Around 1980, during the developmental days of mountain biking, we did lots of riding in legal (big W) Wilderness here in Colorado. Doing so was legal for a while, until environmentalists and user groups such as equestrians freaked out and pressured the Forest Service to make a ruling against bicycles in Wilderness.
|Mountain biking legal Wilderness in Colorado, circa 1980.
Colorado Wilderness riding was amazing. Epic single tracks that wove through timberline. Seemingly infinite choices in routes. This is all illegal now. Should it stay that way?
As many blog readers know I’m a recreation advocate and generally want to see more trails created, with more types of uses allowed on more public land. But I’m also a fan of having a given amount of legal Wilderness we can rely on for a more primitive recreation experience. Conversely, I’m not keen on the endless pressure to create more legal Wilderness that restricts most types of outdoor recreation.
At any rate, the issue of mountain bikes in Wilderness has festered for years. By not advocating for bicycle access, wilderness groups have at least neutralized the support of and sometimes alienated a large population of human powered recreationists — backcountry bicycle riders who could be powerful advocates for legal Wilderness (as well as potential money donors to help keep the enviro dollar machine chugging along.)
As a take-no-prisoners advocate for mountain biking, a few months ago Dirt Rag magazine published a legal position article making a good argument that bicycles have always been legal in Wilderness, and were wrongly banned. According to the gist of the article (and in my own experience), the rule is based on a vague definition of “mechanized transport.” This meaning the use of any machinery deemed contrary to the spirit of Wilderness, as defined by the common wisdom of the day. In other words, the way these rules are created, the Forest Service could just as easily ban the use of backcountry ski bindings as that of bicycles.
According to the article:
“Read strictly, this term [mechanical transport] could be applied to numerous forms of transport: alpine and mountaineering skis, rowboats with oarlocks, antishock hiking poles and gear. Pushed even further, the term could even prohibit the mechanical transport of anything, thus banning fishing reels, wheelbarrows and game carts. We already have high tech kayaks that utilize human-powered propellers, making them more akin to bicycles in their transmission system, and who knows what other forms of human-powered recreational devices might be down the pike.”
So there you have it. The issue of machinery, especially bicycle access, is still an undercurrent in Wilderness politics, and not doubt people are gearing up to try and make it legal to ride a mountain bike in legal Wilderness.
In terms of the big picture, what’s this mean for outdoor recreation? I’d imagine that most core Wilderness advocates would agree that opening Wilderness back up to bicycles would be something like the death of a thousand cuts, since it represents a progression away from common Wilderness values (muscle=good machinery=bad). On the other hand, groups such as the Sierra Club would also gain a huge amount of support by bringing mountain bikers into the fold, and could thus continue their agenda of creating ever more legal Wilderness. Besides degrading existing Wilderness, this is another reason I’m not a fan of opening Wilderness up to bikes, as I feel we have enough restrictive legal Wilderness and the last thing we need is another user group that’ll add to Wilderness support.
Instead, what we need is another land management designation that’s more friendly to a variety of backcountry recreation — including bicycles. It would be great to see mountain bikers lobby for that. But alas, making that happen is a stupendous undertaking that would probably take more political muscle than that which created the original Wilderness Act. Nonetheless it could happen — especially if serious consideration is given to the fact that things such as ski bindings and fishing reels are also machinery and perhaps should be banned from Wilderness. After all, how primitive are a pair of Dynafit bindings?
WildSnow.com publisher emeritus and founder Lou (Louis Dawson) has a 50+ years career in climbing, backcountry skiing and ski mountaineering. He was the first person in history to ski down all 54 Colorado 14,000-foot peaks, has authored numerous books about about backcountry skiing, and has skied from the summit of Denali in Alaska, North America’s highest mountain.