Over a Beer: How Bad Is Mountain Biking for the Environment, Really?

Rider: Darren Berrecloth filming for "Where the Trail Ends." Photo: John Wellburn / Red Bull Content Pool
Rider: Darren Berrecloth filming for “Where the Trail Ends.” Photo: John Wellburn / Red Bull Content Pool

Editor’s Note: “Over a Beer” is a regular column written by Greg Heil. While Greg is the Editor in Chief for Singletracks.com, any opinions expressed in this column are his alone and do not necessarily represent the opinions of Singletracks.com.

The stock criticism trotted out by extreme anti-mountain bike conservationists like the Sierra Club is that mountain biking is harmful and degrading to the environment. However, most mountain bikers realize that the Sierra Club is full of BS, and that mountain bikes have no more impact than hiking boots. Some US Forest Service districts have publicly acknowledged this fact as well.

However, in our discussion of impact, there are usually some caveats. Mountain biking has the same impact as hiking if mountain bikers don’t skid. It has little impact if you ride when the trails are dry. There’s almost no impact, unless you’re doing Rampage-style mountain biking, building big booters in the mountains, or freeriding… if you’re acting like a hooligan, the argument goes, you actually are having a serious negative impact on the natural environment.

The other day while I was scrolling through my Facebook feed, looking for cool mountain biking videos and unfollowing obnoxious political ranters, I happened upon this video that was re-shared by a “friend” of mine from a car page:

To be clear, I have no problem with someone having a fun time. And I’m sure for an official event like this one appears to be, they had a closed course and permission to be there. But after watching the video above, uttering the phrase “mountain bikes hurt the environment” makes you seem completely and utterly clueless about the state of the world, and obsessed to the point of delusion with the mountain biking “problem.”

Seriously, did you see how much dirt was displaced by the passage of this one vehicle, the tracks that were left, the rampant erosion? Even comparing the rowdiest of Red Bull lines, freeride schralping in the desert–none of that can even compare to the damage that some motor sports inflict on the environment.

I mean, watch that video again. It’s just crazy.

Environmental Disasters

A bird covered in oil from the Black Sea oil spill. Photo via Wikimedia Commons
A bird covered in oil from the Black Sea oil spill. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

As damaging as driving a dune buggy straight up a mountain may be, motorized recreation is a drop in the bucket compared to the scale of environmental disasters from resource extraction.

Take, for just one example of these environmental disasters, oil spills. Have you heard of the Exxon-Valdez oil spill? Yeah, it didn’t even make the list of the top 10 biggest oil spills in history.

Let that sink in for a second. We’ve had so many oil spills over the years that there’s enough to create a top 10 list, and one of the most famous spills in history isn’t even on it.

In just the 10 biggest oil spills on record (not including the numerous smaller spills), roughly 1.5 billion gallons of crude oil have been spilled into the environment.

That’s a difficult number to visualize, so check out this list of things you could do with 1 million barrels of oil… at 42 gallons to a barrel, multiply those numbers by 36 times.

Oil slick from the Montara oil spill in the Timor Sea, September 2009. Photo: US Government
Oil slick from the Montara oil spill in the Timor Sea, September 2009. Photo: US Government

No More Caveats

From here on out, I’m cutting the caveats out of my language when talking about mountain biking’s impact on the environment. I’m removing the qualifiers. I’m not even throwing the 1% of impactful mountain bikers under the bus. Because if you compare mountain biking to numerous other forms of recreation like off road motorsports, not to mention the massive impact from environmental disasters like oil spills, the impact from mountain bikes is about as close to zero as you can get.

Our struggle for mountain bike trail access has nothing to do with environmental impact. It has everything to do with money and power, greed and selfishness.