Are We Ready for Wilderness Lite?

By Beacon Staff

Today, I’ve decided to give a few Wilderness advocates coronaries by saying it’s time for them to suck it up and push for Wilderness Lite. If they don’t, we might never protect the last roadless lands in the New West.

Wilderness is the “W word” to many people–except to wolf haters, I suppose. And for a myriad of reasons, we’ve gone more than 20 years without a new designated Wilderness in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming. One of those reasons, if not the major one, is that natural allies for wild land protection can’t work together for their common good.

The recent debate over the Montana High Divide Trails proposal nicely illustrates the dilemma. I went to one of the collaborative sessions for this proposal, and it was like seeing the movie Ground Hog Day for the tenth time. Almost all mountain bikers want roadless lands protected from road building and motorized abuse, but they don’t want Wilderness because agencies have made administrative decisions to prohibit bicycles in Wilderness. Instead, they want a new designation that only allows MPVs, Muscle Powered Vehicles like bicycles, horses, hikers and climbers, but bans roads and motorized recreation or wreckreation, as it’s been called.

(If agencies can create new terms and acronyms like OHVs or PFDs, I figure I can do it, too. So bring on the MPV zones.)

The rub is, Congress really hasn’t given us an alternative to Wilderness that allows all MPVs. We have several administrative alternatives, but these can change with the political winds of any administration and don’t offer lasting protection.

Wilderness advocates aren’t really pushing for Wilderness Lite or ‘little w” alternative designation that prohibits road-building and allows only non-motorized use because they know that once we get it, the political reality is there will be no more “Big W” Wilderness. Their fears are well founded, but nonetheless, it might be time for them to give up and support the creation of a new congressionally mandated MPV zones. If they don’t change course, we could easily be looking at another 20 years or more before getting any lasting protection for roadless lands, and during that time, our roadless land base will continue to shrink.

There would still be opposition, of course, but I have to believe that if all non-motorized constituencies could form a united front, we could protect a lot of our roadless lands in a hurry.

Politicians like this type of “bottom up” collaboration among user groups, so we might actually get one of them to introduce a bill, perhaps even a republican.

According to a recent Wall Street Journal article, the Bush administration might actually sign a few Wilderness bills next year, especially bills with local republican co-sponsors. And there are several such bills in the hopper right now, but none for Idaho, Montana or Wyoming, where no republican or democrat in Congress is championing roadless land protection, a far-too-common theme that needs to change.

It would be even better, I suppose, to have the motorized users involved in these bottom-up collaborations, but the goals are so polarized instead of so similar that it makes compromise so difficult. Instead, we probably need designated motorized areas.

The other way out of the debate with mountain bikers is to allow them in Wilderness. Whenever I say this, my Wilderness advocate friends almost have coronaries, but there is at least a valid argument that the Wilderness Act doesn’t really ban mountain bikes. The modern mountain bike barely existed and certainly wasn’t widely used when Congress passed the Wilderness Act in 1964. Even though the Wilderness Act doesn’t even contain the word, bicycle, government agencies wrote administrative rules banning bicycling in Wilderness and steadfastly refuse to reconsider this administrative policy.

Some hikers worsen the problem with their attitude toward mountain biking on single-track trails. Most if not all hiking and Wilderness groups oppose any change in the Wilderness Act or related administrative rules to allow mountain biking, and some are blatantly anti-mountain biking, even in non-Wilderness hiking areas.

A few years ago, I did a shift on the Board of Directors of the American Hiking Society, and I was surprised by the attitude of key staffers and fellow board members. Basically, the feeling is that mountain bikers are dangerous and obtrusive to the hiking experience when riding on single-track trails shared with hikers.

I take the opposite view. I own a mountain bike, but it has street tires on it and has never been on a single-track. While hiking, I’ve encountered many mountain bikers. Not once have I seen a problem or had a conflict. Even in two areas in Montana used extensively by both hikers and mountain bikers, the Mount Helena area near Helena and the Rattlesnake area near Missoula, the two groups peacefully co-mingle.

I know there are exceptions, and I’m sure I’ll get a comment or two from people who have had a bad experience. But there are always some conflicts, even between hiking groups or backcountry horsemen. We can’t set policy and establish our attitudes on what one thoughtless mountain biker might have done somewhere. We shouldn’t manage for the extreme. I see no reason hikers, horses and mountain bikers can’t share single-track trails–and join hands in support for protecting our roadless lands.

I also hear talk of resource damage from mountain bikers, but that seems like a shallow argument. I suspect the environmental impact is similar if not less than hiking, and definitely minuscule compared to resource destruction from motorized use of trails, which is the real alternative we face if non-motorized users don’t form a pact and work together to protect their common ground.

There is at least one precedent for the Wilderness Lite concept, a National Scenic Area, created by Congress last year as part of the type of collaboration I’m proposing between wilderness advocates and mountain biking groups in Virginia. Perhaps this can spread to the New West and bring an end to the seemingly endless Wilderness debate.

Footnote: Over the past three years, I’ve devoted a lot of space to the issue of natural allies for wild land protection, so along with this column, I compiled A Natural Allies Chronology, just in case you want to read more.