WAs are one tool in a conservationists quiver.

John Fisch
John Fisch
Feb 07, 2014 03:27 PM
David asks "why not use a land protection method appropriate for the location?" This is a great question and the answer is that we should, of course do just that. There is, however, nothing appropriate about a blanket ban on an equally low impact user group on all trails within the boundaries of an area when every bit of research and rational thought indicates that many of those trails are suitable for cycling and sustainable as such. The only appropriate thing to do is to provide equal opportunity for access to all who can quietly enjoy the wilds in a low-impact manner.
Warren Piec
Warren Piec
Feb 07, 2014 09:54 PM
David, I guess the 'appropriate for the location' is in the eye of the beholder. Just who is the judge of that appropriateness? What is the forum for that ever so important decision? What defines (w)ilderness character - a forest service manual or the soul and grit of a wild place?

I ride my bicycle into pristine mountain landscapes for the beauty, the solitude, the physical challenge. My experience embraces (w)ilderness character - and does not tarnish it.

In my Region 1 backyard where 500 miles of backcountry singletrack that we'd ridden for decades was recently closed to bicycles because of an ill-defined, secret handshake Forest Service philosophy that manages Recommended Wilderness as Wilderness with no guarantee that it will ever get the official Congressional blessing, we are left to wonder where was the pubic process that approved this blanket ban that usurps the authority of Congress?

Just where exactly does the buck stop?
Larry Bullock
Larry Bullock
Feb 07, 2014 09:59 PM
     This discussion is a fascinating illustration of human overpopulation – individuals and groups fight over the last few bits of semi-wild land. The loss of personal freedom, so say overpopulation theorists, increases directly with population density and with advances in technology (credit cards, cell phones, lightweight gear, better bikes, etc.).
     For those of us who place the greatest value on wilderness as the last refuge for many endangered species, removing people from wilderness areas would help tremendously. But, I wouldn’t start with recreationists. I would start with the biggest problem. Unless the management of wilderness areas has changed recently, approximately half of all designated wilderness is grazed by domestic livestock. Ranchers are permitted to drive motorized vehicles in designated wilderness to facilitate their livestock business.
     The wilderness-designation process is a fiasco. In a recent case, areas that the oil and gas industry wanted were cut out of consideration; grazing leases remained; and a road was “cherry-stemmed” to a non-functioning gold mine owned by a serial federal blackmailer. Because of the designation, the road was reopened and maintained at public expense. Some may be interested to know that bicycles were banned in the designation, which protected mostly high-altitude rock and ice, which probably didn’t need protection. With scenic background in place, posing senators, commissioners, and land-management officials took credit for a superlative example of “conservation.”
     The letter of the law allows all of these abuses. That’s why, for the sake of endangered species, the law must be changed. Species that belong in these places, like grizzly bears, wolves, and bison, are not being reintroduced to these possible home sites. None have made it across hundreds of miles of hostile territory to recolonize wilderness areas. Even if they did, I don’t know whether they would be allowed to stay.
     I thought that the author of the initial article would have made this argument. Maybe he just needs to make some money in this crazy, overpopulated dystopia.
Shana Payne
Shana Payne Subscriber
Feb 08, 2014 04:19 PM
Uh-oh, here we go again. High Country News, I seem to recall a similar article just a year or two ago with the same response. Unfortunately, the author seems to have done little to no research (or is blatantly ignoring the results), so his article is basically just an opinion piece and should be labeled as such. I sincerely hope that High Country News does not share his bias - would appreciate it if you would make a note on articles like this that this represents the authors opinion and does not represent the views or opinions of HCN.
Shana Payne
Shana Payne Subscriber
Feb 08, 2014 04:52 PM
Also, to the author - if you have had a bad experience with some mountain bikers - please don't paint them all with the same brush. You will get a lot further with your arguments if you do proper research and use less propaganda to try to further your position. Your article just comes across as someone angry against mountain bikers - and alienates anyone who disagrees. Instead you should craft your argument in a respectful and educated way, so as to allow for an open conversation about what is really important - which is preserving the wilderness experience, to the best of our ability, for people to enjoy, for as long as possible.

As many others have pointed out in prior comments, factual research actually contradicts your position on several points. I mountain bike, road bike, backpack, hike, kayak, climb, ski, snowshoe, and love to be outdoors. I used to guide hiking and backpacking trips through a fairly large outdoor club in TN and was very involved in the mountain bike community. There are irresponsible users in every group - people who are loud, inconsiderate, who litter, who don't stay on designated trails, etc. Luckily, they tend to be in the minority. Most people who are involved in outdoor activities do it because they appreciate nature and it is in their best interest to "tread lightly" in order to preserve the experience for the future. Even though I ride, I think an argument can be made that there are trails that mountain bikers (and potentially hikers or equestrians) do not belong on, but I think it should be on a trail by trail basis (or park/area basis). I think another alternative that I have seen work very well in Tsali, NC is alternating designated ride days for mountain bikers and other user groups to allow shared use with minimal conflicts. I don't agree with blanket bans in Wilderness Areas and your article did nothing to convince me otherwise.
Susan A Sherman
Susan A Sherman Subscriber
Feb 09, 2014 11:15 AM
Most of my responses to this piece have already been addressed by others, and much more thoroughly and eloquently than I am capable of. I would like to address the notion of cross country mountain bikers (those who would actually ride wilderness trails if so allowed) as "ripping up vegetation" while zipping out-of-control and wearing "all that protective gear." Most cross-country mountain bikers don't wear body armour because we're not downhill racers on an adrenaline rush. We pedal up hills, too, often long, steep ones, so we can enjoy the same scenery and wildlife and solitude that you find so gratifying. Sometimes we even carry overnight gear on our frames or in tow-behind trailers so we can enjoy an overnight experience (this slows us down tremendously).

I am also an avid backpacker, and agree there are places that bikes do not belong. I am not convinced, however, that the very definition of wilderness should preclude responsible mountain biking. I support wilderness preservation, but this exclusion causes me to rethink this support when a proposed wilderness area encompasses one of my favorite mountain bike trails. Arguably, the wilderness also should not be open to commercial trips, whether on foot, bicycle, or horseback. As an outfitter, you bring in groups of people who otherwise lack the knowledge, skills, and equipment to enjoy the outdoors without inflicting undue harm on either themselves or the wilderness around them.

And you are unlikely to convince me that mountain bikes cause more damage than strings of pack horses and large groups of hikers who widen trails, cause streamside erosion, and trammel large campsites.
Tim Baker
Tim Baker
Feb 09, 2014 06:39 PM
At the heart of this discussion is one of the founding ideas behind formal Wilderness designation -- that Wilderness should provide outstanding opportunities for solitude and primitive and unconfined recreation. This idea is written into the Act as part of what defines a Wilderness.

I've participated in most of the non-motorized forms of outdoor recreation over the last several decades and I've witnessed the explosion of both mountain bikes and motorized recreation on public lands as well as more pedestrian pursuits like bouldering and climbing. For the record, I thoroughly enjoy single-track mountain biking but there are plenty of places to pursue that activity outside of Wilderness. Indeed far more area outside of Wilderness than in it.

The biggest problem I have with the idea of mountain bikes in wilderness is that their speed makes the Wilderness smaller and reduces the opportunities for solitude. They are also not 'unconfined' in that they are restricted (or should be) to existing or new (e.g. bootleg) trails. Advocating for them to be included begins to erode the definition of Wilderness which weakens the protections of the Act which in the long run will be to the detriment of all who value Wilderness.

Ed Abbey once proposed we have a range of wilderness designations from those where no humans are ever allowed to those open to more kinds of uses. It'd never work, but I like the idea.
Robert Stevens
Robert Stevens
Feb 09, 2014 09:42 PM
"Wilderness is about humility, the acceptance that we humans don’t know it all and never will. More than any other landscape, wilderness takes us beyond “self”; in it, we are part of something greater. It is a shame that the Forest Service, many politicians and some recreationists are so wrongheaded -- stuck in a self-indulgent and myopic worldview regarding the DuNoir and so many other fragile endangered wild lands."
I don't believe that I've ever read anything, in any periodical of any kind, where the author was more out of touch, more projective than this one. The aire of ignorance and arrogance, of infantile paralysis is dumfounding. "stuck in self"..... go look in the mirror. Many, like you, base their simple-minded, self-indulgent, immature projective opinions on their gross ignorance, as you have. Fact is, there are hundreds of mt. bike advocacy groups across N. America (to mention only one continent) who promote biking on dirt trails, with responsible trail-building ethics and practices, which result in responsible trail use practices. For every irresponsible, reckless mt. biker, there are that number and more hikers and equestrians who use our natural wilderness resources recklessly, irresponsibly, to the decimation of that wilderness, eroding and trashing our environment for generations to come. I've helped clean up too many of these damaged environs to count (I"m on the older side of life at 71, so have seen/experienced this often). The wrongheaded, ignorant position you confer does nothing to try and bring together the most valuable resources, outside of the land itself, in order to ensure sustainability, and that is us humans. Take your warrantless diatribe and drivel elsewhere. There is nothing useful or redeeming in it.
Jesse Tigner
Jesse Tigner
Feb 10, 2014 12:52 PM
I have been fortunate in my life to see lots of open spaces first as an itinerate biologist working around the West and now as a more settled biologist working in Canada’s far north. I’ve experienced those open spaces in lots of different ways – sometimes comfortable from a truck and sometimes with a feeling of hesitation watching my drop-off vanish behind 100s of kilometers of absolutely nothing at 120 knots. In all of those experiences I can’t recall seeing mountain bikes, but I have seen lots of different uses, some motorized and some not. One common thread among all that difference is that the user I’ve interacted with love of what they are doing and a love of where they’re doing it.

Arguing about the “right way” to interpret or perceive the value of a landscape seems silly. And kind of stupid because in the end it’s futile. People place different values on the land and expect to enjoy the land differently. A community of people (as evidenced here!!) aren’t likely to agree on those values or expected uses. But it’s it ultimately most important for people to value open spaces as places to enjoy? Imagine yourself hiking in a designated Wilderness Area and you see a few mountain bikers wiz by. Can you honestly say that ruins your experience? Now imagine that designated Wilderness Area didn’t exist.

I totally understand the desire to have a primeval place, and I totally understand that designating certain areas as restricted to all other uses besides non-mechanized, self-propelled ones. Personally I’d prefer to open more places for all kinds of recreation – motorized and not – if it meant more places were taken off the chopping block for industrial uses. But, then some of my least “wildernessy” experiences have occurred in areas designated as such while my most were either facilitated by motors and mechanisms or occurred in areas where such uses were allowed.

Certainly some areas should remain off limits to motors. To bikes, I don’t know. Regardless, I wonder how the debate would change if there were broader support for mixed uses in more areas and single uses in fewer? Would that propel broader support for valuing land and affording more areas at least some kind of protection? Would that better spread users across a greater area of land? Would it better keep some places “feet only, forever” for the likely majority of Wilderness Area user who drive a few hours a dozen or so times a year to experience the primeval-ish ?
Kyle Klain
Kyle Klain
Feb 10, 2014 05:03 PM
I'm not even advocating bikes in wilderness (maybe some trails, depending on region, local input etc), but here's my fundamental beef with the article and people advocating similar positions: I frequent a local bike shop and occasionally I see a bumper sticker that reads "No More Wilderness" and usually is tied into the banning of cycling or other activities in the new wilderness area. The problem is that this is a large user group and now with groups like the IMBA, quite organized. Why would you not try to build bridges and join forces with this large and burgeoning group (one that do what they do because they want to be out of doors, exploring wildlands, and being healthy)? I don't see how this type of article helps the debate, offers solutions, or will help bring in more wilderness areas. Rather, it's going to mobilize people to prevent any future wilderness proposals and possibly change existing law for the worse.
John Fisch
John Fisch
Feb 10, 2014 08:33 PM
Tim says “Wilderness should provide outstanding opportunities for solitude” but ignores the fact that solitude is disturbed by other people, not bikes. The more people you encounter, the more your solitude is disturbed, regardless of their mode of transport. This in no way implies favoring one non-motorized, low-impact user group over another.

He then refers to the “primitive” recreation as called out by the original Wilderness Act. However, every bit of testimony and discussion leading up to the act indicates that the use of the words “primitive” and not “mechanized” was meant to exclude motorized vehicles. This was codified in the first regulations which implemented Wilderness in 1966, clearly defining “mechanized” as “powered by a non-living source” implying that mountain biking would be acceptable. While this implication may not be convincing to some, the Rattlesnake Wilderness Act of 1980 remains the only piece of legislation which directly addresses mountain bikes with regard to Wilderness. It states: (a) The Congress finds that—(1) certain lands on the Lolo National Forest in Montana have high value for watershed, water storage, wildlife habitat, primitive recreation, historical, scientific, ecological, and educational purposes. This national forest area has long been used as a wilderness by Montanans and by people throughout the Nation who value it as a source of solitude, wildlife, clean, free-flowing waters stored and used for municipal purposes for over a century, and primitive recreation, to include such activities as hiking, camping, backpacking, hunting, fishing, horse riding, and bicycling;”

Tim then says “but there are plenty of places to pursue that activity outside of Wilderness. Indeed far more area outside of Wilderness than in it.” The fact is that mountain bikes are for off-road use, and the more intrepid of cyclists like to get into backcountry more than city trails just like hikers do. However, mountain bikes are excluded from 40-80% of roadless areas in each of our Western states by Wilderness designation alone. This doesn’t include National Parks, other USFS or BLM closures or other local municipality restrictions. Furthermore, many trails begin and end outside Wilderness, but pass through Wilderness for some (often small) portion of their length, rendering the entire trail nonviable as a cycling route. So this assertion is greatly overstated at best. Here’s the acid test as to the legitimacy of that statement: If you were to tell hikers they were excluded from up to 80% of their most desired lands, would they say, “that’s okay, I have other places I can hike?”

He also repeats the “bikes make Wilderness smaller” mantra, which is absurd in the face of the fact that horses are allowed in Wilderness. At least the bike is human powered, the horse is not. As a former horseman, I could travel much faster over the long haul on a horse than on a bike. Indeed, for most slovenly Americans, the horse offers far more opportunity to penetrate deep into the wilderness than the bike. Furthermore, pack animals provide much more “unconfined” opportunity not just to penetrate Wilderness, but to also establish a presence in that Wilderness. Even the modern backpacker is greatly aided by lightweight packs, tents, sleeping bags, cookstoves, freeze-dried foods, and GPS units which allow them to more easily penetrate—and remain (something bikers very rarely do) in the Wilderness.

And then he makes yet another statement which is meaningless in the face of reality. “They are also not 'unconfined' in that they are restricted (or should be) to existing or new (e.g. bootleg) trails.”
Bikes are far more restricted to trails than hikers or equestrians who go off trail with far greater frequency.

It’s good of Tim to bring up Edward Abbey. After all this is the great naturalist who said: “A man on foot, on horseback or on a bicycle will see more, feel more, enjoy more in one mile than the motorized tourists can in a hundred miles.” This sounds like a fine endorsement of cycling as a valid way to enjoy the outdoors.
Tim Baker
Tim Baker
Feb 11, 2014 08:41 AM
This argument seems to have a good bit of similarity with the kayaks in Yellowstone one -- someone has a favored use that they feel is unfairly excluded from a specific area and feel persecuted as a result. Despite having a lot of other places to pursue that activity in similar conditions.

I like to hike and camp with my canine companions. My current pup is well-behaved and I keep her on leash and under control when hiking with her. Yet the National Parks won't allow me to go on any trails with her for reasons that I don't always agree with. My response is to camp and hike in other places and avoid the National Parks. I mountain bike with the same attitude. There are a ton of spectacular places to ride single-track outside of wilderness. More places than any one rider can cover in a life time.

And I'm okay with developing a new land-use designation for some of the WSU's that preserves the non-motorized recreation but doesn't get full Wilderness designation, which is what I alluded to with the Ed Abbey reference. What I don't agree with is weakening the current standard of management for Wilderness areas that are already designated.

Even John's rationale that mountain bikes should be okay because they don't stay overnight in areas seems to me to be an argument against them -- Wilderness shouldn't be seen as a day-use recreational zone because it can't absorb that amount of use without damage. While individual bikes might not cause much more damage than a hiker, a huge increase in the number of users (bikes) would. I'm not a big fan of commercial pack trips for the same reason. Indeed in some areas of heavy hiking/pack use I'd like to see additional restrictions on them to reduce the negative impacts of recreational use.

My final point is another personal one I'll admit. Seeing bike tracks on a wilderness trail detracts from my experience in the same way hearing planes fly overhead does. They are intrusive reminders of the technology that Wilderness was intended to be a refuge from. So are cell phones and GPS for that matter and I'd be fine with both of them being banned in Wilderness too. As for the lightweight backpacking equipment, well most of that reduces the impact of a user on Wilderness (e.g. stoves instead of campfires, tents instead of constructed lean-to) so I think those are boons to the experience.
Warren Piec
Warren Piec
Feb 11, 2014 09:37 AM
From my perspective the conversation is not about the weakening the current standard of management for (W)ilderness, but the political viability of a Wilderness designation as a land protection tool in the future. If we can't get (W)ilderness bills passed to protect worthy (w)ilderness landscapes, what good is it? Again, has the Golden Age of (W)ilderness passed us by? Time for a revamp of how we protect special places? Just saying...
John Fisch
John Fisch
Feb 11, 2014 12:45 PM
“Even John's rationale that mountain bikes should be okay because they don't stay overnight in areas seems to me to be an argument against them -- Wilderness shouldn't be seen as a day-use recreational zone because it can't absorb that amount of use without damage.”
That doesn’t seem to jive with the definition of Wilderness which states “untrammeled by man” (isn’t the establishment of a campsite additional trammeling?) and further states “ where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” Furthermore useage rates are not related to whether or not something is called Wilderness, but rather proximity to populations centers. A Wilderness area close to a metropolitan area will see heavier use than a non Wilderness area in a remote location. “Day use” takes place where the people are, regardless of land status.

“While individual bikes might not cause much more damage than a hiker, a huge increase in the number of users (bikes) would.”
Which points out a fundamental issue here—it’s the number of visitors which is the key, not their means of locomotion. If carrying capacity, however we define that, is exceeded, then it must be limited somehow. There is no justification, however, for simply casting out one equally impactful user group in favor of another to achieve that limitation.

The dog analogy is also a false one. I too have a dog. When I camp in a National or State Park, he can’t come. There are also some individual Wilderness areas which prohibit pets. When I backpack there, I can’t bring him—but I can still hike there. The only corresponding analogy would be that I can ride certain trails with a dog (I don’t, but I know many who do) and some bike legal trails which exclude pets. In either case, you can still ride. Ditto with the hiking.
Geoffrey Smith &
Geoffrey Smith & Subscriber
Feb 12, 2014 12:41 AM
IMHO it is a numbers issue. The rapidly increasing numbers of cyclists vs. hikers and equestrians -- and resulting impacts -- warrants action to limit bicycle use.
Tim Baker
Tim Baker
Feb 12, 2014 08:56 AM
I still like my analogy because I view hiking with a dog and hiking without one as different recreational experiences akin to the difference between biking on a fire road compared to biking on a trail. You may not agree with the distinction but I think it apt in this discussion.

I'm also still convinced that that addition of a modern transportation technology, which mountain bikes certainly are, to Wilderness will degrade the wilderness ideal. I'm all for going forward with designating some of the RARE II Wilderness Study Areas as non-motorized recreation areas that do allow bikes but not for allowing bikes into existing Wilderness.

John Fisch
John Fisch
Feb 12, 2014 09:49 AM
Well, Tim
We seem to have a slightly different Wilderness aesthetic and there's no way to reconcile that.

Which is why it's so important to look to actual impact rather than what different individuals perceive. Actual impact favors allowing human powered bikes anywhere feet are allowed and even more places than hooves are allowed. So many other things which are allowed in the Wilderness employ much higher technology than a bike which, is a very simple mechanical device. Furthermore, many mechanical devices are allowed in the Wilderness and anti-bike advocates have no problem with them. Either mechanics are allowed or they are not--drawing the line just this side of a bicycle is arbitrary in any kind of practical sense.

As far as "degrading the Wilderness ideal," again that's your ideal, not everyones. For resolution there, we must look to the original testimony which led to the creation of Wilderness, the original regulations which implemented the Wilderness Act, and the only piece of Wilderness legislation which directly addressed bicycles,all of which supported the idea of bicycle use in Wilderness areas.

And just so we're clear, I'm not advocating for full bicycle access to all trails. There are trails out there which are not suitable for cycling--they should remain bike free. Even where trails are suitable for biking, I (and the vast majority of cyclists) are not opposed to allowing hikers a bike-free experience. Shared use schedules have proven highly successful wherever implemented. I was a backcountry hiker for 26 years before getting my first bike and, in all those hundreds of bike encounters, I never felt like encountering a bicycle degraded my experience. Even so, I'm sensitive to the fact that it may degrade the experience for others, however irrational that may be. In most shared use schedules, hikers are allowed every day while bikes are allowed every other day, or at some other specifically restricted interval. This still unfairly favors hikers, but bikers are willing to go that extra mile, so to speak.
Fred Swanson
Fred Swanson Subscriber
Feb 12, 2014 01:18 PM
No issue, not even climate change, seems to stir up as much concern in these pages as mountain biking vs. hiking. A couple things I’d like to toss into the pot:

(1) The folks casting aspersions on Howie’s intellect may want to consider that this guy has been in the trenches on behalf of wild places for 40+ years. No one has worked harder to safeguard the Northern Rockies’ wilderness. The exact dates escape me, but he spent some time in a Teton County jail owing to his principled opposition to Chevron opening up the western Gros Ventre Range to oil and gas development. You can take exception to his approach but his commitment is second to none. I’d wager that his opinions are at least worth attention.

(2) The mountain bike issue is partly a matter of physical impact, and here each of us will have his our her own observations. When it comes to trail use, like tends to beget like. Heavy use by horses and pack trains, especially in boggy areas, tend to leave trails suitable mostly for horses. ATVs churn up soils and render trails so rocky they’re suitable only for ATVs. I’ve noted that mountain bikes tend to create a V-groove in a trail that reduces their comfort for hikers. So what used to be called a “hiking trail” now becomes “singletrack.” Not a huge impact, but it’s there.

(3) Of greater concern to me is the social conflict created when different user groups mix. Noise is a prime issue with ATVs, but there’s also the matter of hiking all day to a lake only to find that some other party arrived in an hour’s travel. That’s an issue with horses and bikes, but to a lesser degree. With horses, I admit I freely step aside when they approach, yet I mind having to vacate the trail every time a mountain bike passes by. Why? For one thing, horse parties tend to be infrequent on most trails (partly because of self-segregation—see point 2) whereas bike use is quite heavy on many trails here in the Wasatch.

What I find hardest to accept is the high degree of alertness I must maintain on trails open to bikes. Many commenters make the point that most bikers are quite courteous, and they are, but the expectation is that I’ll make way for them, not vice versa. Unlike with horses, their rate of travel and stealthy approach, even under normal use, means that I must devote a certain amount of mental space to listen for them and be ready to jump off the trail. This can get tricky on a steep or brushy hillside. I find can no longer walk in the kind of reverie I used to enjoy, stopping to listen to birds or get lost in my thoughts. That’s a big part of why I go to the mountains. It’s not that bikers are pernicious, it’s just a matter of compatibility on a narrow trail.

So-called “multi-use” trails are no solution, in my opinion. What works is segregation, either spatially (by designating trails for specific uses) or temporally (e.g. odd/even days, which work quite well here). There are remedies--as long as we can be clear that there are, indeed, impacts.
Tim Baker
Tim Baker
Feb 12, 2014 07:20 PM
From Section 2(c) of the Wilderness Act:

..."(2) has outstanding opportunities for solitude or a primitive and unconfined type of recreation;"

From Section 4(c) of the Wilderness Act
“ . . . no temporary road, no use of motor vehicles, motorized equipment or motorboats, no landing of aircraft, no form of mechanical transport, and no structure or installation within any such area”

Sorry for being so irrational as to bring the actual text of the Act into my argument for excluding mountain bikes from designated Wilderness. But then again, the use of 'primitive' recreation in the definition and the specific statement of 'no form of mechanical transport' seem pretty good reasons for my point of view. You might notice they specifically say 'mechanical transport' separately from 'motorized equipment'. Then again maybe it's just that I've been enjoying mountain biking since the mid 1980's on single track without ever once having to go into a Wilderness on a bike that makes me unable to accept the argument that bikes belong there.
Kim Springer
Kim Springer
Feb 12, 2014 07:47 PM
I think it’s naïve to say those who created the Wilderness Act intended to allow bikes, scooters, skateboards, or any future mechanized apparatus in wilderness. The very reason the Wilderness Act was developed was to protect these areas from unforeseen future impacts like these. The term mechanized was included to prevent this discussion today. Luckily for all of us, there are millions of non-wilderness acres in the National Forests where we can take mechanized toys.
Those in favor of mountain biking in wilderness simply want access for their own personal interests, just like boaters want access to every stream and river, or climbers who want access to every mountain or rock outcrop.
Yes, let’s work together and respect others’ desire for lands that allow and don’t allow mechanized recreation, there’s room for both. I’m thankful to have the option to go for a quiet cross country ski or a loud snowmobile ride, a horse trail or a hiker trail, wilderness or non-wilderness. If bikes were allowed in wilderness they would have been included in the Wilderness Act, those who disagree are trying to rewrite history.
John Fisch
John Fisch
Feb 13, 2014 06:36 PM
I’ve never though you irrational and have understood and even, to some degree, empathized with your posts up until this point. However, now I must conclude that you are either 1. Ignorant and don’t know any better or are 2. Aware of the incomplete nature of the information you share and deliberately trying to mislead others in an attempt to further your agenda.

Re: motorized vs. mechanized. Every bit of testimony which led to the creation of the Wilderness Act implies that the use of the word mechanized was intended to exclude automobiles. Part of the intent of the Act was to get people out of their cars and into the wild places under their own part. The other part of the intent of the act was to prevent the type of development that goes with supporting automobiles; roads, gas stations, etc. For instance (and this is where deeper research comes handy rather than just latching onto a superficial analysis just because it supports your position), during the House debate on the Act, the chairperson of the House Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs, Representative Wayne N. Aspinall Colorado, made it clear that the Act was intended to bar obtrusive infrastructure. Another House member asked, "[o]n page 17 of the bill . . . the language is as follows: 'has outstanding opportunities for solitude or a primitive and unconfined type of recreation.' I wonder what 'a primitive and unconfined type of recreation' might be?" Representative Aspinall responded, "it just simply means that there will not be any manmade structures about in order to embarrass and handicap the enjoyers of this particular area."

You cite the use of the language “primitive” and “mechanical” over and over, yet ignore the intent as well as the actual definitions of those words as they apply to the discussion at hand. You say in the Act, they “specifically say 'mechanical transport' separately from 'motorized equipment', when the fact is they used those words synonymously, again intending to eliminate motorized vehicles and the infrastructure required to support them.

The confirmation of what they meant by “mechanized” is in the original regulations which implemented the act. The framers went to great trouble to define “mechanized” so that we wouldn’t have to argue about what it meant. Their definition was in black and white: In 1965, the USDA-Forest Service wrote formal regulations to implement the Wilderness Act, and defined "mechanical transport" to mean a cart, sled or other wheeled vehicle that is "powered by a non-living power source." (CFR 36 Sec. 293.6(a)) Clearly the ban on "mechanical transport" in the original language was a statement about the impact of power, noise, and emissions of motor vehicles. Thus, the 1964 Wilderness Act allowed bicycle use, but there were very few bicyclists riding in Wilderness areas.

 As far as what is considered “primitive,” there is only one piece of Wilderness legislation that specifies that term and whether or not it applies to bicycles; The Rattlesnake Wilderness Act of 1980. Again, the answer is clearly in black and white: (a) The Congress finds that—(1) certain lands on the Lolo National Forest in Montana have high value for watershed, water storage, wildlife habitat, primitive recreation, historical, scientific, ecological, and educational purposes. This national forest area has long been used as a wilderness by Montanans and by people throughout the Nation who value it as a source of solitude, wildlife, clean, free-flowing waters stored and used for municipal purposes for over a century, and primitive recreation, to include such activities as hiking, camping, backpacking, hunting, fishing, horse riding, and bicycling;”

BOTTOM LINE: Definition of “mechanized” as intended and used by the framers was not meant to exclude bikes. Definition of “primitive” as intended and used by the framers was meant to include bikes.

Come to think of it, I don’t think you’re “1. Ignorant” since I had put this information into a previous post which you responded to. However, you haven’t addressed these points, but rather simply reiterated the false “mechanized” and “primitive” mantras while ignoring their real meaning as laid out by the originators of the Act and the regulations which implemented it. I must now conclude that you are “2. Aware of the incomplete nature of the information you share and deliberately trying to mislead others in an attempt to further your agenda.”

While I haven’t been riding mountain bikes as long as you (I started in 2000), we have one thing in common: I have enjoyed the sport immensely while never once bringing a knobby into a designated Wilderness area (or any other where bikes are not permitted for that matter). That in no way implies that this is a rational, fair, or acceptable status quo. On a related note, I became an avid hiker in 1973. When I’d see a “no bikes” sign, sometimes I’d wonder why that was. It seemed to me strange as I thought a bike could traverse the area with no more impact than me as a hiker. This was long before I got a bike and even long before I even thought I might be interested in the sport. Now that I have researched the subject thoroughly, I know my early thoughts were correct.

You say you are “unable to accept the argument that bikes belong there” because you’ve “been enjoying mountain biking since the mid 1980's on single track without ever once having to go into a Wilderness.” How on earth is that a valid basis for such an exclusion? Why does your experience trump that of others? Even if you’re okay with it, that doesn’t in any way imply that it’s okay overall.
I, on the other hand, make my assessment based on:
ACTUAL impact rather than perceptions or personal desires
ACTUAL intent of the purpose of Wilderness rather than my self-serving agenda

John Fisch
John Fisch
Feb 13, 2014 06:56 PM
There’s nothing “naive” about it; quite the opposite actually. It is based on a deeper level of research. See my post immediately above for evidence as to what the intent was. You say “The very reason the Wilderness Act was developed was to protect these areas from unforeseen future impacts like these.” Of what impacts do you speak? Every independent study has shown the impact of a bike to be similar to that of a hiker and far less than that of a horse, so by your own reasoning, there’s no basis for excluding bikes. The term mechanized was not just used, but also defined and it’s the definition that was, as you put it “included to prevent this discussion today.” That definition, in black and white, used the words “powered by a non-living power source." (CFR 36 Sec. 293.6(a)). Again, by your own reasoning, bikes should be included because the framers went to so much trouble to tell us what they meant. Only one piece of Wilderness legislation specifically mentioned bikes and that law put bikes in the “primitive recreation” class and specifically called them out for INCLUSION in the Rattlesnake Wilderness Area. By ignoring these black and white facts, you are the one who is trying to “rewrite history.”

“Luckily for all of us, there are millions of non-wilderness acres in the National Forests where we can take mechanized toys.” In my home state of Colorado, mountain bikes are excluded from over 80% of roadless areas by Wilderness designation alone. This isn’t even counting National Park or other municipality closures. Furthermore, many trails lay largely outside Wilderness areas, yet some small portion of them passes through Wilderness, thus rendering the entire route nonviable as a cycling path. If you told hikers they were suddenly banned from over 80% of their most desired lands, not many would say “Hey, I’m still lucky I have other places to hike.” I guarantee there would be an uproar far greater than anything you’ve heard from cyclists.

You say, “Those in favor of mountain biking in wilderness simply want access for their own personal interests,” One could just as easily say that those who want to ban mountain biking in Wilderness simply do this to protect their own persona (and usually very selfish) interests. I’m turning 50 years old this year. Already, I can not put on endless miles in the backcountry on a bike like I could when I first took up the sport at age 35. If this unfair, narrow and unjustifiable ban was ever reversed, I wouldn’t personally be able to take full advantage of it. I advocate what I advocate because fairness and rational thought demand it; because elitism and “I don’t want to share” are crappy bases for policy making.
mat c
mat c
Oct 12, 2015 05:40 PM
mtb ftw
Tim Baker
Tim Baker
Feb 13, 2014 08:02 PM
John, I have no agenda other than an honest discussion about the issue so I have no intent to mislead. My opinions here are my own and since they are similar to the current management directives for Wilderness, I'm not certain what you think I'd gain from misleading anyone.

What I presented were the literal words of the Wilderness Act and the meaning they appear to confer. When an Act separately lists bans on motorized vehicles, motorized equipment, and other forms of mechanical transport, it clearly suggests to me that non-motorized mechanical transports were included in the intent. I honestly don't know how anyone could interpret it otherwise. My guess is the early FS regulations were promulgated before anyone gave much thought to human-powered mechanical devices because they didn't exist yet for wilderness travel. More recent interpretations seem to have taken advancing technology into account.

Fortunately the agencies that manage wilderness seem to agree with my interpretation that mountain bikes are not primitive and that they are mechanical transport. If the authors of Wilderness bills intended bikes to be included it seems they would've mentioned it a bit more frequently than once in a preamble out of 130 bills or else put it directly in the language of the Act. It is hard to put much value on testimony when you are discussing the legal standing of an activity that wasn't really invented until 20 years after the Act passed. It would be like interpreting the intent of the framers of the Constitution to mean we should all keep Abrams tanks in our garages.

Thanks for the spirited discussion but personally I feel like I've taken up more than enough of the HCN comment space for this topic.
John Fisch
John Fisch
Feb 13, 2014 09:12 PM
While back country cycling wasn't popular in 1964, it had indeed been taking place since there were bicycles. Intrepid explorers of yesteryear were riding bikes in the woods as early as the 1880s.

As far as the singular mention of bikes, it was brought up when it was because that's about when back country cycling got big enough to appear on the radar. As soon as it became widely known, it was addressed, and it was addressed in a positive way. So your guess that it wasn't addressed earlier than it was due to a lack of awareness may be accurate, but the fact that as soon as it was known and addressed, it was addressed in a positive way, remains significant.

The architects of the act went to great trouble to define what they meant by "mechanized" and it is important to cover it in full context and were very deliberate in their wording. The full verbiage was that “(a) Mechanical transport, as herein used, shall include any contrivance which travels over ground, snow, or water on wheels, tracks, skids, or by floatation and is propelled by a nonliving power source contained or carried on or within the device."
They specifically mentioned “wheels,” indicating that they had indeed conceived of the idea that some wheeled devices would be human powered and some wouldn’t. So, while they may not have been specifically thinking about bikes at the time, they were clearly and intentionally leaving the door open for wheeled devices which are propelled by a living power source.
Paul Hoornbeek
Paul Hoornbeek
Feb 13, 2014 09:27 PM
congratulations, mountain bikers, on ably parroting IMBA talking points. Check out similar talking points from the Blue Ribbon Coalition if you're under the illusion you're doing something original. As several sensible people have pointed out, this is for the most part a local issue: I know people in Montana, for example, who seem relatively rational on other subjects, who get exorcised about terrain they one rode on that is now closed. The IMBA, while objecting to the 'blanket exclusion' of MBs in wilderness, seem smart enough to focus on local and specific battles, rather than assailing the whole Act. You could, of course, read Cronon's "The Trouble With Wilderness" to find more ways to attack the shortcomings and Romantic ideals behind the Wilderness Act, or any of several other relatively thoughtful piece, or you could sound like . . . Saying you're no worse than hikers and arguably better than horses doesn't really make a point at all: it's merely petulant and self-serving. Impugning Sierra Clubbers is, similarly, petulant. Insisting that the best course forward is an alliance of all interested parties--which would include, though you don't mention it, ATVers, is both silly and pathetic. Knock yourselves out. Literally. And yes, I ride a mountain bike and like singletrack and in fact I have broken Wilderness boundary rules, especially around Missoula. I'm old enough to admit, however, that a) I regret it and b) that I only did so to pursue my own interests, and I can't pretend I did it in the service of some greater good to some imaginary community of like-minded and heavily-oppressed individuals. Nor do I suffer from the delusion that allowing me or anyone else to ride a bicycle in wilderness areas will in any way improve anything save the self-serving gratification of a handful of cyclists. But lobbying a self-interested position seems to gratify a great many people, so enjoy it for all it's worth . . . but try to come up with some rationale for how you're representing the Greater Good in doing so.
John Fisch
John Fisch
Feb 13, 2014 09:55 PM

I am not a biker, but rather a backcountry enthusiast who, by the way, has more time in boots than on knobbies.

The IMBA has not been a source of my argument--just rational thought, logic and fairness. I have conducted research far beyond what IMBA has made available.

Just because you were selfish, doesn't mean every other biker is.

You think bikers are "self serving" for wanting some semblance of balance in access, but have no qualms with hikers who want it all to themselves? Please.

Nobody is "assailing the whole act," but rather trying to reestablish the original intent of the Act. Nobody wants to "find more ways to attack the shortcomings and Romantic ideals behind the Wilderness Act." Back country cyclists share the same ethos as back county pedestrians and simply wish to enjoy the Wilderness in an equally low-impact manner. This is simple fairness, not selfishness, unlike the "it's all ours and we will do anything possible to keep you out" anti-bike zealots.

The fact that you call the group who is excluded from the vast majority (50-80% depending on the state)of roadless areas "self serving" while ignoring the privileged, elitist groups who have unfettered access to it all, speaks volumes about the level of thought behind your rant.
Andrew Gorder
Andrew Gorder
Feb 14, 2014 01:27 PM
One thing that is so frustrating about the user v. user debate is that most arguments ignore the notion that maybe, just maybe, wilderness areas serve a purpose beyond what humans are allowed to do in the areas. Any argument that cries discrimination against a specific user group also implies that wilderness areas are essentially useless to that group unless they are allowed to do whatever kind of activity they are advocating for. Wilderness areas have value simply by virtue of their existence, free from (or with minimal) human contact. To protect that character, the Act sets limits on the types of activities that can occur. It’s the “Wilderness Act,” not the “Wilderness Jobs and Recreation Act.” For that reason, I would argue that if anything there needs to be more restriction on human activity, not less. In any event, I don’t think any of us who live in the West, surrounded by wilderness have much to complain about. Much like those “privileged, elitist” hikers, mountain bikers in the West already have unfettered access to wilderness, as does anyone with the desire and ability. The Wilderness Act does not disallow mountain bikers, it disallows mountain bikes. Then again, what do I know, I’m just another bike-less bourgeois.
Bob  U
Bob U
Feb 14, 2014 02:21 PM
The only solution I see is shared, alternate day use. Do the hikers ever suggest removing themselves from these areas for "protection" ? Is a bicycle on a remote backcountry trail really an issue? No, they smugly say well "you're not excluded, just your bike" How's that for freedom of choice. Seems the intent of the WA was to encourage human powered activities. (Human powered). Ya know cause we're as a nation getting soft & fat.

Sounds like one group feels very selfishly entitled to this public land. It seems like a lawsut to establish alternate/shared day use is the best solution.

IMO the realy problem isn't the current WA's, it is the Wilderness Area Machine: These people see the solution to everything as more and more WAs. They come across as incapable to share. Take a look at a gazateer map or investigate where the Wilderness Study Areas are. These people would turn the whole of all public outdoor lands into Wilderness Areas, kicking everyone out but themelelves (of course). Time for some 21st century land management that reflects the constituents. Don't most locals oppose new WAs ?
John Fisch
John Fisch
Feb 14, 2014 02:52 PM
I fully agree that Wilderness should exist for it's own sake, independent of human recreation. The latter should only exist to the extent that it doesn't have an unacceptable impact on the former. Of course, there will be widespread disagreement about what exactly crosses that threshold of unacceptable impact. That's why, when I mention bike access vis-a-vis hiker access, it's not to say we should all be free to go in and destroy that which we purport to appreciate, but rather to point out the policy is inconsistent. Both have equal impact, so one should not be favored over the other. If the correct answer is to limit access, or even to deny it altogether, I can accept that, The falsehood comes in when one says access should be limited, but then uses an arbitrary or personally motivated distinction to force the issue on who/what is excluded. All equally low impact users should have equal opportunity, whether that opportunity be limited or unlimited.

Point of fact: The Wilderness Act does not disallow mountain bikes--that came in the form of a bureaucratic, lobby-driven decision decades after the Act, and by all logic, was not in accordance with the intent of the Act, which sought to get Americans to enjoy their wild places -- under their own power rather than by means of the Automobile. It also sought to keep these wild places wild by prevention of the type of infrastructure and development required to support the automobile. The founders were very careful to define exactly what they meant by "mechanized" and in their definition, specifically disallowed wheeled contrivances "propelled by a non living power source," making it clear that human powered wheels were in, not out.

The "doesn't disallow bikers, just bikes" is one of the most self-serving of all, demonstrating a complete lack of empathy for any user group other than ones own. The key is whether or not the user is allowed to enjoy the Wilderness by his/her preferred low-impact method. To see the fallacy of this, simply reverse the roles. Tell hikers they are now excluded from 85% of their most desired public lands and see what kind of response that generates.
Caught in the Act
Caught in the Act
Feb 18, 2014 03:25 PM
While Mr. Fisch’s well researched, reasoned and articulated stance on the meaning of mechanized in the Act has certainly fanned the passions and pushed the buttons of the (W)ilderness-or-nothing crowd, it interesting that there has been no dialog about the political, social and economic viability of a (W)ilderness designation as a modern day preservation tool.

This video explains the radio silence: The Wilderness Machine: after 50 years, is it time for an overhaul?
Donna Jones
Donna Jones Subscriber
Feb 23, 2015 10:35 AM
Mr. Wolke, thank you for articulating an issue that threatens our wildlands across the nation. Over the last 25 years aggressive mountain bikers have invaded public lands everywhere and pose a substantial risk to the natural resources and wildlife as well as other humans. The increasing number of injuries to non-biking humans, ranging from from paralysis and permanent brain damage to fatalities, is the rest of the story the cyclists want to suppress. Birders, hikers, native plant societies and equestrians are all feeling under assault from the cyclists.
"No wheels" is an appropriate designation for a lot of public land. Cyclists and OHVs have a lot in common. Let them share ground.
mat c
mat c
Oct 12, 2015 05:36 PM
the place for mountain bikers is on roads? wtf mountain bikers ride on mountains not roads thats why they are called mountain bikers. we have road bikes for riding on the road