September 28, 1995

Board of Directors

Recreational Equipment Company

1700 45th Street East

Sumner, Washington 98390

Re: Your Support of Mountain Biking; Your "Cycling Gear Guide '95" Catalog


Thank you for removing the photos of (apparently) illegal mountain bike riding from your catalog! I am not naive enough to expect any business to really care about the environment (i.e., give higher priority to wildlife than profits), but I do expect REI to give it more consideration than other businesses, since you are in the business of helping people get into the wilderness, and hence probably want to preserve some wilderness to get into!

Mountain (off-road) biking is always harmful to the environment. It is very damaging to the soil, and to organisms that live on and under it. It is well known that desert soils are easily destroyed, and require tens or hundreds of years to be recreated. But other soils are similarly vulnerable. The "knobby" tires preferred by mountain bikers (and lugged soles worn by ignorant hikers) are extremely destructive, causing a large increase in erosion, harming soil-dwelling organisms, and killing plants that many animals depend on. But probably even more harmful than these direct effects is the way bikes simply make it easier for people to get farther into the wilderness, and hence crowd wildlife out of its preferred habitats. This leads to habitat fragmentation and, eventually, extinction. Surely, you don't believe that old myth about needing to get as many people as possible into the wilderness (under whatever circumstances), in order to protect it? I thought that Aldo Leopold (speaking about "loving Nature to death") put that one to bed long ago.

On page 27 of your above-mentioned catalog you depict 12 different styles of deeply lugged tires, none of which have a legitimate use. The only possible uses for such tires are (1) to attain speeds at which the appreciation of nature is impossible, or (2) to ride on grades which are so steep, or soil that is so soft (e.g. wet), that there is a great danger of erosion. In both cases, they vastly increase the risk of injury to the rider. They also greatly increase rolling resistance -- one good measure of your effect on the environment. The fact that some public or private agencies are stupid enough to allow such tires to rip up the land under their stewardship is no excuse for you to participate in that destruction. Would you sell guns? Bows and arrows? Fishing gear? ORVs are just as destructive.

I offer the following thoughts from my review of Extinction: The Causes and Consequences of the Disappearance of Species,

by Paul and Anne Ehrlich:

The Ehrlichs are particularly vehement in condemning another such frivolous abuse [of wildlife] -- off-road vehicles: "When it comes to pure recreational destructiveness, however, off-road vehicles (ORVs) far surpass powerboats. ... It is a rare environment indeed where a vehicle can be taken off-road without damage. ... Standard ORVs with their knobby tires are almost ideal devices for smashing plant life and destroying soil. Even driven with extreme care, a dirt bike will degrade about an acre of land in a twenty-mile drive. ... Not only do the ORVs exterminate animals by exterminating plants, they attack them directly as well. Individual animals on the surface and in shallow burrows ... are crushed. ... One great problem with ORVs is that they supply easy access to wilderness areas for unsupervised people who have ... no conception of the damage they are doing." (pp.169-171) (Although mountain bikes had not been invented, or were hardly known, when this was written, it is obvious that the same applies to them.)

The reason that knobby tires are so destructive is that as the knobs touch the ground, the entire weight of the bike plus rider is concentrated in a very tiny area (pressure = weight per unit area), causing the knobs to exert tremendous force on the soil, breaking the surface. The speed with which mountain bikers like to ride is also a big factor, since a large amount of force gets applied to the tires (and concentrated on the tiny knobs) during acceleration and braking -- hence the ubiquitous skid marks, where the topsoil gets ripped off.

I have been getting more and more disillusioned with REI over the years, and will shop there only if I have no other choice. I suggest that you seriously consider removing deeply treaded tires and hiking shoes from your stores. I have never noticed any disadvantage to the relatively smooth tires and soles I have used for the last 52 years.


Michael J. Vandeman, Ph.D.

P.S. I am sharing this letter with all of my friends and all interested people on the Internet.