First came the bare human foot, somewhere in Africa. Then, in no particular order, the moccasin, the shoe, the horse and saddle, boat and oar, the ski, the snowshoe and so much more.
All of these came to the backcountry and helped to enrich our travels there. Sure, there’s been some grumbling about how some of the more recent inventions make modern life too easy, but over time those tools and technologies have become accepted parts of our adventures in even the most remote places.
But whoa! Along came the human-powered mountain bike, and although it’s quite similar to the contrivances that hardy souls have been pedaling and pushing through cities and the backcountry since the mid-19th century, some people now consider them to be so high-tech they should be banned from wild landscapes.
Critics complain that nothing seems to say “I can’t truly get away” like the thought of encountering wheels on a trail. Ignoring the gears, cams, springs, levers, satellite communication tools and highly technological gadgets already filling their packs, these critics abhor the presence of bicycles in any federally designated wilderness.
It’s been suggested that the desire to allow bicycles in wilderness is an extremist campaign by a faction of off-road cyclists – people indifferent to the conservation goals of the 1964 Wilderness Act. But bicyclists treasure designated wilderness areas, which are already shared by a wide variety of recreationists, including through-hikers, day-trippers, hunters, equestrians, skiers, snowshoers, birdwatchers, climbers and boaters. And also, of course, cows.
Bills introduced in both the Senate and House of Representatives have renewed the conversation about whether it’s high time to lift the Forest Service’s 1984 blanket ban on bicycles in federally managed wilderness. The bills would allow federal land agencies to continue to maintain complete closures to bicycles if they thought it necessary, but the decision-making authority would move from centralized control in Washington, D.C., to local supervisors of wilderness lands.
For evidence of the cyclists’ purported extremism, some critics look to the supposedly mainstream International Mountain Bicycling Association, which is on record as opposing bicycles in wilderness. But many members and IMBA-affiliated clubs have protested IMBA’s position, and some have even canceled their memberships. IMBA does good work on many fronts, but its stance on wilderness access is increasingly seen as a timid and misguided abandonment of backcountry cyclists and a denial of cyclists’ legitimate role in the conservation community.
One of IMBA’s top three affiliated clubs, the San Diego Mountain Biking Association, called IMBA’s board “tone-deaf to the community” before severing its IMBA affiliation in early 2018. Three years earlier, the independent, 6,000-member New England Mountain Bike Association was already pleading, unsuccessfully, for IMBA to support wilderness access for mountain bikes.
In 2016, IMBA surveyed its ranks and determined that 51 percent of members felt that including access for mountain bikes in wilderness was a “very important issue.” That result was significantly more pronounced in the Western states, where wilderness areas are concentrated. Also in 2016, one of off-road cycling’s best-known online communities, SingleTracks.com, surveyed its readers and found that 96.2 percent wanted some level of wilderness access.
It seems that the bid for wilderness access has reached the mainstream, and that the tension is less among mountain bikers and more between mountain bikers and the IMBA board of directors. Meanwhile, some cyclists continue to resist proposals for designating new wilderness because they would be barred from riding in it. As a result, wilderness proposals sometimes get abandoned or scaled back.
Andy Kerr, former executive director at Oregon Wild, recently lamented, “There are millions of acres of qualifying roadless land that could go into the wilderness system, but the prior existing use of mountain bikes politically prevents it.” In the same post, Kerr recommends “allow(ing) mountain bikes into new wilderness areas with conditions.”
This conflict is unfortunate and unnecessary, given the largely shared vision and goals of conservationists, cyclists and other wilderness users. Shouldn’t agencies be free to at least consider bicycles?
The Wilderness Act of 1964 prohibited “mechanical transport,” but how that is defined has become ever more contested as we uncover the historical record. Moreover, bicycle opponents forget the Wilderness Act’s overarching goals, which remain the preservation of wild lands and the promotion within them of rugged, self-reliant recreation. An intrepid backcountry cyclist fits within these criteria perfectly.
It’s time to recognize that many Americans have chosen to add bicycles to their backcountry equipment and would sometimes like to use their bikes to experience the wilderness, while honoring the spirit and purpose of the Wilderness Act.
Daniel Greenstadt is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is an environmental industry consultant and lives in Portland, Oregon.