Hikers, Wildernuts Should Re-think Mountain Biking

By Beacon Staff

Some wilderness advocates don’t consider the conflict between hikers and mountain bikers serious, nor do they believe it prevents worthy roadless lands from being protected, but I do.

I’m devoting this column to how and why hikers and wildernuts should take the lead in resolving the conflict. You might not see the impasse. Bicycling groups, led by the International Mountain Bicycling Association (IMBA), commonly say they aren’t opposed to wilderness, but they are, in fact, opposed to any proposed wilderness that includes single-track trails commonly used for mountain biking, which is most of them.

Wilderness and hiking groups such as the American Hiking Society, Sierra Club and Wilderness Society commonly say they aren’t opposed to mountain biking, but they keep on proposing wilderness that doesn’t allow mountain biking – and many of their members abhor the thought of sharing trails with mountain bikers. Instead, hikers should welcome the opportunity to join with cyclists to push for protection for roadless lands they can easily and peacefully enjoy, together.

We have had collaborative successes (Colorado, Oregon, Virginia, et al) where agreements were reached so both hikers and bikers could support legislation designating downsized wilderness that avoided closing popular mountain biking routes. I don’t want to belittle these sincere efforts, but in most cases, there’s no agreement and no wilderness.

So what to do? Wilderness and hiking groups could encourage the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) and other federal agencies to re-write the administrative rules regulating the use of wilderness to allow mountain biking.

The word “bicycle” is not in the Wilderness Act of 1964, nor does it disallow mountain biking. In fact, the first regulations the USFS wrote in the late 1960s didn’t prohibit mountain biking, but later, in the early 1980s, when mountain biking started becoming popular, the USFS specifically revised the regulations to ban bicycles in wilderness. So, for around 15 years after the Wilderness Act became the law of the land, bicycles were actually allowed in wilderness – until the USFS, supported by wilderness and hiking groups, not Congress, and before the IMBA-fueled bicycle lobby started rolling, made an administrative decision to disallow bicycling.

The easiest way to undo this overstepping of the administrative rule-making process would be for the USFS, with the support by wilderness and hiking groups, not Congress, to revise the regulations again to allow bicycles. Sadly, most wildernuts consider this heresy.

If mountain bikers and hikers agreed to re-write the regs, the USFS would be hard-pressed to refuse. Although possibly making a slight left turn now, the USFS has been traditionally anti-wilderness and delighted to see the impasse between hikers and mountain bikers, two like-minded constituencies who should be working together. The last thing those opposed to wilderness want to see is hikers and mountain bikers pulling in the same direction.

Many mountain bikers, incidentally, agree with hikers and wildernuts that existing wilderness areas like the Bob Marshall or Cabinet Mountains should be “off the table.” Instead, they’re saying future protective land designations should not disallow mountain biking, which is now a “pre-existing use” in most roadless areas.

Therefore, politically, re-writing the regulations becomes problematic because revised regs would apply to both new and existing wilderness. That leads us to the best option we have – passing a new organic act that embodies the principles of what I call Wilderness Lite, my term for “wilderness that allows mountain biking.”

Wilderness and hiking groups should support a new organic act codifying a Wilderness Lite alternative to wilderness, but I suspect, they will continue to scoff at the idea, which means the bicycle lobby should initiate this legislation. Would wilderness groups oppose such legislation because it creates a real and attractive alternative to wilderness? I hope not, but it wouldn’t surprise me. In fact, they might fear it because Wilderness Lite could easily become popular with politicians and make wilderness designation more difficult.

Keep in mind that Congress could allow mountain biking in any new wilderness by simply writing this exception into any new legislation, but lawmakers have been reluctant to do this, and wildernuts have opposed it.

We also have the option of amending the Wilderness Act to clarify the mountain biking issue, but that’s too dangerous. It gives anti-wilderness politicians a chance to mess up one of the best things Congress ever did. So, let’s not go there. Why should we? We have three easier, safer options.

And it’s about time wilderness and hiking groups endorsed one of them, so we can finally aggressively move forward in protecting our roadless lands.

The conflict over mountain biking hampers efforts to protect roadless land, and we have too much holding us back already. All people who support non-motorized recreation must work together or go down in defeat together.

I’d like to live in a world where mountain bikers would yield to a higher priority, saving wilderness, and realize that even if all deserving roadless land became Wilderness, they’d still have plenty of places to ride bicycles, but I don’t. So, wilderness and hiking groups must make the next move, and they have two choices: (1) continue losing and compromising away roadless land in our current contentious political climate or (2) make peace with mountain bikers and aggressively pursue one of the above options.