The Web Monkey Speaks: The Bigotry of Wilderness

Do bikes belong in wilderness areas?

Photo by mchendesign
Photo by mchendesign

America needs wilderness. In an era of ‘clean coal,’ tar sands and fracking our environment can use all the help it can get. The United States is a massive chunk of dirt, true, but once you account for all the private property, cities, roads, shopping malls and suburban sprawl, what you really have is a hodgepodge of fragmented and fragile ecosystems. The Wilderness Act tries to stave off that problem by preserving lands in their wild and pristine state. That’s a great thing.

What’s not so great, however, is that, since 1984, the Wilderness Act has also been used to kick mountain bikes off of public lands. And not because mountain biking has ever been proven to have more of an impact than other trail users; for the record, it never has. Instead, bikes were banned in `84, and continue to be banned today, because a faction of hikers and horseback riders simply don’t like mountain bikers. They don’t like the way we dress. They don’t like our bikes. They fundamentally don’t like the fact that we appreciate the outdoors differently than they do.

News flash: Not liking someone isn’t actually solid grounds for mistreating them. They teach you this in kindergarten. They attempt to teach you this in church on Sunday. Hell, our very constitution is framed around the idea that the minority shouldn’t be tyrannized by the majority. Of course, America has shit the bed on that proposition plenty of times before, but you know, it doesn’t mean we should simply roll over and stop trying.

To that end, let me propose the following: Let’s ban the ban on mountain bikes in wilderness areas. Right now mountain bikers in Montana are getting hosed. They’re losing miles of trail even though the Forest Service can’t offer up a shred of proof that bikes are having any negative impact there. I may have lost you with the constitution talk earlier, but here’s the bottom line–we keep losing trail with no justification beyond “I don’t like the color of your shorts.”

That’s bullshit. We need to demand more. We need to stand up and push for a change.

The Wilderness Act was passed in 1964. Today, there are 762 wilderness areas in 44 states comprising nearly 110 million acres. Alaska, California, Arizona, Idaho and Washington are home to the biggest chunks of wilderness. Nearly 12 million people visit Wilderness areas each year–you just can’t do so on a mountain bike.

Mountain bikes weren’t originally banned by the Wilderness Act; they didn’t, to be fair, exist at the time. The act explicitly prohibited motorized transport. In 1984, the Sierra Club and Wilderness Society, however, convinced the U.S. Forest Service to publish a regulation explicitly prohibiting mountain bikes, essentially broadening the prohibition from motorized to mechanized transport. The other government agencies that also manage wilderness areas (the BLM, the National Park Service, the Fish and Wildlife Service) followed the Forest Service’s lead.

Why single out mountain bikes? There certainly weren’t a whole hell of a lot of us back in 1984; it had only been three years since the first mass-produced models rolled into bike shops. Let’s just say that the Wilderness Society and Sierra Club could see the writing on the wall–this mountain biking thing was going to grow–and they chose to strike out at us before we gained mass and momentum. Somebody with a hiking staff and a “Field Guide to North American Birds” had clearly been boning up on their Machiavelli and Sun Tzu. Way to manipulate, guys!

Photo courtesy of Coconino National Forest
Photo courtesy of Coconino National Forest

But this begs the question: If there weren’t many mountain bikes and mountain bikers roaming the hills back in `84, what proof of our destructiveness did the Sierra Club and Wilderness Society provide to the Forest Service? It wasn’t as if anyone had ever studied the environmental impacts of mountain bikes vis-á-vis those of equestrians and hikers. Such studies didn’t get rolling until the `90s and in almost every case, those peer-reviewed studies concluded that bikes actually don’t have more of an impact on soil erosion than foot traffic. What’s more, we have significantly less erosive impact than equestrians, who have complete access to the wilderness.

Horses are easily spooked, almost constantly defecate, graze on some types of rare and protected vegetation and, as anyone who actually does trail work can attest, are fabulous at leaving hundreds of fence post holes in the middle of trails. But they are hunky dory. Oh, yeah, while we’re at it, cattle grazing is totally fine in most wilderness areas. I’m not sure if you’ve seen what a herd of cattle can do to a trail or to the fragile banks of a high-mountain, trout stream, but somehow they also get the golden ticket we are so justly denied.

Mountain bikers are getting kicked out of several Wilderness Study Areas in Montana, but it's more than okay to ride your horse pretty much wherever the hell you want to in Montana's wilderness. That's sound science at its best...
Mountain bikers are getting kicked out of several Wilderness Study Areas in Montana, but it’s more than okay to ride your horse pretty much wherever the hell you want to in Montana’s wilderness. That’s sound science at its best…

The opponents of mountain biking in wilderness areas, on the other hand, almost always begin their editorials and policy briefs with the statement that mountain bikes are inherently destructive of trails. They say it’s ludicrous to believe otherwise. They don’t however, have fact or science on their side. This is why they rely on anecdotal (“I was walking along the other day…”) stories and unsupported statements about our destructiveness that begin with the word “Obviously.” It’s on par with claiming that world is obviously flat because when you walk out of your house, you can’t see the curve of the planet.

The more aggressive wilderness trolls, the Michael Vandemans of the world, simply dismiss all of the existing trail impact studies as mountain bike propaganda funded by mountain bike groups, which is a bit like discrediting anyone you disagree with by labeling them a communist or unpatriotic.  Just because you don’t like what science has proven to be true, doesn’t mean you get to discount the science itself. Americans, we prove time and time again, have a hard time grappling with that.

While IMBA disagrees with both the assertion that mountain bikes are destructive and that mountain bikes are incompatible with wilderness preservation goals, they have not directly fought the ban on mountain bikes. Instead, IMBA works with policy makers and other trail user groups to find alternative preservation classifications (such as National Recreation Areas or National Conservation Areas) that don’t exclude bikes. The organization also attempts to readjust proposed wilderness boundaries so that popular multi-use trails remain open to bikes. It’s a tactic that has preserved some trail access in the past and one that is still reaping rewards today.

I absolutely understand why IMBA staked out this approach. It’s political pragmatism–we lost access to wilderness areas in the early `80s because we mountain bikers were the minority. For years, IMBA’s angle was the only work-around to this problem of numbers. But it’s been three decades since we first got mugged on the way to Washington D.C. We’ve grown since then. Become better organized. Should we really continue to take that approach? If you don’t outright object to the ban on mountain bikes, aren’t you essentially conceding that bikes are a problem?

I put the question to IMBA spokesperson, Mark Eller. “I know what you’re saying,” says Eller. “Look, I came to IMBA with an outside perspective, having been a journalist for years, and I was saying the same thing. But what people don’t understand is that if we push to eliminate the restrictions on mountain biking in wilderness areas, we’re going to alienate land managers who are just beginning to support mountain biking elsewhere.”

What Eller is saying, essentially, is that if IMBA pushes the Forest Service, BLM, National Park Service and Fish and Wildlife on this wilderness ban, we’ll likely piss them off and stand to lose access everywhere else.

I don’t work at IMBA. I am not privy to the hundreds of negotiations they have on the table at any one time with our public land agencies, so I’m not in a position to deny what the organization is saying. They know things I don’t. I accept that. Still, I have a hard time accepting the idea that we should lie down on this one.

“Look,” says IMBA president, Mike Van Abel, “It’s just Civics 101. Wilderness is inherently political. Congress has to vote and approve of each addition and congress is going to vote for whatever the majority wants. Right now, the majority of people agree with the regulations. If that changes, and hopefully it will in the future, the regulations will change. But even IMBA’s membership is split on whether mountain bikes should have access to wilderness areas.”


I understand what Van Abel is saying–it makes sense–but I’m not sure I buy the idea that the majority of people actually support the ban on mountain bikes. I know mountain bikers who are okay with the ban. I know more who are not. I also know even more mountain bikers that aren’t aware that we are actually banned from wilderness areas. And as for the general public? I doubt that majority of them would even guess that bikes are prohibited in wilderness areas because, frankly, it’s not a terribly logical restriction. Four-wheel drives? Motorcycles? Chainsaws? Some activities clearly have an impact on the environment, but bikes haven’t proven to be one of them.

Here’s my question to you: do you agree that bikes should be banned from the wilderness? Because right now, we are losing access to trails that we have ridden for years–trails on which there is little to no trail conflict or erosion problems–and we are losing our access because we are not speaking up and opposing this ban.

Lance Pysher can tell you all about this. Pysher is the president of the Bitterroot Backcountry Cyclists and, under the new Bitterroot National Forest Travel Management Plan, riders in his community are losing access to 178 miles of trail located in Bitterroot National Forest, parts of which are managed as Wilderness Study Areas–essentially in-limbo classifications for parcels of land that have been recognized as being worthy of Wilderness designation, but are still awaiting Congress’ stamp of approval. IMBA, for the record, opposes the restriction of bike access in Wilderness Study Areas and has submitted testimony in Montana district court, and made serious legal/political efforts in other places, to contest such rulings.

Plans are afoot to do the same in Kootenai National Forest, just north of Whitefish, Montana. Mountain bike access to trails in the Ten Lakes Wilderness Study Area, would, under their new travel plan, be slashed from 86 to 17 miles.

“Don’t take trail access for granted. Get engaged and be visible,” says Pysher. “Volunteer on trail work, join IMBA, don’t freeload and assume someone else will keep your trail access safe. One thing we did wrong before all this started was that we tried to stay under the radar and hope we didn’t get noticed. Be vocal and advocate for access… .Up in northern Montana, people can still comment for a few more days on the proposed closure in the Ten Lakes Wilderness Study Area.”

Click HERE if you want to comment on the Ten Lakes Travel Plan.

Riding your horse off trail in wilderness? Sure thing! Why not? That's good for the environment, right? Horseback riders enjoy some BLM-managed wilderness in Oregon. Must be awesome...
Riding your horse off trail in wilderness? Sure thing! Why not? That’s good for the environment, right? Horseback riders enjoy some BLM-managed wilderness in Oregon. Must be awesome…

Invariably, when someone argues that the ban on bikes in wilderness areas should be overturned they are labeled as aggressive or unrealistic. This always strikes me as the rhetorical equivalent of labeling every woman who wants equal pay for equal work as pushy or a bitch. Advocating for fair treatment does not make you “aggressive.” It’s not radical to demand that you be treated equally under the law. We are not banned because we are destructive. We are banned because one group doesn’t like us. That’s not a valid reason.

I’m all in favor of wilderness. We need it. More than ever. The goal–to preserve land in its pristine state–is right on point. What happened in 1984, however, is that the Wilderness Act was skewed so that it no longer became a matter or preserving the environment–it became a law dictating the right way to appreciate wildlands.

The argument that is getting us kicked off of our public lands–is that when a hiker sees a mountain biker, it ruins their whole wilderness experience. The very sight of us is at odds with their personal joy, their expectation of what would happen that day on the trail. I can empathize with their consternation. I feel the same way every time I see somebody sporting a mullet or when I’m stuck behind a person attempting to drive a Toyota Prius in the fast lane. Some people simply offend me…but if they are not actually making the world a worse place, I don’t have the right to punish them for simply being different than me. I only wish some of our opponents could be big enough to do the same.

Read any op-ed piece about mountain biking’s dangerous in-roads into wilderness (because, believe it or not, hikers feel IMBA is winning us too much damn access). After making their initial unsubstantiated claim that we have more of an impact on the environment than hikers or equestrians do, the author will invariably rest his or her argument against mountain biking on the claim that bikes just don’t fit within the wilderness landscape.

It’s no longer a matter of preserving wilderness–it’s a matter of dictating your dress code in the outdoors. There’s a wrong way to enjoy being outside (that’d be on a bike) and a right way, which seems to involve carrying a hiking stick, wearing lots of fleece, toting a GPS receiver, lugging around a high-tech backpack…and doing all of the above on foot or astride a horse, in which case chaps and boot-cut jeans become appropriate.

Look, public policy is supposed to be objective. It is supposed to be ethical. It is not supposed to be a realm in which one group simply sneaks up and screws another group out of their rights. The Wilderness Act’s regulation against mountain biking is not based on science. It never was. It was based on one group’s gut-level dislike for another, which makes it nothing more than government-endorsed bigotry. We are supposed to be better than that. If nothing else, we demand that our government be better than that.

I’m not advocating for a dirt jump course in wilderness areas, or chainsawing contests or endangered species hunt-offs. I’m saying that if an activity does not actually diminish the wilderness environment and the wildlife living in it, that activity belongs in the wilderness. You hikers and equestrians don’t like mountain bikes? That’s not good enough.

Screw this ban on mountain biking. If you feel the same way, let your representative in congress know about it. Speak up. You see, while I respect IMBA and the hell of a lot that they actually do for mountain biking, here is where I disagree with the organization: I think we mountain bikers have numbers on our side. I’m willing to wager that the vast majority of Americans, know nothing about this ban on mountain bikes and wouldn’t approve of it if they did. So be vocal. Push. That’s what worked for the people who got us kicked out of the wilderness in the first place. Let’s give it a try ourselves for a change.

And finally, if you think IMBA should alter its Wilderness strategy, you can send a message telling them so, to They’re open to hearing what you have to say on the subject. Kudos to them for that.

Again, if you want to tell the Forest Service what you think of banning bikes in Montana’s Ten Lakes Wilderness Study Area, click HERE.