Sandsberry: Mountain bikers belong in the Wilderness
August 15, 2011 by Scott Sandsberry
YAKIMA, Wash. � Having spent three decades backpacking in the boonies, I�m a bit miserly about sharing the trails. When I�m enjoying the breeze in the trees many miles from the nearest road, I don�t much like encountering mountain bikers, motorcyclists, horseback riders or, for that matter, even other hikers.
Motorcycles are noisy, horses drop trail apples, some hikers sing off-key or bring barking dogs, and mountain bikers, well, I resent them for being able to get where they�re going a lot faster than I can.
Fort-unately for cur-mudgeons like me, when I�m hiking in designated Wilderness, I don�t have to deal with mountain bikers. They�re not allowed in Wilderness, which means they�re locked out of nearly 4.5 million acres in this state and barred from more than 171,000 square miles of spectacular backcountry across the country.
But here�s the thing: They shouldn�t be kept out.
The Wilderness Act of 1964 didn�t exclude mountain bikers from Wilderness. They got locked out of Wilderness by a bunch of land-management suits, most of them in the Forest Service, and by a bunch of exclusionary trail-use elitists like, well, me.
Wilderness should be open to mountain bikers.
I believe that�s what the legislators who created Wilderness would have wanted. Instead, with new Wilderness areas being considered every year � including another 226,300 acres recommended for Wilderness in the state as part of the current Okanogan-Wenatchee and Colville National Forest Plan � backcountry trails open to mountain bikers continue to dwindle.
And that�s just wrong.
�Nonliving power source�
The Wilderness Act was written to preserve areas �untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain,� land �retaining its primeval character and influence, without permanent improvements or human habituation � with the imprint of man�s work substantially unnoticeable.�
OK, what about bridges over creeks and mud bogs? Even when built by Wilderness standards � lumber hauled in on horseback, trees felled without mechanized saws � those bridges are still an imprint of man, and they�re certainly built to be as permanent as humanly possible.
Should those bridges be allowed there? Absolutely.
The same goes for some of the other arguably �mechanical� devices we blithely carry into Wilderness areas � fishing reels, spring-loaded trekking poles, high-tech backpacking stoves, IPods and GPS devices. (Yes, you could argue that the latter two are digital, not mechanical, but how are they in keeping with the land�s �primeval character?�)
Even the Forest Service�s 1966 rule amendments regarding Wilderness use specified �mechanical transport� as something �propelled by a nonliving power source.�
Well, I�m here to tell you, a mountain bike is definitely propelled by a living power source. That�s one of the reasons I�m not a mountain biker: In my (very) brief attempt at being one, the uphills turned my �power source� thighs into aching noodles and the downhills made me fearful that I was shortening my stay among the living.
So on those Wilderness trails, I�m always on foot.
The Act and its intent
Frank Church was a young senator from Idaho in 1961 when he became the floor manager of the controversial bill that passed the U.S. Senate in 1961 and 1963 and ultimately became the Wilderness Act of 1964.
Church�s driving support of Wilderness legislation threatened to cost him his reelection in 1962, when Idaho newspapers were filled with references to the �Church Wilderness Bill,� which � he recalled wryly in a 1977 speech � �was not intended as a compliment.�
In that same speech, Church took issue with some of the exclusionary ways in which the Wilderness Act was being interpreted. While he was specifically targeting policies that �make outfitter operations difficult� and a Forest Service plan to burn historic cabins within Wilderness areas �to eliminate the evidence of earlier human habitation,� the inclusive tenor of his oratory is quite telling.
�Such policies are misguided,� said Church, who died in 1984. �If Congress had intended that Wilderness be administered in so stringent a manner, we would never have written the law as we did.
�It was not the intent of Congress that Wilderness be administered in so pure a fashion as to needlessly restrict its customary public use and enjoyment. Quite the contrary, Congress fully intended that Wilderness should be managed to allow its use by a wide spectrum of Americans.�
Research done by Ted Stroll (see related story), an attorney on the staff of the California Supreme Court, further revealed that legislative intent. The timing of the Wilderness Act would also tend to support the presumption that the authors would have supported mountain biking � had it been a viable pursuit in the early 1960s.
The law�s legislative genesis came during the presidency of John F. Kennedy, who was adamant about the value of a national fitness movement and, after being elected, even penned a Sports Illustrated article entitled �The Soft American.�
JFK also once declared, �Nothing compares to the simple pleasure of a bike ride.�
Bicycles and trail damage
So, would mountain bikers be worse on the Wilderness trails or that primeval backcountry experience than horseback riders or hikers?
Not according to numerous studies on the trail impacts of different user groups. Cyclists braking on steep downhills cause damage, while extremely popular mountain-biking trails can develop a single-track groove that can increase erosion. But studies say none of that is any worse � and, in most cases, is actually less damaging � than horses� hooves or even the holes poked by those spring-loaded trekking poles.
�Every user group is having an impact on it,� says Tim Van Beek, who oversees Washington Trails Association �volunteer vacation� trail-maintenance crews. �I�ve seen every user group has done considerable damage out there. That�s part of the deal. It really has a lot to do with how many users are out there using them. If nobody used the trail, they�d be in great shape.
�Any piece of well-built trail definitely will hold up to the use. The difficulty is, a lot of these trails were built by a miner to get up this trail fast. They had no idea this would turn into a hiking trail: What�s hiking? Why in the world would anybody do that for recreation?�
Here�s a simple way to assess what group does the most damage: Just have 20 mountain bikers, 20 hikers and 20 horse riders travel the same trail and then see which group leaves its mark on the trail.
The expectation, of course, is that horses would be the ones having the greatest impact. Do I believe that? Absolutely.
Do I then also believe horseback riders should be banned from Wilderness? Absolutely not. Backcountry Horsemen chapters do a remarkable amount of trail-improvement work in Wilderness areas. Without those horseback volunteers, entire trail circuits would be unusable � by anyone.
Those horsemen belong out there.
So do mountain bikers.
� Outdoors editor Scott Sandsberry can be reached at 509-577-7689 or email@example.com.
3 Responses to �Sandsberry: Mountain bikers belong in the Wilderness�
J. Stanton says:
August 16, 2011 at 11:25 am
Sandsberry hits the nail on the head, and I say this as a longtime hiker, environmentalist, and ex-Sierra Club member.
The mainstream �environmental movement� has made itself completely irrelevant to anyone under 40 by turning �wilderness� into a place where:
-No one is allowed to have any fun, ever
-In fact, we shouldn�t really even be outdoors, and we should all feel guilty for defiling the outdoors by our very presence
So instead of tackling real, destructive issues like encroaching development, often via sweetheart land swaps on National Forest lands, mainstream �environmentalists� spend most of their time writing angry letters about mountain bikers.
These armchair warriors are actively hurting the cause of preservation by turning an entire sport (and there are more mountain bike trips taken each year than hiking trips: look it up) against the cause of preservation, and into the arms of the Blue Ribbon Coalition. That�s a bad tradeoff just because the sight of a bicycle makes them irrationally angry.
Here�s a piece of news: if you live in a major metropolitan area and go hiking on major holidays, you will not have the trail to yourself!
Furthermore, it�s already nearly impossible to get young people out of doors. If we actively discourage them, and turn �outside� into a place for grumpy old men � which the Sierra Club and others have been actively doing for decades now, via their tireless anti-bicycle campaigning � we will have exactly what we have now, which is younger generations completely uninterested in preserving the few remaining scraps of undeveloped America, and a rapidly aging and increasingly irrelevant environmental movement.
Right now it might seem like you�re winning � look at all this new Wilderness! � but you�re not actually preserving a single acre. All you�re doing is changing a few signs on already-preserved land and kicking out bicyclists, while development continues to chew away at the outdoors. That�s why you�re able to sneak these bills through: because development interests know they don�t really change anything.
Thank you for this article, Scott. Maybe it will open some eyes.
August 16, 2011 at 12:03 pm
I have been back-packing since about 1969 and mountain biking since about 1981. My observation is that, with a mountain bike, you are limited to the amount of stuff you can carry on a multi-day ride, versus what you can carry on your back. You need all that extra stuff when back-packing because you will be camping in more places while walking versus a trip of the same length on a bicycle. Camping definitely has an impact. The tent space is trampled, food is cooked, waste is disposed of, etc. In this way back-packing has more of an impact than bicycling.
The other impact that hiking has over cycling is that it is much easier to go off-trail on foot than on a bicycle. One of the first things my father taught me was how to navigate using a topo map and identifying landmarks. He never used a compass. The GPS wasn�t even a dream for the average person at the time. Since then all my hikes have included a cross-country section, where it is possible to get away from absolutely everyone, whether it be to a high mountain lake or an interesting peak. Try that on a bicycle and you will quickly discover that 28 pounds of metal and rubber is useless ballast. Hiking boots are the ultimate all-terrain-vehicles. Cycling restricts one to trails.
If I were a land manager, concerned with a delicate ecosystem like a meadow or alpine lake for example, I would route trails where they have the least impact and only allow bicycling. I�d have a few designated view spots on the trails, but no hiking or camping would be allowed. I envision a bicycle-only wilderness, with short, medium and long routes. Camping would only be allowed near the trailhead. You wouldn�t have to explicitly prohibit off-trail travel, because this is impossible for 99.999 percent of all cyclists. That first rock hidden by grass would put a stop to it immediately.
I have been on many muti-day trips on foot and by bicycle. Back-packing is hard on the feet and shins (I am fortunate to have good knees) and I am not sure how much longer I can do this. I definitely use hiking poles, and they go a good fraction of an inch into the ground with every step. On the other hand, mountain biking is less painful. I can go at a much more leisurely pace, with plenty of time to stop, smell the flowers and watch the birds. I carry a few spares, some food and water, hardly ever camp and, most importantly, I stay on the designated trails. I bike for the same reasons I hike, but the former has less impact on the land and less impact on my body, so I can take in more of what nature has to offer to the senses, instead of thinking about my aching body so much.
(Cue Mike Vandeman�)
August 16, 2011 at 6:12 pm
One claim made against mountain bikes is that they damage trails. As a volunteer who has maintained dozens of miles of USFS multiple-use (foot, stock, mtn bike) trails for several years, I have not seen any significant damage from bikes, even on trails on which bikes are the major users. This simply requires properly-built trails: outsloped for good drainage, with turnpike or puncheon across marshy areas, and with swales rather than waterbars.
Bikes cause significantly less damage to properly-built trails than do deer on crossing game trails, and any damage caused by trail traffic is trivial compared to the routine vicissitudes of mother nature (blowdowns, rootball tipouts, stream washouts, slides, etc).
In Wilderness, we quite legally use brace and bit (looks like a bike crank), wheeled pedometers to measure trail mileage, and (in NPS) chain saws. Put them together, and you�ve got a bike. Can�t find evidence in the Wilderness Act itself that was intended to be illegal, or that wheeled travois should be illegal.
We build and maintain trails so that they may be used� by anyone, as far as I�m concerned, and the more, the merrier.