Daniel Greenstadt is a former Southern California volunteer representative for the International Mountain Bicycling Association.
I was in my 20s when I added off-road cycling to my hiking and occasional equestrian modes of backcountry travel. The bicycle added fuel to my passion for outdoor exploration, and I discovered new lands, people and a fresh form of rugged, personal challenge that greatly deepened my appreciation for wild places.
But along the way, I was also turned into a reluctant advocate for trail access by people who insisted that my bicycle and I presented a threat to the land and to the safety of other trail users. This was all quite odd to me, because I was getting along just fine, as I always had, with the hikers and horseback riders I encountered out on the trail, only to find strangers railing against me at public meetings or in Internet forums. It felt depressingly like friendly fire. In the rare times I had personally experienced some kind of conflict with other users, it never occurred to me that trying to kick an entire group of people off public land would be a reasonable response. Education, inclusion and good trail design have worked quite well at solving such problems for more than a century.
In August, this all came to a head when legislation was introduced in Congress to modify a 1984 regulation and restore the potential for bicycle access in federally designated wilderness and on some National Scenic Trails, so long as that access is approved by the relevant land agency on a trail-by-trail basis.
Contrary to the assertions of several conservation and hiking groups, the 1964 Wilderness Act did not ban bicycles, which were ridden in wilderness areas for most of 20 years, albeit in smaller numbers, before the 1984 prohibition. But even before the text of the current bill was published, a few orthodox conservation and recreation organizations, generally representing hikers, lined up against cyclists regaining access to any part of the nearly 110 million acres — and growing — of federal wilderness.
There are plenty of land-management policies and practices worth fighting over, but the turf battle surrounding bicycles is little more than the trails community tripping over its own feet. After decades of trail sharing on non-wilderness lands, the vast majority of scientific evidence contradicts the commonly repeated assertions of bicycle opponents regarding trail-user safety or disproportionate ecological impacts associated with backcountry cycling. With extensive management experience under their belts, professional land managers today don’t put much stock in those arguments either. But the debate rages on.
One thing I’ve learned from all this is that arguments over user safety, ecological impact or the intent of the Wilderness Act are mostly distractions from the real core of objection: personal aesthetics. Having been around mountain bikes for so long, I see them as just another piece of backcountry equipment. While I can understand that the presence of a bicycle could be as jarring to a non-cyclist as a satellite navigation system, modern kayak, mechanical ski binding or a host of other mechanical transportation tools might be to another, novelty is a flimsy basis for excluding a technology. I don’t believe that bicycles belong on every wilderness trail, but the howls of bicycle opponents who decry the potential inclusion of bicycles on even a small fraction of wilderness trails as heralding the very collapse of the wilderness are just silly.
A conflict like this one begs for a balanced and communal solution. Simply locking bicycles out of thousands of miles of National Scenic Trails and an area of wilderness the size of California and Maryland combined is lopsided and unnecessary at best. At worst, it’s a self-inflicted injury to the conservation constituency that will only lessen our ability to preserve the lands that we should be fighting for rather than over. If the opponents succeed in blocking this change, popular support for the wilderness designation will likely decline, as cyclists become increasingly alienated — just as it would if hiking or equestrian use were similarly banned.
I’ve been a public-lands supporter and advocate for most of my life, and I’ve shaken my head and fist many times over motors where they shouldn’t be; bicycles on closed routes; trails hopelessly pulverized by horses; hikers wandering willy-nilly across the delicate backcountry; careless wildfires; mountains of trash; and trail construction or maintenance gone awry. I’ve spent time helping to remedy those problems, and while I’m proud of my volunteer contributions, I wish I had instead been able to spend the time fighting for greater land protection or, better yet, simply enjoying the public forest. Being forced to defend something as benign as riding my bicycle in the woods is a waste of resources. Backcountry cyclists should be welcomed to the public lands, rather than ejected from the conservation ranks where they naturally belong.
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