March 10, 1996

Sierra Club Board of Directors, Wild Planet Strategy Team, &

Off-Road Vehicle Subcommittee

730 Polk Street

San Francisco, California 94109

Re: Mountain Biking Is Being Given Priority Over Wildlife


Anti-environmentalists are fond of saying that members of the Sierra Club are selfishly motivated -- that we want to preserve wilderness only so that we can have nice places to hike and camp. It is easy to dismiss such claims, since the speakers are so obviously hypocritical: they want to use the wilderness for their own selfish goals (e.g. logging, mining, real estate development, and "industrial grade" tourism).

But I think that they have a point; we do proceed as if wildlife are unimportant, second-class "citizens" (or not citizens at all). We pretend that we can invade their habitat whenever we like, and have no detrimental effect on them, even while we know that this is not even true of our own habitat (picture mountain lions and grizzlies allowed back into our cities).

Now we are considering making a very questionable distinction between mountain bikes and other off-road vehicles, apparently for political, not biological, reasons: It seems that several powerful members of the Sierra Club hierarchy (and much of the rank and file) are mountain bikers. I hope that you will reverse this trend; such hypocrisy is very bad for morale among Club members who truly care about wildlife and the environment, as well as opening us up to even more justified criticism from our opposition.

Look at the mental contortions being created to justify mountain (off-road) bicycling: You say mountain biking is okay "when ... practiced in an environmentally ... responsible manner". This just begs the question! Then aren't other ORVs also okay when practiced in an environmentally responsible manner? Aren't atomic weapons okay when practiced in an environmentally responsible manner? Isn't the Emperor actually buck naked? Isn't it dishonest to imply that we can distinguish between environmentally benign and environmentally harmful off-road bicycling? Usually we say it is okay when we have already driven away all sensitive species!

You say trails should be closed to bikes unless "determined to be appropriate through ... analysis". But nowhere do you describe what such an "analysis" would consist of. This allows land managers to do whatever they want! It would be like giving them a blank check. It would make us look foolish.

You say trails used by MTBs should be "monitored ... to detect environmental damage". You seem to be saying that the only possible environmental harm is visible damage to a trail! While erosion, soil destruction, and the killing of plants and animals on the trail is significant, far more significant is the (invisible) displacement of wildlife from their preferred habitat, the introduction of weedy species that further stress indigenous wildlife, etc.

You say that bikes should not be ridden off of the trail, but hiking trails are too narrow for bikes to pass each other. This will lead to widening trails, and hence greater damage to the environment. For example, in our East (S.F.) Bay Regional Parks, park managers have already replaced traditional trail construction methods with the use of bulldozers, thus making every "trail" a road, and consequently open to bikes. They are apparently driven by an unaccountable desire to get more people into the parks.

Because the human population is increasing, and we are destroying wildlife habitat at an unprecedented rate (at least unprecedented since the last great extinction event), we should be working to reduce, rather than expand the range of human domination of habitat areas! Mountain bikes, like other ORVs, greatly facilitate human access to natural areas, and for that reason most of all, should be restricted to roads. (And roads should be kept to an absolute minimum!)

Besides the negative effects on the environment, the presence of bikes also necessitates increased attention from rangers, partly due to the increase in visitors and partly due to the inevitable conflicts between solitude-seeking hikers and thrill-seeking bikers. With the increase in visitors also comes an increase in motor vehicles, which also do a great deal of damage to natural areas. For example, recently the bike patrol was eliminated from my local parks because of the need for rangers to attend to "a rash of auto burglaries"!


Michael J. Vandeman, Ph.D.


Knight, Richard L. and Kevin J. Gutzwiller, Wildlife and Recreationists. Covelo, California: Island Press, c.1995.