BIKING THROUGH THE WILDERNESS?

28 October 2019

  Earlier this year, there was a lot of discussion in magazines and on the internet regarding the pros and cons of allowing mountain bikes into National Wilderness. I have my own visceral reaction to that, remembering (for example) a quiet walk in a remote Vancouver Island mountain area suddenly interrupted by three mountain bikers raging down the trail, yelling to one another, and forcing us to quickly leap aside as they careened by. (They didn’t stop or apologize.) More to the point, perhaps, is the time I spent in the 1960s, evaluating National Wildlife Refuge lands for possible inclusion in the new National Wilderness system. I have trouble making mountain bikes fit with the Wilderness Act definition of “wilderness:” "an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain... an area of undeveloped Federal land retaining its primeval character and influence, without permanent improvements or human habitation, which is protected and managed so as to preserve its natural conditions... with the imprint of man's work substantially unnoticeable; ...(with) outstanding opportunities for solitude or a primitive and unconfined type of recreation; ...”  Yelling, racing bicyclists paying no attention to the obvious attributes of “wilderness?” I think not.

   Still, I haven’t been entirely comfortable with my position. Clearly, there were many instances in national wildernesses in which you can’t really say that “the imprint of man's work [and woman’s!] [is] substantially unnoticeable.” My own agency had tried to make the case that an area could still qualify as wilderness with cattle grazing, barbed-wire fences, structures to control water flow, or even occasional trucks or air-thrust boats for “management” purposes. (Luckily, we didn’t succeed.) Under the Act, an area as small as 5,000 acres can be established. Five thousand acres is eight square miles. Can any area that size in the contiguous 48 United States be free from outside influences? I doubt it.

   There is also the human expectation for what “wilderness” should be like. Probably few 20th or 21st century wilderness advocates could fully subscribe to John Muir’s 1888 pronouncement: “Only by going alone in silence, without baggage, can one truly get into the heart of the wilderness.” (The Life and Letters of John Muir: 1924). Garrett Hardin’s thought was more in line with the average wilderness lover, I think: “No one should be able to enter a wilderness by mechanical means.” (The Ecologist, February 1974.) But about the same time (sorry; I can’t locate the exact citation right now), Ernie Swift was proclaiming that most Americans didn’t want true wilderness, but a “parboiled version:” wild-looking and wild-feeling, but “pre-cooked” so as not to be too tough going?

   My ideal wilderness is a little bit “parboiled,” I guess. I like trails –they can be rough, and a little cross-country travel with no trail is sometimes exciting, but trails are okay with me. I don’t mind wading streams – but I don’t care much for raging rivers without bridges. I don’t mind grizzly bears in my wilderness, but I don’t want to carry a rifle to protect myself from the constant threat of being eaten by one. I don’t mind being less than a full day away from my car – if it’s peaceful and the day-hikers all go home by evening – but I prefer both the feeling and the reality of more isolation. For me, it boils down to liking it “wild,” but not seeking “wilderness primeval.” Even so, I don’t find much room in my “wilderness” for mountain bikes.

*  *  *

   Having gone through all that thought-process, I still was seeking a particular reason why I oppose mountain biking in our national wildernesses. My conclusion is that it’s about access. Outside of Alaska and some of our large national parks and national forests, most designated wildernesses are quite small. Most are larger than the minimum 5,000 acres, but many can be walked from side to side (or end to end) by a strong hiker in a single day. Merely designating these areas as National Wilderness has increased interest, and subsequent use. Backpackers and day-hikers alone have overwhelmed some of them. One Oregon wilderness had visitor use increase by 200 percent in five years, backcountry trash removal has become a major task for the Forest Service, and one popular camp area has been described as “smelling like a sewer” because of the amount of human waste. To preserve anything of a wilderness character in some of these areas, the managing agencies have put limits on the number of people who can enter, the size of groups that can enter together, and the length of stay. To some, such regulations seem contrary to the very idea of  wilderness, but how else to keep us from loving them to death? Making access easier – like with mountain bikes – is just the opposite of what these wilderness areas need.

   The larger, more remote areas are not immune to overuse, either. Back in the 1950s, the National Park Service was already closing favorite camp sites along the John Muir Trail because of damage to the meadows and forests by too many users. Granted that some of the most damaging use – from large mule and horse parties – was curtailed, overall use has continued to grow over the ensuing 75 years. In 1956, not far off the John Muir Trail, I and three friends backpacked and camped for five days, and only saw one person. We climbed several mountains by the only routes that had so far been pioneered up them. Today, that location is actually remoter than it was in the 1950s, because the only real trail to it was abandoned years ago. Even so, a 2009 climbing guidebook includes detailed directions on how to approach the region, and has dozens of new climbing routes described. I haven’t been back, but I suspect I wouldn’t go five days without sharing the area with quite a few others. I’m sure it’s still “wild” because it still takes two days of hiking to get there, but it suggests to me the need for more travel limitations, not less.

*   *  *

   Whenever we advocate something, we are likely to stress the favorable points for us, and downplay or ignore the negatives. Here’s one example: Almost by definition, wilderness will not be available to everyone. I’ve hiked and camped all my life, and don’t have any major disabilities. I’d love to visit more national wildernesses, but I’m 80 years old and haven’t done any serious hiking, or had a pack on my back, in over ten years. Maybe I could get myself in shape, again, but that’s a really big “maybe.” The rules don’t keep me from the wilderness; I do.

   Mountain bikers are usually not 80 years old and out of shape. If they are tough enough to bike long distances over rough trails, then they almost certainly could backpack those same distances and trails. The regulations don’t deny them access to the wilderness; they merely limit the means of access.

   Another point to consider: Wilderness Act designation covers 111 million acres of Federal land, about 80 million acres of it in the “Lower 48.” But in those same 48 states, altogether there are over 400 million acres of Federal lands. Over 300 million acres of mountains, forests, deserts, grasslands, and sea shores – with hundreds of thousands of miles of trails and roads – are available almost without restriction to the mountain biker. The scenery is as good, the solitude is as great, and the general feel of being in “the wilderness” is in many areas as strong as in the few designated areas. What is the mountain biker actually being deprived of?


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© Sanford Wilbur 2019