George Wuerthner of Mountain Bikers for Wildlands wrote a letter to the editor of the Idaho Mountain Express and Guide, saying, in part,

And as a mountain biker, I believe the single best way to preserve the Boulder-White Clouds area is wilderness designation.


I am extremely disappointed in the overall selfish message from the mountain-biking community that seems to believe that all public lands are nothing more than a playground or outdoor gymnasium for their self-gratification. Wilderness is about limits. It is the recognition that some places are so special they should be off-limits to mechanical advantages. I have been riding versions of mountain bikes since the 1980s when I first encountered some prototypes in bike shops in Missoula, Mont. Mostly, we used those early bikes to ride dirt roads. However, the technological advantage of mountain bikes has improved tremendously since that time. People on the latest equipment can climb hills, go farther, go longer and descend steeper terrain than ever before. There is really no limit to the technological advantages. And each advance shrinks wilderness. It means fewer areas of our wildlands will be truly remote. It means fewer refuges for sensitive wildlife. Many of today’s hardcore mountain bikers are essentially thrillcraft enthusiasts, no different than dirt bikers, jet skiers and others who relish speed and daredevil antics.

(Read his full letter here.)

About as close to wilderness as you can get on a bike without breaking the law. Photo: mtbgreg1.

This argument fails on many levels. For the moment, I’ll address three fallacies in particular since others have already addressed the fact that other mechanical aids are allowed in Wilderness, along with the false generalization of mountain bikers as a whole.

First, the author presents a false dilemma of, “would you rather protect our wild areas or have mountain biking access?” He then takes “selfish” mountain bikers to task for choosing the latter over the former. This fallacy presents only two alternatives, as if those were the only two available. The USFS has many designations and tools at its disposal for protecting our wild places from all the other evils Wilderness designation seeks to avoid (i.e. road development, logging, natural resource extraction, etc.), while still allowing mountain biking. There are National Scenic Areas, National Scenic Trails, National Recreation Trails, and, as is most commonly employed, management plans for each and every National Forest, where any tailoring of restrictions may be employed. Here the author is, at best, horribly shortsighted, or, at worst, deliberately presenting a false dilemma in a blatantly transparent attempt to push his agenda.

Second, the author states, “And each advance shrinks wilderness. It means fewer areas of our wildlands will be truly remote,” in hopes that the reader will accept his personal value system as some sort of natural fact. Certainly, the wilderness doesn’t shrink in a literal sense, only the perception of if. Having acknowledged this, why should we accept as some sort of self-evident truth that seeing 6 (a typical backcountry riding speed) miles of wilderness in an hour is somehow less valid than seeing only 3 miles in an hour (a typical hiking speed)? Furthermore, horses are allowed in the Wilderness, can travel faster and further than I can on my bike, and provide the greatest advantage of all. At least the bike is human-powered–the horse does all the work for the rider! Lastly, with regard to this point, the hiker often uses electronic, space -age technology in the form of GPS to his/her advantage while traversing the wilderness. Certainly triangulating your position to within a few feet by coordinating signals off a constellation of space satellites represents a higher application of technology than a simple mechanical transportation device.

Third, the author states, “It means fewer refuges for sensitive wildlife,” without any evidence to back up that statement. Again, we are expected to accept his analysis without reason. Studies have shown that wildlife is often less affected by cyclists than by hikers. This certainly makes sense when you think about it: wildlife is conditioned to be wary of humans on foot. After all, those are the ones who carry guns! As an avid backcountry hiker for 40 years and a cyclist for only 15, I have seen just as much wildlife from my WTB saddle as I have from my hiking boots. When I’m on foot, the deer and elk bolt… when I’m on my bike, they simply watch me glide on by. The same goes for wild turkeys and just about every species I’ve ever encountered. The only species I’ve seen on foot but not on bike is the grizzly bear–I suspect because I’ve spent many days on foot in grizzly country, and almost no bike time in the same areas. After all, most grizzly country is off limits to bikes–Wilderness, you know.

Stay tuned for more from skibum on wilderness access issues in the future.

# Comments

  • mtbikerchick

    Well I live in Colorado too, as you know, and as a biker I’ve never felt “excluded” because certain trails were “unavailable” to me. Since I too backpack and bike I feel like it’s easier to see both sides. When I’m hiking on bike trails and downhillers come flying down at break neck speed and don’t even say excuse me, it’s easy to see why some hikers wouldn’t want to share trails. I know not all bikers are like that but some are. My personal opinion is that I think some areas should be just for foot traffic. I long want bikes bombing down from the top of a 14er and if we allow bikes in wilderness areas that’s what will happen.

    • skibum

      I understand your belief and appreciate that you are perfectly willing to forgo riding on trails which you could ride with no more impact than a hiker. However, I don’t see that as justification for restricting all others who could use the trail safely and sustainably.

      Having backpacked for 40 years and biked for only 15, I also see this through both sets of eyes and my hiking roots actually run much deeper than my cycling roots.

      Even if we accept the premise that “some areas should be just for foot traffic,” must they be so 100% of the time? What’s the problem with periodic sharing?

      As for “bombing down 14ers, nobody is arguing for unlimited cycling access to all trails. Where there is valid reason for restricting bikes, then do so–which is the whole crux of the matter–that the automatic blanket ban on biking in all wilderness areas leads to this inequity and trails should be evaluated case by case, just as all other trails in the USFS or BLM. Also regarding 14ers, there are a few which are outside designated Wilderness. I personally know people who have ridden two of them (Pikes Peak and Mt Elbert, which, coincidentally are the two busiest with hikers) without incident. In fact, the Barr Trail (Pikes Peak) appears in the Falcon Guide “Mountain Biking Colorado Springs.” I hike the Barr Trail regularly and encounter cyclists on occasion without any problem as a hiker. There’s no reason to believe that opening some other 14ers to cyclists would be grounds for concern. If anything, adding options would disperse the very few bikers willing to take up the 14er challenge even further, thus reducing potential for conflict. .

    • Greg Heil

      There are several other 14ers outside of Wilderness boundaries within riding distance of Salida, with bike-legal trails to their summits. I don’t have my trail map with me now, but I plan to check one or two out next summer πŸ™‚

  • mtbikerchick

    I think for me the difference is that if all wilderness areas allowed bikes then those areas would have more traffic overall. When I’m in the wilderness I don’t want to see lots of other people…that’s why we backpack 20-30 miles…to get away from people.

    The other part of that is that lots of hikers don’t want to hike where bikers are. They don’t like feeling like they need to get out of our way on shared trails. I can understand that, knowing how some people bike…(not all, but some).

    We have miles and miles of bike trails and plenty of places where we’re allowed to build new ones. I have no problem, even locally, having designated wilderness areas that are only open to horses and foot traffic. Shared trails are great…but not all of them need to be that way.

    • skibum

      Here in Colorado we have 4,434,936 acres of roadless area according to roadlessland. org and according to wilderness . net, Co has 3,727,257 acres of Wilderness. Now 3,727,257 divided by 4,434,936 equals 0.84 or 84 percent. And that’s just Wilderness areas–not including national parks or other agency closures. In addition, many trails start and end outside Wilderness, but pass through Wilderness for some portion, rendering the entire route nonviable for biking.

      Try telling the hiking lobby they are excluded from well over 85% of their most desired territory and see if they’re satisfied with the other 15%–especially as forces attempting to restrict it further continue to mass.

      I’ve always had some difficulty understanding the hiker hatred of bikes. I say this because I became an avid backpacker at age 9 (and remain one to this day) but didn’t get my first bike until age 35. In all those thousands of miles on foot and many hundreds of encounters with cyclists, I never felt like my hiking experience had been degraded by encountering a cyclist. In fact, it was those many overwhelmingly positive encounters that led me to believe that cycling was an equally valid way to enjoy the back country.

      Now, even if there is validity in this “I don’t want to share” attitude, there is a reasonable solution that provides benefit for all. In contentious places, shared use schedules have proven very successful. In fact, the #1 bike trail on Singletracks is on a shared use schedule–mountain bikes are only allowed every other day. This, like most shared use schedules, allows hiking every day. It appears that bikes have already met more than half way. Why not extend this type of usage schedule to other areas where hikers don’t want to share? It still puts bikes on the short end of the stick, but would at least provide limited access for cyclists while preserving a bike-free experience for those disturbed by bikes.


  • fatlip11

    I agree with the original article, we do not need to access every bit of backcountry on bikes or especially horses. If skibum feels entitled to shred every bit of wilderness, then so will everyone else. To think that people will police themselves is naive at best, just take a look at some of your local trails.

    • skibum

      Funny choice of words, Fatlip. Shred? What has given you the idea I wish to “shred” these trails. My backcountry excursions are much like my backcountry hiking excursions.

      You make an interesting point about the horses. Horses have proven to have far greater impact on trails than bikes. So why are they allowed?

      As far as policing themselves, have you seen all the trash hikers leave in the backcountry, the illegal fire rings they build, the butts and roaches they cast aside in high fire danger areas, the places they relieve their bodily functions (i.e. within 100ft of lakes and streams), the switchbacks they cut, etc? Hmmm . . . if failure to self police is your criteria, then the only solution is to ban everybody.

      As far as entitlement is concerned, the only thing I feel entitled to, is equal access as a an equally low-impact trail user to suitable and sustainable trails (I have never advocate for unlimited cycling access to all trails).

      But most importantly, recall that the premise of the article I was responding to was that the only way to protect this parcel is Wilderness designation, a premise which is false.

      Consider also that the response was not intended to push for cycle access everywhere, just to stem the tide of losses. Idaho already has nearly 5 million acres of wilderness. In Montana, the contiguous Great Bear, Bob Marshall and Scapegoat Wilderness areas encompass an intact Wilderness parcel the size of the entire state of Delaware, and that’s just three of Montana’s many Wildereness areas. In my current home state of Colorado, 85+percent of roadless areas are off limits to bikes due to Wilderness designation. Add to that closures by National Parks, National Monuments, and other USFS, BLM and local agency closures as outlined in their various Management Plans and Travel Plans. Add to that all the trails which start and end outside Wilderness areas, but pass through some portion of Wilderness, making the entire route nonviable for cycling.

      The real question is when does this stop? Most importantly, if adding to our bike-free inventory is the right answer, we must arrive at that answer by fact based reasoning and rational analysis rather than feelings guesswork. The only way to do that is to cull out the false arguments, which comprised the entirety of the original article.

  • bravesdave

    As a forest ecologist and avid wilderness adventurer of many interests who has worked in land management for years with the Forest Service and then in other places of the world, I see such a sad abuse in this and other discussions.

    Yes, there are places in wildlands (and urban lands) for mountain biking. And yes, there are places for not having mountain biking in wildlands and urban lands, even areas perfectly suitable for mountain biking. Suitability is one criteria, but not the only of course. There is good reasons for having hiking only trails, biking only trails, multi-use trails, etc. etc. And I’m sure every member of STs agrees with me on this.

    The one sad issue in this whole discussion, and I see this over and over again by environmentalist types, is the blatant abuse of the Wilderness Area designation that the Forest Service has allowed over the years (an the ignorance of others to this abuse). The original intent and definition of a Wilderness Area centered around the concept that a man could take a two-week horse pack trip through a contiguous region without seeing the marks of other men and civilization. I’m sorry, but the 14.81 square miles of the Rich Mountain WA pales with that original intent. Shoot, I could run through this mountain on any given day and I’m 51 years old.

    I have grown severely weary of the abuse of the WA designation for preservation purposes of special interests groups and that the Forest Service has allowed this abuse instead of coming up with other solutions. There are other designations that should be discussed to protect areas like this. Skibum is totally right about this point. Should it be strictly protected? Possibly. But not under a WA designation. 15 square miles does not constitute wilderness.

    The other point I have a problem with in many of these discussions is the alarm “advocates” start sounding as they see trail erosion. Sure, we want to fix eroded trails. But people act like this is threatening the planet. A trail is a teeny, tiny line (not even a corridor in landscape ecology terminology) across a vast landscape. Nearly 99.9% of the time the only problems of trail erosion is the unsightly appearance and hazard it potentially presents to those using the trail. People act like the entire landscape is being eroded. There are usually far greater places of natural erosion occurring in the very same area.

    Now where trail erosion can become a true environmental issue is where trail density is too high. And this is true in some biking areas where they have packed in ST anywhere and everywhere. Most of us dislike this kind of system anyway. So the issue here is not the actual use, but poor design.

    So in reality, even in areas where there is some trail erosion, the real issues regarding the type of users who should be allowed to use a trail are not environmental at all. They are purely social, and this levels the discussion, and everyone is morally obligated to begin to giving consideration to their fellow human beings and fellow citizens.

    Now I have a passion for mountain … … I should have started years ago. =) I also have a passion for true wilderness and other outdoor wildland experiences (camping, trail running, hiking, backpacking, mountaineering, etc). I have no problem having to turn around on my bike at a true Wilderness Area boundary, even though I would love to ride through it. But the fact is the Forest Service has lost all integrity in its designations of Wilderness Areas. A comprehensive review of Wilderness Areas on Federal Lands and their uses with public involvement should be conducted.

    • WesternSLP

      Appreciated this post, good perspective.

  • WesternSLP

    I started with a Google search of “can I push my mountain bike through a Wilderness area”, never found anything! πŸ™‚ But, of course, got into reading a bunch of recent content related to MTBers & Wilderness.

    Skibum, I was just reading some of the ST posts for the Lake George area…McCurdy & Lizard Rock trails, and a reviewer said you could loop it but need to go through 3/4 mile of Lost Creek. That’s why I was researching the topic of being able to walk my bike, guess I need to Google “walk” instead of “push”! ha.

    Greg, let me know please what you come up with for Salida/BV area trail that summits a 14er. Like to give this a go!

    Scott, Park County (Southern)

    • Jeff Barber

      There was actually a forum thread here a few years ago about pushing bikes through wilderness areas. Basically some folks were told even possessing a bike in a wilderness area is against the law. It’s too easy to go from riding a bike to pushing it, therefore the assumption is if you have it in the area you’re probably going to be riding it at some point.

  • RobertD

    I think we need to spend more time riding and less time worrying about what other people think. There is good and bad in most every endeavor. Try to be the good and enjoy the ride. πŸ™‚

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