January 23, 2001

Helen Burke

Re: Appeasing the Mountain Bikers

Dear Helen:

I would like to try to answer your excellent, oft-asked question: Shouldn't we give the mountain bikers some place to ride? As plausible as it sounds, I don't think it's a good idea.

  1. They have plenty of places to ride. They can ride on paved roads, without doing much harm. Millions of people enjoy this very pleasurable activity -- so much so that there are hundreds of clubs, races, etc. devoted to it.
  2. The Sierra Club's purpose is not to support and promote any particular form of recreation, but to support and promote conservation. Mountain biking has nothing to do with conservation, and in fact works against it.
  3. No matter how many trails are given to the mountain bikers, they are never satisfied! By the very nature of mountain biking, they traverse natural areas too quickly to fully appreciate what they are passing; consequently, they quickly get bored and want a new trail. This can also be seen in the fact that even in parks where 99% of the trails are open to bikes (e.g. Pleasanton Ridge Regional Park), they still ride off-trail and build illegal trails!
  4. Creating new trails (or widening existing trails) for mountain biking is not fair to the wildlife, who simply lose that much more habitat (not just the trail surface, since the presence of people drives them away from the area). It seems to be a general truism that whenever two groups of humans compromise, wildlife loses.
  5. If new trails are not constructed, it is not fair to the other trail users, who are driven off the trails due to the anxiety and real risks that sharing the trails with bikes brings. The mountain bikers call bike bans "unfair" and "not sharing", but actually, the only way everyone can enjoy natural areas is to ban machinery such as bikes.
  6. Mountain biking is a much heavier use of a park than hiking. It not only increases impacts on wildlife and trails, but it greatly increases the number of people in the park and the area they impact. Even land managers that allow mountain biking admit that it greatly increases the cost of maintaining the park (including a much greater need for "policing").
  7. The only reason the Sierra Club considered supporting mountain biking was to gain the support of mountain bikers for protecting wildlands. But, predictably, the mountain bikers got the best of that "back room" deal. They make use of it to claim that the Sierra Club supports mountain biking. Meanwhile, they oppose wilderness designation, asking instead that "protected" lands be given a different designation (e.g. "National Monument") that allows mountain biking, or that their favorite trails be excised from the official Wilderness. In other contexts, such as their newsgroups and email lists, they criticize the Club for being "anti-mountain biking", since our policy doesn't give them carte blanche. It's time to admit that we made a big mistake, and correct it. Just because someone is able to purchase a machine that lets them ride off-road, that is no reason that the public should be required to provide them a place to use it!


Michael J. Vandeman, Ph.D.