Last week’s announcement by the National Park Service that park superintendents would have greater latitude to allow bikes on currently closed service and fire roads kicked off an outcry from those who oppose mountain bikes on national park trails and in wilderness. The Park Service countered that wilderness was still wilderness and bikes would not be allowed, but that didn’t appease the critics.
“All these potential NPS wilderness acres are vulnerable under the proposed rule to have their character changed in such a way as might eliminate their consideration for inclusion into the National Wilderness Preservation System at some later date,” said the Association of National Park Rangers. “Examples include the majority of acreage in some iconic national parks such as Yellowstone National Park and Great Smoky Mountains National Park.”
The Park Service said that new rules going into effect in August will encourage more people to ride “while preserving the service’s responsibility to prohibit bikes in wilderness and other areas where they would have significant impact on the environment or visitor safety.”
While the two sides disagree over interpretation of the new policy, they seem to be on common ground that bikes don’t belong in wilderness. But not everyone agrees.
A wilderness, as defined by the 1964 federal law, “in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”
Machines are clearly prohibited. “There shall be…no use of motor vehicles, motorized equipment or motorboats, no landing of aircraft, no other form of mechanical transport, and no structure or installation within any such area.”
Much has changed in the 40-some years since the Wilderness Act was signed into law and the 30-some years since mountain bikes were developed. Public lands face far greater pressure from surrounding development, population growth, and changes in outdoor recreation. The debate, too, has become more polarized.
There three main positions on the issue:
1. Bikes are mechanical and are clearly outlawed by the Wilderness Act. The higher speeds, noise, and aesthetic are inconsistent with wilderness values.
2. Bikes are human power, non-polluting, and are similar to stock animals. They should be allowed.
3. Bikes are not appropriate in wilderness as currently defined, but a new form of wilderness should be created, Wilderness B, which allows cycle transport and is less restrictive and polarizing while still being true to the wilderness ethos. A slightly more accommodating wilderness would be likely to result in the protection of more public lands.
What’s your take?
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Photo of Mt. St. Helens trail sign by Steve Casimiro