This article is neither an examination of arguments for or against mountain biking in Wilderness, nor is it a critique of past advocacy efforts undertaken by mountain bikers or mountain bike organizations. Rather it is a guide to mountain biking advocates to channel our limited resources for greater success in achieving and protecting mountain bike access from future Wilderness designations under current law. As a case study, we'll examine some untold elements of the designation of three Wilderness areas in central Idaho in August 2015, commonly known as the Boulder White Clouds.
The first step is to fully understand the motives and political dynamics of the five main parties involved in Wilderness designations.
Party # 1: The Wilderness Act, passed in 1964, provides for Congress to designate Wilderness areas. This is an intensely political process. It typically involves many different user groups of public lands, local/municipal, state and federal elected officials, land management agency managers at both the local and national levels, environmental, Wilderness and preservation groups, business interests in the target landscape, outdoor recreation groups and businesses, and the public. It also occurs over many years, typically decades, and is very complex.
Designating a Wilderness is also a public policy process, because the target landscape is land owned and managed for the public by one of four federal land management agencies.
Party #2: The Public Policy Arena is a very crowded, hyper-competitive and noisy contest. It is overflowing with victims and players, winners and losers. Self-interest generally guides the actions of the participants, and numerous private and public purposes abound, many of which are difficult if not impossible to account for, or even detect. Every policy issue and legislative initiative has supporters and opponents. Mountain bikers must be able to not only identify each, but more importantly, understand what their goals are.
Party #3: Elected Officials are usually the ultimate decision-makers in our mountain bike access contests. Here's an overview of what drives and motivates elected officials. There are three simple rules in the "Elected Officials' Rulebook".
Rule #1 – Get reelected. All other rules and actions can be traced to supporting this number 1 goal.
Rule #2 – Make as many friends as possible (to help with #1)
Rule #3 – Make as few enemies as possible (so as not to unnecessarily threaten #1)
Party # 4: The Wilderness industry has been forming, growing and organizing since early last century. The Wilderness Society claims that since 1935, they have led the effort to create 109 million acres of Wilderness. In many ways, that gives Wilderness advocates a huge head start over mountain bikers, who didn't begin to organize until the late 1980s.
The Wilderness community numbers well over 150 local, state and national organizations. Just one major national organization focused on Wilderness expansion in the U.S., the Pew Charitable Trusts, has assets measured in the billions of dollars. The Sierra Club claims 3 million members or supporters, and also to be the nation’s largest and most influential grassroots environmental organization. The Wilderness Society currently claims more than 700,000 supporters. Collectively, that's a huge asset base for mountain bikers to compete against.
But what really drives this gigantic fundraising, membership and advocacy machine? The simple answer is passion, but that ignores the real source of all their energy. Wilderness in the U.S. is worshipped by these devout followers and passionate advocates as a religion. Expanding Wilderness takes on the aura and fervor of a holy crusade.
I once asked a diehard paid professional Wilderness advocate in Washington, D.C. how much Wilderness would be enough? After over 80 years of advocacy, hundreds of millions of dollars spent and nearly 110 million acres of Wilderness designated, how much would finally be enough? His reply was short and poignant: "We'll let you know." In other words, in the Wilderness industry's view, every roadless acre of federal land ought to be designated Wilderness. It's a long-term holy crusade and they will never be satisfied.
Party #5: The Mountain Biking community is the newest interested party and needs a rulebook just like elected officials. We need to understand and practice four simple rules:
Rule #1 – Numbers matter. Really big numbers matter a lot, especially to elected officials. They are charged with making decisions that benefit the most people and harm the fewest. That translates directly into votes for getting elected or reelected.
Rule #2 - Relationships matter. We need lots of friends and their active support to shape favorable public policy. That means elected officials, hikers, walkers, runners, paddlers, rock climbers, other outdoor recreationists, the bicycle industry and beyond. We have to think about and then act to build the biggest coalition possible that supports our goals. That alone takes a lot of time and work.
Rule #3 - Being present to win matters. Showing up early and being counted is critical. When we don't show up, or show up late, we're ignored or severely discounted.
Rule #4 – Continuously cultivating champions matters. Successful long-term advocacy efforts must educate and favorably influence elected officials who can lead the charge, wave the flag and counter critics. Work hard to reward those who help you. This also applies to developing champions among our volunteer leaders.
But even when these guidelines are followed, there are some handicaps that strategically limit mountain bike advocacy efforts. Please don't take these observations as either pointing fingers or harsh criticism. Although there are some notable exceptions, mountain bikers, when challenged by a political situation, generally:
1. Show up late;
2. Show up light;
3. Bring no adverse consequences to being marginalized or ignored; and
4. Eat their young.
It's almost impossible to effectively advocate for mountain bikers when there is no "community." Lack of unity, divisiveness and even open hostility in public or social media are carefully registered by the elected officials and their staff whom we are asking to help us with access issues. There is no better excuse for elected officials to do nothing than lack of unity. Doing nothing in these instances is often the safest path to following their rulebook--getting reelected, making friends and not making enemies.
As an example of a profound lack of unified community, just go back to the fall of 2015 and review various mountain bike forums, articles and online blogs after the Boulder White Clouds Wilderness was established. Some of the discussion was very angry and extremely divisive; most of it undeniably negative from an elected official's view. For a more contemporary example, take a similar look at what riders are saying about each other and other user groups concerning electric assist mountain bikes. What elected official wants to take sides or get too involved with that issue?
What Can We Learn by Analyzing the Loss of Trail Access in the Boulder-White Clouds Through the Lens of the Elected Officials Rulebook?
To understand why a National Monument proposal failed, and instead the Boulder-White Clouds Wilderness was successful, we have to analyze the outcome in cold political terms and be harshly realistic.
To his credit, U.S. Representative Mike Simpson (R.-Idaho) was absolutely persistent, reintroducing his Wilderness bill in multiple sessions of Congress. He eventually formed a collaborative of multiple local interests to find a "workable" solution. Toward the end of that process, mountain biking interests got to the table, only to be vastly outnumbered. The Wilderness community had been working on this proposal for decades. Clearly, Rep. Simpson wanted the Wilderness designation as his political legacy.
Senator James Risch (R.-Idaho) is Idaho's junior United States Senator. He previously served as Idaho's Lieutenant Governor and Governor. To say that he understands Idaho politics and the voters would be an understatement. Here is the proof: he ran for the U.S. Senate in 2008 for the open seat vacated by Larry Craig and won with 58-percent of the vote over his Democratic opponent, who garnered 34 percent. That was a huge win. Then in 2014 he ran for reelection, garnered 80-percent of the vote in the primary, and defeated his Democratic challenger in the general election with 65-percent of the vote. By 2015, Senator Risch seemingly walked on water and faced few political risks in Idaho. So he really had nothing to gain by getting involved in the Boulder-White Clouds wilderness fight. Until ...
... President Barack Obama signaled Rep. Simpson that he had just six months to get the Wilderness deal done or he, the President, would designate this central Idaho mountain gem as a National Monument using his authority under the Antiquities Act. Mountain bikers had worked to support the National Monument because it offered a chance that existing mountain bike trails would remain open. If the area was designated as a Wilderness, they knew the trails would definitely be closed.
Senator Risch didn't want a Democratic President to barge into his state and get credit for anything, especially an environmental win that a fellow Republican had been unable to achieve despite years of effort. So, even though you might assume that a conservative Republican would naturally be a Wilderness skeptic, or even an opponent, he jumped on the Wilderness train alongside Rep. Simpson and the Wilderness community. Mountain bikers were outraged and felt that they had been betrayed and abandoned because an agreement to secure the Wilderness community's support for a national monument was broken. As for the Wilderness industry, it doesn't raise money, increase membership and reward it's champions by securing National Monument designations. The Wilderness Community wins by getting more Wilderness.
Does anyone think that this Wilderness designation will harm Senator Risch's 2020 reelection bid? Scan the Idaho press now, two years after the wilderness was established, for clues. The cold answer is no. As for Rep. Simpson, he easily won reelection in 2016, just a little over a year after the Sawtooth National Recreation Area and Jerry Peak Wilderness Additions Act passed Congress and was signed by President Obama, creating the White Clouds Wilderness areas, covering a total of 275,665 acres of central Idaho.
Let's now take an even colder look from the mountain biking perspective. One of the guests on the Front Lines MTB Podcast's three part series on Wilderness candidly admitted that mountain bikers showed up late. We also showed up light.
Here's what I mean. Senator Risch and Rep. Simpson knew who the wilderness supporters were, who the national monument supporters were, and how their support or opposition would affect their own personal political fortunes. That is called political calculus, and members of Congress, their professional staffs and campaign managers are extremely adept at it. Mountain bikers were vastly outnumbered and out-resourced. As a special interest group, mountain bikers posed no threat or offered any significant adverse consequence to either Simpson or Risch. In other words, we were a featherweight in the ring with many heavyweights.
After the Boulder-White Clouds Wilderness bill passed, Rep. Simpson even published an article describing why mountain bikers should be pleased with the results because the Wilderness area was smaller than originally envisioned and many more trails remained open to mountain biking than were closed in the Wilderness.
As mountain bikers, we must embrace a very strategic lesson from this disastrous advocacy contest. Call it The 187 Problem. In the summer of 2015, as the six-month deadline approached and the Wilderness proposal was gaining more and more traction, the International Mountain Bicycling Association (IMBA) issued a nationwide Action Alert calling for mountain bikers to write their two U.S. Senators and Representative. Mountain bikers were asked to argue for the national monument and against the Wilderness and were provided with talking points. This campaign generated a scant 187 letters and emails to members of Congress. In cold political terms, this feeble response clearly illustrates an advocate's worst fears--showing up late, light and without adverse consequence.
To move the political needle in mountain bikers' favor on future Wilderness campaigns and possible Congressional designations, we have to be thinking about and implementing new, more effective strategies, including producing a truly impressive number of direct constituent letters and emails to Congress--perhaps 50,000. Numbers matter. Really big numbers matter a lot, especially to elected officials. Moreover, we have to show up early and bring both rewards and adverse consequences in order to compete. Otherwise, we're going to continue to be left holding the bag and wondering what happened or worse, knowing what happened and also knowing we were powerless to avoid the outcome.
Bruce C. Alt Bruce was formerly the Vice President of Government Relations for the International Mountain Bicycling Association after serving other not-for-profit organizations in the professional association management and government relations communities earlier in his professional career. He is currently the President of Fat Tire Solutions, a membership management, communications and advocacy consulting firm that is focused on delivering high value solutions to mountain bike clubs. As an active biker, he co-founded the Central Arkansas Trail Alliance and served as its first president. He resides in Little Rock, Arkansas with his wife Dianne and two delightful rescue dogs.