September 18, 1994

Sierra Club Board of Directors

730 Polk Street

San Francisco, California 94109

Re: Mountain Biking versus Wildlife


Your decision to sanction mountain biking on trails is the stupidest thing the Club has done since it allowed Glen Canyon to be dammed. In both cases, Club leaders apparently felt it would be easier to sacrifice wildlife (who, of course, are never represented in the negotiations) than face the criticism of a few selfish "wise use" types. (Of course, wildlife and Native Americans have a prior claim to all of our land, so it is really not even yours to give!)

This conflict has been presented as though it were between two groups of people -- hikers and bikers. This is nonsense. Both groups have exactly the same access: both are allowed on the trails, and neither is allowed to bring a bicycle. The real conflict is between humans, who always win, and wildlife, who always lose and are never even "at the table".

Homo sapiens is by far the most selfish of all species. We are not satisfied to "own" every square inch of the Earth and every creature on it (a claim which is patently absurd), and to be able to go wherever we want whenever we want to. Now we want to be able to go wherever we want in whatever manner we want. We aren't happy bicycling our hundreds of thousands of miles of existing roads. We want a yet higher level of titillation.

This is not just a Sierra Club problem. Worldwide, humans are driving dozens of species to extinction every day. The biologists all agree that the chief cause is human appropriation and domination of wildlife habitat. And yet I am not aware of a single scientist with the courage to admit that the only way to preserve these species is to allocate habitat for them that is off-limits to people (including scientists, who are multiplying almost as fast as everyone else, and whose "collecting" is a major part of the problem)! If every place in the world is easily accessible to humans, then, obviously, only species that can adapt to life in our midst will survive. We can kiss the grizzly and mountain lion goodbye, just as we did the mammoth and sabre-tooth tiger.

Unfortunately, interest in wildlife actually seems to be decreasing! Wildlife is just another Sierra Club committee, and one of the smallest. It is no wonder that our critics say we are just out to preserve pretty places for us to hike and raft (and, now, mountain bike). Although mountain biking is obviously far more damaging than hiking, the bikers do have a point: hiking is still damaging to the environment (e.g. we have already burned up all the available firewood in most campsites!). But rather than using humans' favorite bit of illogic -- "it's already messed up, so that makes it okay to mess it up some more" -- we really should respond by voluntarily withdrawing from as much vital habitat as possible, removing all roads, trails, and other human artifacts -- and then erasing it from the map! The Sierra Club has become a "wise use" group, whose "uses" are only a little bit wiser.

Like all parts of our technology, bicycles have appropriate and inappropriate uses (e.g. the appropriate use for cars is as housing for the homeless, or flowerpots for geraniums). The purpose of the bicycle is to replace the automobile, not extend its reach into our precious wilderness. For wilderness visitors to arrive by bicycle rather than car would be progress; but allowing bikes onto trails would be a giant step backwards. Wilderness is finite, and thus can stand only so many such losses, before it is gone.

The August, 1994 issue of "Planet" said mountain biking on trails is okay "when ... practiced in an environmentally sound ... manner". This is dishonest. There is no way to bicycle on trails in an environmentally sound manner! Bikes create narrow ruts that are impossible to hike on, similar to those of the burros in the Grand Canyon, only narrower. Trails are quickly widened and eroded. Bikes kill any living creature that happens to be on the trail (because they travel too fast to notice them). But worst of all, bikes allow many more people to reach habitat areas, crowding wildlife away from their desired mating and feeding areas, and leading to lower biodiversity and higher extinction rates.

Allowing bikes in parks forces rangers to travel by motor vehicle, initiating a spiral of increasing motor vehicle dependence, enforcement problems, and increasing costs, at a time when all resources need to be directed toward environmental education and preservation of habitats and species.

You say "Sierra Club members are mountain bikers, too". Just because Club members have begun abusing the environment, this is no reason for continuing it! You say "we can't afford to alienate mountain bikers, ... who care about the environment". In other words, we shouldn't protect the environment, because it might offend someone who wants to protect the environment. More doubletalk. The involvement of REI should give you a clue: a bicycle and outdoor equipment dealer is not primarily interested in protecting either wildlife or the environment, but in selling more bicycles!


Michael J. Vandeman, Ph.D.