Mountain bikes and wilderness don't mix

To loosen wildland restrictions now starts us down a slippery slope.

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Op-Ed - February 04, 2014 by Howie Wolke

My first wolverine sighting in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem happened on a warm July afternoon in 2012. On a pass above northwest Wyomings West DuNoir Creek, I watched as the elusive animal scaled a rock face and then ambled away. Under prehistoric conditions, wolverine populations were thinly spread across big landscapes; in 21st century America, wolverines veer toward the endangered species list.

Wolverines need wilderness to survive. That's one reason that conservationists for four decades have promoted wilderness designation for the DuNoir, which is contiguous with the designated Teton and Washakie wilderness areas.

The roadless DuNoir landscape is stunning; its wooded basins and sprawling tundra provide rich wildlife habitat for many species native to Greater Yellowstone. Unfortunately, it also appeals to a growing cadre of mountain bikers, who sometimes speak louder than wildland defenders. The Shoshone National Forest is on record as opposing wilderness designation for the DuNoir, as the Forest Service plans a bike route through the heart of the area.

Turn back the clock 50 years to when Congress passed the Wilderness Act, our foremost land protection law. Its authors had the foresight to forbid mechanized and not just motorized travel in wilderness. Under this carefully worded law, wilderness areas must remain untrammeled and their wilderness character maintained. Designated wilderness is primeval nature, a landscape of human restraint, where natural conditions and self-sufficiency prevail. Sure, there are other land protection options such as national monuments or recreation areas, but nothing equals wilderness for protecting a vestige of America as it was for eons before the spread of civilization.

When mechanized mountain bikers demand access to proposed and designated wilderness, they fail to understand that if they succeed, owners of unimagined future contraptions will certainly demand equal treatment. So will modern-day snow machine and all-terrain vehicle owners. To loosen wildland restrictions now starts us down that slippery slope.

In addition, mountain bikers are not traditional users, such as hikers or horse-packers. Mountain bikes were not commercially produced for off-road use until the early 1980s. By allowing them to proliferate in roadless areas, the Forest Service nourishes yet another anti-wilderness constituency. A cynic might suggest that's no accident.

Lets be frank: Backcountry biking damages the land. Bikers often veer off trail just to keep from crashing. Last year, I sent the district ranger photos of mountain-bike damage to vegetation at Kissinger Lakes in the DuNoir, but the problem persists. Because mountain bikers ride fast, they startle wildlife more than hikers or horseback-riders do. They also make formerly remote areas more accessible, thereby reducing solitude and increasing the disturbance of wilderness-dependent species such as lynx and wolverine. Like trail runners with ear pods, mountain bikers inadvertently troll for grizzlies, as demonstrated by the 2004 mauling of a DuNoir mountain biker. Speeding mountain bikers also endanger horse-packers and hikers on steep trails. Lets face it: Mountain bikers need all that protective gear because theyre not always in control.

Generally speaking, the place for mountain bikes is on roads, not in relatively pristine backcountry. At this point in our history, I believe that public land management should be about preserving wildness and doing what's best for the land and wildlife. Recreation can adapt. Though some  -- certainly not all -- mountain bikers apparently view our public lands as outdoor gyms, that is not their function. Nor is a wild place a metaphorical pie to be divvied up among user groups or local stakeholders, to use federal bureaucratese. The authors of the Wilderness Act would be appalled at the Forest Service's eagerness to mollify every recreation group that decides its particular form of recreation trumps all else.

As a backpack trip outfitter, I've guided hikers throughout the West, including the DuNoir, since the 1970s. When these Lycra-clad speedsters zip past our groups, ripping up vegetation and spooking critters, it diminishes our clients hard-earned wilderness experience.

But thats not why I believe that the DuNoir -- and other qualifying wildlands -- should be designated wilderness. It's because wilderness designation is best for the land. Wilderness is about humility, the acceptance that we humans don't know it all and never will. More than any other landscape, wilderness takes us beyond self; in it, we are part of something greater. It is a shame that the Forest Service, many politicians and some recreationists are so wrongheaded -- stuck in a self-indulgent and myopic worldview regarding the DuNoir and so many other fragile endangered wildlands. Wilderness is timeless, transcending short-term concerns. Above all, wilderness celebrates the intrinsic value of wild nature. We need to let it be.

Howie Wolke is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News. He co-owns Big Wild Adventures in Montana with his wife, Marilyn Olsen, and has been guiding and outfitting backpack trips in the Greater Yellowstone and elsewhere in the West since the 1970s.