Opinion: Response to “Wilderness is more important than thrill rides”

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.

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