Why MTB groups and environmental advocates should compromise on the Wilderness Act
August 28, 2015
Recently, Congress passed the Boulder-White Clouds Wilderness bill and President Obama signed it into law. I have never ridden my bike or hiked in this area of Idaho, and I'm not up on the bill's political back story, but it has created a lot of anger in the mountain-bike community. It's my understanding that the new wilderness designation will ban the use of mountain bikes on numerous trails that have been used by cyclists as long as mountain bikes have been around.
For a long time, there have been calls from some MTB groups to amend the wilderness act to allow bicycles in designated wilderness area. With the passage of this bill, those ranks are swelling. Many mountain bikers feel the original intent of the wilderness act doesn't bar human-powered bicycles and that use was arbitrarily banned — not by the legislation itself, but by prejudiced interpretation.
Whether that is true or not will, of course, depend on who you talk to. Like almost any law or constitution, people can, will and do argue endlessly about matters of interpretation to suit their point of view (Want to talk about the Second Amendment?). Opinions on both sides of the issue tend to be passionate and entrenched, and both sides feel the other isn't basing their argument on facts, logic or what best serves the land.
Personally, I'm fine if bicycles aren't allowed in designated wilderness. I think there should be land where travel and activity is limited to its most basic and primitive form, and I'm not so sure bicycles fit that ethos. But, I see a problem when a wilderness act suddenly closes off lands that have established and historic mountain-bike trails or are appropriate locales for new trails.
The Summit Fat Tire Society was long involved with what began as "Hidden Gems." The SFTS was not supportive of the first, or second or third version of Hidden Gems, and the proposal (It never became a bill) pretty much died. Out of that process, though, a dialogue between mountain bikers and wilderness advocates — uneasy at times, for sure — was established, and some innovative ideas were put on the table. Folks like Mike McCormick, Ellen Hollinshed, Laura Rossetter and others worked under the umbrella of the SFTS with the support of the International Mountain Bike Association, putting in many volunteer hours to pore over maps and work with their counterparts on the "other side" of the table.
Out of that dialogue came a new proposal, known as the Continental Divide Wilderness and Recreation Act, sponsored by Rep. Jared Polis. It began to take shape with boundary adjustments that preserved MTB access on Summit trails like Wheeler, Miners Creek and others. Peer groups in the Vail and Roaring Fork valleys did similar work. As part of the act, special management areas were created, offering environmental protection in buffer zones near designated wilderness areas while still allowing mountain bikes on existing trails.
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This proposal isn't perfect from a mountain biker's point of view. There are a few lesser-used trails that might be closed to mountain biking; although, to be honest, some of those trails would be considered closed with or without the wilderness proposal. But, that's what negotiation is about, and it preserves almost all trails that see significant mountain-bike traffic.
Opinions on the wilderness act vary within the MTB community. Some adamantly oppose any designation due to the bike ban. Some support the concept of no bikes, but not when established mountain bike trails are closed to that use. Regardless of how they feel about the intricacies of the wilderness act, though, most mountain bikers highly value wild lands and all the plant life, animal life, clean water, clean air, scenery and primitive beauty they provide. They want to see these lands protected from more intensive recreational and industrial use. The Continental Divide Wilderness and Recreation Act shows what we can do when we respect each other and work together.
As I said before, I'm not familiar enough with the Boulder-White Clouds back story and process to comment on how it came to pass, but I lament the loss of bike-friendly trails. Moving forward, I hope everyone who works on land-use designations, no matter what they are, can use the example we've created locally. I'm not so naïve to believe that the same dynamic we have here exists everywhere else, but it can work.
It's not easy. It can be contentious, tedious and frustrating, and you can almost guarantee you won't get everything you want. It'll drive you crazy if you take it personally, but I'd like to think we've created a model for others to mimic so we can have wild and remote areas across the U.S., areas that allow folks to continue enjoying the rapture that those places offer — on a bicycle.