Like many mountain bikers, I used to share the opinion that bikes should be allowed on any trails on public land, including wilderness areas. Why shouldn’t I be allowed to ride my bike anywhere that I want? I was a Southwest Idaho Mountain Biking Association board member for three years, and ride regularly around the West. My sense of entitlement to public land use came naturally.
However, that sentiment is rooted in an ignorance of why the Wilderness Act was passed, coupled with a lack of knowledge about how much access mountain bikers already have. Legislation sponsored by Utah Sens. Mike Lee and Orrin Hatch (S. 3205) panders to this lack of awareness — and the entitlement that it breeds.
Gutting one of our nation’s bedrock conservation laws, the bill will open designated wilderness areas to mountain biking, a move that should be soundly opposed. Public lands are treasured by everyone, not just mountain bikers, and are designated for many reasons, not just recreation.
The Hatch-Lee bill is presented as an increase in mountain biking access on public lands. This makes no sense when you consider that only 3 percent of our public lands in the lower 48 states are wilderness: the vast majority of public lands are already open to mountain bike use. On Idaho’s national forests alone, there are nearly 20,000 miles of trails open to biking, and only 3,700 miles — less than 2 percent — are wilderness trails, according to a report released by the General Accounting Office in 2013.
The Hatch-Lee bill will open the door for other forms of mechanized transport and technology. Mountain bikes are now made with suspensions that allow fast descent over technical pathways and fragile terrain. Hikers, horseback riders, trail runners and other recreationists will have to contend with speeding descents, blind corners, and even encroachment from new, smaller, battery-powered e-bikes.
Authors of the Wilderness Act deliberately intended to preserve a certain kind of experience in America, where people can absorb nature at its own pace without modern contraptions. This is why wilderness areas are closed to “mechanical transport,” including bikes. Foot and horse travel still remain an essential part of wilderness trail maintenance and recreation today.
Where will we, and wildlife, go to find natural serenity if every remaining wild area is opened to vehicles capable of going up to 35 miles per hour? The advocates of this bill are discounting wilderness itself as a valid recreational experience. That offends me, and it should offend anyone who enjoys their own kind of time outside.
I fully support mountain biking advocates who work with federal land managers to create and maintain biking trails outside of wilderness areas and the collaborative process of designating future wilderness areas.
I want to enjoy and be challenged by nature with what I bring in, under my own unassisted power. That’s an increasingly rare kind of outdoor experience that wilderness offers, and it will disappear altogether with the passing of this legislation. We can’t let that happen.
John Wheaton, of Boise, is a former board member with the Southwest Idaho Mountain Biking Association.