What about horses?

  Dear HCN,
As a dedicated mountain bike enthusiast and wilderness preservation advocate, I take keen interest in the divergent opinions expressed by Carroll and Hasenauer in “Do mountain bikes belong in the wilderness” (HCN, 3/3/03: The Wild Card). I frequently ruminate over both sides of this debate when enjoying wilderness outings, by foot, in designated areas. When it’s all said and done, I find myself agreeing with the position of Carroll that my bike simply does not belong in wilderness areas.

But what about the domesticated horse? Horse use conjures romantic images and traditional notions of backcountry travel in the U.S. Indeed, pack-stock travel was so commonplace in Aldo Leopold’s time that he conceived of wilderness as representing an area large enough to accommodate a two-week pack-stock trip. And while stock use has presumably decreased since the passage of the Wilderness Act in 1964, the ecological impacts associated with horse use in primitive areas are undeniable. One only has to consider the major impacts to trails from horse use due to erosion, informal trail development, muddy quagmires and soil compaction.

True, mountain bikes may have similar, yet far less-intensive impacts on trails. And while Carroll astutely notes how the now lighter and technologically advanced mountain bikes enable riders to venture deeper in the wilderness, the overall impact of bikes pale in comparison to those inflicted by the heavy weight of a horse, which is carried on a small, and usually shod, hoof.

So what does all this mean? Should travel in wilderness areas be regulated on the basis of two primary criteria: Travel that is both nonmechanized and solely human-powered? Maybe so, if wilderness areas are to be managed in the spirit of the law, in a manner that “will leave them unimpaired for future use” and ensure the “preservation of the wilderness character.” In the meantime, the discussion over which type of human travel belongs in wilderness cannot be taken to a logical and perhaps fruitful end without bringing the horse, as well as the bike, into the debate.

Brad T. Clark
Fort Collins, Colorado
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