Mountain Bikers as Wilderness Advocates? No evidence so far.

By George Wuerthner On October 10, 2014 · In Advocacy, Conservation, Public Lands, Wilderness/Roadless

In a recent editorial in the Jackson Hole Guide, Luther Propst of Jackson asserts that conservationists needed to keep in mind that many public lands recreationalists have a common interest in protecting the land. (see Propts piece here Recreationists like mountain biking proponents could be allies in efforts to protect wildlands as designated wilderness for instance. Propst’s suggests that what he characterizes as “fun hogs” need to be cultivated because they could be converted into environmental activists.

While there is no doubt advantages to trying to make allies, one has to keep in mind what the prime purpose, goals and ethical reasons for designating various land classifications. We work to set aside wildlife refuges, wilderness areas, parks, and other “special designations” because we are trying to protect certain values not found or normally protected under more general use public lands classifications.

For instance, in wilderness, we seek to protect and preserve “self-willed” lands that are minimally influenced by human activities. That is, for example, why we do not permit logging in wilderness. But there is also a philosophical component to wildland protection. It is recognition of the value of self-restraint. Activities that we might accept in other settings we don’t accept in wildlands. Wilderness and park designation is the closest thing our society and culture has to “sacred lands”.

As with anything sacred, we sanction some activities, but recognize that not all things are appropriate. Most people know of the story of Jesus chasing the money chargers from the Temple because he considered it blasphemy to conduct commercial businesses in a sacred place.

That is, in a sense, a metaphor for our wild lands. At least some wilderness supporters feel our parks and wilderness areas should be treated as sacred places. And one protects these places not to preserve an outdoor gymnasium for adrenaline rushes, but to preserve the opportunity of encountering the sacred in a gentle, respectful manner.

I do not wish to suggest that one shouldn’t have fun in the outdoors—I agree there is no healthier place to have pleasurable experiences. But we should not treat these lands as amusement parks. If the main reason anyone supports or opposes wildlands protection is based on whether they can do their particular amusement, it jeopardizes the value of these lands as sacred places.

The irony of Propst’s statements is that in many places today the threat to wildlands comes from individuals who put “fun” ahead of what is best for the land, and the preservation of what some call “wildness.” Increasingly I view recreationalists as much of a threat to our special public lands as the old “extractive” industries.

For instance, Propst specifically referred to Idaho’s Boulder White Cloud (BWC) wilderness proposal as a good example of how conflicting recreational pursuits could be accommodated and wilderness supporters could garner allies if they only accept and accommodate conflicting uses like mountain biking. The BWC is the largest unprotected roadless area left in the lower 48 states. As such, it has real value as a continuous and intact unit. But due to mountain biker opposition, and the “compromise” proposal that has been reached, the once continuous roadless area may soon be officially fragmented into four or five pieces to permit mountain bike access to high alpine basins and lakes or to utilize trails that create “loops”.

If mountain bikers were truly interested in protecting the wilderness values of the area, they would be supporting the whole intact landscape, not some fragmented version of it.

Propst sees the BWC as a good compromise because it reduced the opposition of mountain bikers to the proposal. And the remaining landscape may get some added protection as wilderness or perhaps a national monument. That is a definitely a valid point.

However, it doesn’t take much to extend that argument and suggest that snowmobiles, , ATVs, jet skis, airplanes, and other mechanical access should also be accommodated as well. I am not trying to set up a strawman here. Technology, speed, and the mind-set behind the activity, change one’s relationship to the land and experience. By accommodating every recreational pursuit as a way of “broadening the conservation tent,” will we end up destroying Wilderness in order to save it?

In many places like the Boulder White Clouds, the Dunior area near Dubois, Wyoming, the Gallatin Range by Bozeman, Montana and many other proposed wilderness areas around the West, the growing threat is from “fun hogs’ themselves, not from mining, oil and gas development or logging.

Mountain bikes, for instance, provide a disproportional impact due to mechanical advantage that allows the cyclist to cover much greater distances, thus amplifying any disturbance effects. Sensitive wildlife can be displaced by human presence, resulting in a net loss of habitat simply because the animals don’t use it anymore. Or they can become socialized to humans and also suffer mortality–for instance, grizzly bears that show no fear of people because they have become habituated are more likely to be killed either by cars, hunters or just because they are “too friendly.”

One hears that mountain bikers appreciate wilderness and wildlands as much as others. Yet we do not see supporting behavior. If mountain bikers were really concerned about protecting wildlands, they would be staunch wilderness advocates. It seems that the only time mountain bikers as a collective group appear to support wilderness is when the majority of trails they like to ride are excluded from the proposal—as was done in the BWC. Yet Such a compromise severely degrades the whole. Parks, Wilderness and Wilderness Study Areas, and other special designations signal that these places are unique, rare gems that should not be treated like other lands.

There are plenty of places to ride a mountain bike or engage in other fun hog adrenaline junkie pursuits that are outside of our few remaining proposed wilderness areas., We should be trying to maximize the amount of land given sacred status, not degrading or minimizing that quality.