Our wildlands are not outdoor gymnasiums or amusement parks.
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Mountain Biking Is Inappropriate In Wilderness
by George Wuerthner
George Wuerthner is an ecologist
and former hunting guide who has written or edited many books including,
Thrillcraft: The Environmental Consequences of Motorized Recreation. He has
personally visited more than 400 designated wilderness areas.
I just got
back from a mountain bike ride. The trails outside of my hometown of Bend,
Oregon have numerous loops and degrees of difficulty, and riding my mountain
bike is a pleasant way to unwind, get some exercise, and enjoy pedaling without
the fear of being hit by a car. The trails are located in previously logged
forests on the edge of town. These lands do not qualify for wilderness or other
special protection, and thus are an appropriate location for mountain biking.
Are these the sort of lands that hikers would find attractive? If not, who cares about bikes being ridden there.
The key words here are “appropriate location.”
That is the same
qualifier I would have for my four-wheel drive vehicle as well other
“thrillcraft.” I am grateful to have a four-wheel drive vehicle when driving in
snow, muddy roads and the like, but that doesn’t mean I feel it’s appropriate to
drive it everywhere it can go. Similarly, just because my mountain bike can
climb steep hillsides and traverse meadows, doesn’t mean I think it’s
appropriate to use wherever I might feel like it.
Four-wheel drive vehicles are an even greater menace to nature than mountain bikes, but as long as driven on roads however primitive, who cares!
Although I can’t speak
for all mountain bikers, I think my experience while on my bike is
representative of most cyclists in that I am more focused on the trail and the
sense of movement than I am aware of and in tune with my surroundings. In other
words, the natural world I am traveling through is more a stage for my cycling
experience. Whether that stage is wildlands or not is irrelevant to my biking
experience. This fundamental indifference to landscape is the primary conflict
between mountain biking and the Wilderness Act’s goals.
This is not to
say that mountain bikers do not enjoy wildlands or that they are immune to the
beauty of nature. Indeed, when I stop cycling, I often look around and
appreciate the setting. But the reason I am biking is not primarily to observe
nature, and I think it’s safe to say that most mountain bikers would agree. When
careening down a mountain we must, by necessity, be focused on the trail in
front of us, not the natural world around us.
Mountain biking on single track trails is a sport, not any kind of communion with nature. It is why bikers and hikers cannot share trails.
Our wildlands are not
outdoor gymnasiums or amusement parks. Part of the rationale for wilderness
designation is to provide an opportunity for people to contemplate and observe
It is clear from a reading of the debate around the
creation of the Wilderness System that recreation is not the prime rationale for
wilderness designation. The act says little about preserving recreational uses
or adapting new types of recreation. In testimony before Congress in 1962,
Howard Zahniser, the chief architect of the Wilderness Act, stated clearly:
“Recreation is not necessarily the dominant use of an area of wilderness.” In an
essay he authored in 1956, Zahniser wrote about the spiritual benefits of
wilderness, which he considered one of its highest purposes: “Without the
gadgets, the inventions, the contrivances whereby men have seemed to establish
among themselves an independence of nature, without these distractions, to know
the wilderness is to know a profound humility, to recognize one’s littleness, to
sense dependence and interdependence, indebtedness, and
I do not believe mountain bikes contribute to the
development of humility, nor a sense of dependence, interdependence, and
responsibility. There are four major reasons why mountain biking should not be
permitted in officially designated wilderness areas or in any areas that are
strong candidates for wilderness designation.
Wilderness Act is unambiguous about the kinds of activities that are deemed
acceptable in designated wilderness – namely travel without “mechanical
advantage.” The rationale for the law, as stated in its opening paragraph, is
“to assure that an increasing population, accompanied by expanding settlement
and growing mechanization, does not occupy and modify all areas within the
United States and its possessions, leaving no lands designated for preservation
and protection in their natural condition.” Mountain bikes are part of that
growing mechanization. The sophisticated advancement of mountain bike technology
reduces the natural limits imposed by primeval character, whereas those walking
or traveling by horse remain within natural limits.
Bike proponents often suggest that mountain bikes may do less damage than a pack
of horses or even a Boy Scout troop. This is a specious argument. The cumulative
effects of numerous tires create additional erosion, sedimentation in streams,
and potential for trail damage. The idea that some activities do more damage
than another is not a reason to expand damaging activities. There is a
cumulative impact from all uses, and adding to existing use can only increase
impacts. The main goal of wilderness designation is to preserve wild nature, not
to preserve recreational opportunity.
mechanical advantage – whether it is a dirt bike or a mountain bike – shrinks
the backcountry. This has several effects. Those walking are easily surpassed by
those using mechanical means, which can psychologically dismay other users. On
heavily used trails, the threat of a fast moving bike changes the experience for
other trail users. If you are a hiker, the ability to relax and soak in the
natural world is impeded when one is anxious about having to jump out of the way
of a bike.
Philosophical. The spirit and letter of the Wilderness Act is to
protect lands that retain their “primeval character and influence.” The more
advanced the technology that we drag along with us, the greater our alienation
from the spiritual values of wilderness areas. To many who are walking in quiet
contemplation of nature, mountain bikes are an intrusion. They are no different
to many wildlands enthusiasts than if a bike were to invade the Sistine Chapel
or were ridden in the Arlington National Cemetery. The fact that many mountain
bikers are oblivious to the spiritual values inherent in wildlands is one reason
why those walking find mountain biking obnoxious at best, and even
For me – and many of my fellow wilderness advocates – the
goal of conservation is to preserve the remnants of wild nature, not to protect
self-indulgent recreational opportunities. With ever more technological gadgets
available for distraction and diversion, we need the sanctity and self-restraint
that Wilderness Areas represent more than ever.
Sorry but in that manner equestrians are riding "thrillcraft" There is NO DAMAGE that is done to national Wilderness areas greater than the hiker/camper.
Sorry, but you are an idiot! Hiking has the least impact of any human activity. Camping does have to be regulated as it can damage the natural resource.
Just because you've found someone that agrees with your twisted viewpoint doesn't mean that it is any better focused than yours.
There are thousands of great writers and thinkers who have come to the same conclusion. It is the reason for wilderness areas being set aside to begin with. You and your g.d. mechanical contrivances are despoilers of wilderness. Short of executing you for your sacrilege, I would put you in prison for 20 years. That would keep you out of mischief.
I suggest you read the above article a few hundred times until it sinks into your thick skull.
Ed Dolan the Great – Minnesota