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First came the bare human foot, somewhere in Africa. Then, in no particular order, came 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 that 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 is just down the road from there: 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. He is an environmental industry consultant and lives in Portland, Ore.

Published in Community Voices

Editor’s Note: On March 8, the Independent published an opinion piece titled “Community Voices: It’s a Terrible Waste of Time to Argue for Bikes in Wilderness.” Here’s a piece that takes the opposite viewpoint.

It hasn’t happened yet, but one day, bicycles and baby strollers will be welcome in wilderness.

That’s the goal of the nonprofit Sustainable Trails Coalition, which seeks to permit forms of human-powered trail travel—beyond walking—in wilderness areas.

Congress never prohibited biking or pushing a baby carriage in wilderness. Both are banned by outmoded decisions that federal agencies made in the 1970s and 1980s. Over time, those decisions became frozen into place by lethargy and inertia.

It is true that the Wilderness Act forbids “mechanical transport.” By this, however, Congress meant people being moved around by machines, not people moving themselves with mechanical assistance. Now that wilderness acreage is larger than California and Maryland combined—vastly larger than when the walk-only rules were imposed—there is a pressing need to restore Congress’ original vision.

In 1977, renowned conservationists Sen. Frank Church of Idaho and Arizona Rep. Morris Udall explained what they thought Congress’ intentions were. Church said, “Agencies are applying provisions of the Wilderness Act too strictly and thus misconstruing the intent of Congress as to how these areas should be managed.” Udall warned against “stringent ‘purity’ criteria” that have “led to public opposition to wilderness proposals based on what is, and what is not, perceived to be … permissible in wilderness areas.” As early as 1964, some Forest Service staff wanted to ban even rowboats.

The Sustainable Trails Coalition’s proposal is modest. It would not permit mountain biking or walking with a baby stroller everywhere. Instead, local land managers would be given the discretion to allow forms of human-powered travel where they believe it’s appropriate. The United States has 765 wilderness areas, each one managed by officials who know the terrain.

Opposition to the coalition’s proposed bill apparently rests partly on unjustified fears that federal employees can’t manage land. Another argument is that where bicycles go, motorcycles and ATVs will soon follow. But members of the coalition have talked with staffers at many congressional offices, and none of them show any interest in using our proposed bill as a stalking-horse for motorized uses that, unlike bicycles, have never been allowed in wilderness.

We suspect that our opponents’ real fear is not that reform will fail, but that it will succeed. If we cease limiting wilderness travel to methods available in biblical times and thereby achieve better-managed wilderness, the previous cries of “wolf” will look foolish.

Some opponents accuse us of being pawns of giant bicycle companies with large cash reserves and a thirst to get bicycles back into wilderness. But the coalition is a grassroots effort, funded by individuals and a few small businesses.

Opponents of biking in wilderness are like pen-and-ink types opposing manual typewriters: It might be comical if the effects weren’t so grave, disconnecting more people from the outdoors and increasing their indifference to conservation.

Some people also worry that bicycles would “shrink” wilderness, and argue that we already have enough places to ride. But backpacking technology allows for more invasive intrusions into wilderness than bicycles. Most bicyclists leave the wilderness at dusk and don’t camp.

As for the call for us to “go somewhere else,” we would never patronize these critics by saying they’re not welcome in wilderness unless they travel by bicycle. We prefer to bicycle, but we don’t insist that everyone else has to ride. Bicycling is clean and environmentally benign, and has that wonderful quality of “flow,” which the human psyche rejoices in experiencing. Mountain biking may be richer in flow than any other recreational endeavor—that’s one reason so many of us prize it.

There’s a grim backdrop to the struggle over wilderness that this quarrel only worsens. In the 52 years since Congress passed the Wilderness Act of 1964, national forest wilderness has fallen victim to a number of contradictions that have warped the original vision. Some areas are overrun and loved to death, like the Maroon Bells in Colorado. Others are no longer managed and seldom visited, and marijuana growers reportedly have filled the vacuum, as in California’s Yolla Bolly. Still others, including the Pasayten in Washington, are despoiled by pack outfitters, whose abuses are ignored by many wilderness activists and the government.

Fixing these problems will take a generation, lots of money and new leadership. Cyclists can’t do it alone, but we can help, if we’re accepted as partners, and not treated as interlopers into the wilderness private club.

The Sustainable Trails Coalition loves wilderness and thinks Congress got the law right in 1964. Now, we seek restoration of the original vision. There is nothing to fear about granting federal employees the discretionary authority the coalition proposes.

Ted Stroll is a contributor to Writers on the Range, an opinion service of High Country News. He is an attorney and president of the Sustainable Trails Coalition in California.

Published in Community Voices

I shouldn’t be writing this, and you shouldn’t be reading it. Far more pressing issues face our public lands—but a vocal minority is drudging up the long-resolved question of mountain biking in wilderness.

They have even drafted a bill for somebody to introduce in Congress—the Human-Powered Wildlands Travel Management Act—that would open wilderness to biking. That means we have to pause and rehash the facts.

First, no legal argument supports biking in wilderness. Unambiguously, the 1964 Wilderness Act states there shall be no “form of mechanical transport” in wilderness areas. The discussion should end there, but a few claim that “mechanical transport” somehow does not include bicycles. They allege that the law unintentionally excluded an activity that emerged after it was enacted. Or they tout an early Forest Service misinterpretation of the law, which initially allowed bicycles in wilderness but was corrected more than 30 years ago.

The arguments have no legal merit. Worse, they ignore the historical context and foresight of the Wilderness Act, one of our foundational environmental laws. In doing so, they distract people from truly understanding our public lands. That’s not good for people or the land.

We should remember that the Wilderness Act grew from a half-century of public-lands battles, fought by America’s most influential conservation thinkers, including Aldo Leopold, Bob Marshall, Olaus Murie, and the indefatigable Mardy Murie, among others. Theirs was a multigenerational struggle to safeguard a vestige of the nation’s public lands from the advances of population and technology.

The technology part is important. The framers of the Wilderness Act knew human ingenuity was not somehow petering out in 1964. In fact, they lived in an era of fantastic invention. Forms of transport being tested at the time included jetpacks, gliders, aerocycles and various new wagons, boats and bicycles.

That the law anticipated future invention is indisputable, but it benefits us much more to know why it does. The reason was most concisely expressed by the bill’s principal author, Howard Zahniser, who, in 1956 defined wilderness as a place where we stand without the “mechanisms that make us immediate masters over our environment.”

Zahniser was a Thoreauvian pacifist deeply troubled by the Holocaust and other horrific events during his lifetime. In wilderness, he saw a suite of biophysical and social values that carried the potential to make us better people. But to fulfill its promise in modern times, by offering an opportunity for raw challenge, humility and solitude, wilderness had to remain a place of human restraint. For eight years, Zahniser worked with Congress to ensure that the law enshrined that ideal, with clear limits on acceptable activities in wilderness.

Some pressing for bikes in wilderness conveniently ignore this central principle. Instead, they focus on issues of trail erosion or impacts to visitors and wildlife, where they front overly rosy claims. In diminishing the purpose of wilderness, they hawk a dumbed-down version of the public estate.

Similarly, it is unhealthy to conflate the ban on bikes with a ban on a certain group of people. That tactic may stir emotion, but it undermines serious public-lands discourse. Nevertheless, some are using the trick, including Bike Magazine editor Vernon Felton, whose recent video casts bikes in wilderness as a civil rights issue. That’s an affront to anyone who has worked for voting rights, fair housing, protection against hate crimes or other actual civil rights.

Felton and others also oversimplify prohibitions on bikes in wilderness study areas, calling them overreach by conservationists or the feds. But such bans are essential to the purpose of these study areas, which must be carefully managed to preserve their eligibility as wilderness pending congressional action.

Another claim is that banning bikes turns people against wilderness, or even broader conservation issues. But I think those misrepresenting the facts are the ones driving a wedge. Either way, diminished support for wilderness is not good news. But nor is it new. The historical trajectory toward better land stewardship has always been the fight of the few.

One last thing to consider is the issue’s scale. The wilderness system is limited to roughly 53 million acres outside of Alaska. Smaller than Colorado, that portion is scattered across 43 states. And while most of the land is in the West, most of it is also rugged and unbikable. Meanwhile, hundreds of millions of acres remain open to biking.

Still, some will demand that bikes be permitted in wilderness. And they will join logging, mining, off-roading and other interests in whittling away at the boundaries of pending wilderness proposals. At a time when so many more serious issues confront our lands—climate change, ocean acidification, plastics pollution, sprawl and much more—it seems a misguided use of energy.

Tim Lydon is a contributor to Writers on the Range, an opinion service of High Country News, where this piece originally appeared.

Published in Community Voices