Lance Pysher is not a happy man. Nor are thousands of mountain bikers in Montana who were recently given the news that they were no longer welcome on 178 miles of singletrack trails in Bitterroot National Forest.
“These are trails that we’ve been maintaining,” he says. “Low-traffic, backcountry trails on which there hasn’t been any conflict at all. I don’t think I’ve even run into hiker or horseback rider on most of these trails in the past ten years.
“To be told that we can’t ride trails we have been clearing and keeping open for years, not because we are having any kind of negative impact on the environment, but because we might not fit in with someone’s idea of ‘the wilderness ethic’… It’s hard.”
And it’s getting harder. The Forest Service, the land manager in question, recently unveiled a new travel plan for a portion of the Kootenai National Forest, outside Whitefish, Montana, that will reduce mountain bike access there from 86 to 17 miles.
While none of the trails in question are located in officially designated wilderness areas, the Wilderness Act is being used to manage them as such. If you’re a mountain biker, it boils down to this: You don’t belong here…or in a growing number of places.
AMERICA NEEDS WILDERNESS
When President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Wilderness Act in 1964 into law, America was in dire need of comprehensive environmental safeguards-particularly ones that could protect entire ecosystems. The nation was rapidly fragmenting into so many chunks of cities, highways, industrial zones, and suburban sprawl. A more stringent form of stewardship was, and still is, necessary. The Wilderness Act, which seeks to preserve habitats in their pristine states, was a breakthrough.
But where do mountain bikes fit into the wilderness paradigm? They don’t. There are now 762 wilderness areas in 44 states, comprising nearly 110 million acres, or roughly five percent of the American landscape. Alaska, California, Arizona, Idaho, and Washington house the largest wilderness parcels. Bikes are off limits in all of it. What’s more, there are many Wilderness Study Areas and recommended wilderness areas-parcels that Congress hasn’t designated as wilderness, but which have been singled out as worthy of inclusion at some point in the future. Mountain bikers may ride in some of these areas, but are losing access to a growing number of them. This is what’s happening now in Montana.
Mountain bikes weren’t originally banned by the Wilderness Act; that breed of bike didn’t actually exist at the time. The act explicitly prohibited motorized transport. A number of groups, including the Sierra Club and Wilderness Society, convinced the U.S. Forest Service to publish a regulation in 1984 explicitly prohibiting mountain bikes in wilderness areas-essentially broadening the prohibition from motorized to mechanized transport. The other government agencies that manage wilderness areas (the BLM, the National Park Service, and the Fish and Wildlife Service) followed suit.
SCIENCE DOESN’T SUPPORT THE BAN
On what basis were mountain bikers excluded from wilderness? Critics of mountain biking didn’t provide evidence that mountain bikes caused more erosion or disturbed wildlife more often than other trail users. In 1984, the sport was still in its toddler stage-no studies on mountain biking’s environmental impacts had even been conducted at the time. Mountain biking’s opponents, instead, based their objections to bikes in wilderness areas on blanket assumptions that bikes must cause more damage. This is still the rhetorical approach most often employed.
“It’s simply not true,” says Mark Eller, communications director of the International Mountain Bicycle Association (IMBA). “There are a few exceptions, but the vast majority of independent, peer-reviewed studies indicate that mountain bikers are no more impacting on natural resources than other recreational trail users.”
Most studies, in fact, show that mountain bikes cause about the same amount of erosion as foot traffic and significantly less damage to trails than horseback riders–both groups have largely unfettered access to wilderness areas. IMBA has trumpeted these studies for years, as have other organizations. The science is not news to land managers. Which begs the question: if environmental policy is supposed to be based on sound science and the science does not actually support the ban on bikes, why then are mountain bikers still persona non grata in America’s Wilderness?
“What you are not considering,” says Eller, “is the social sciences. You won’t get much argument, at higher levels within the government, that the impacts on trails from mountain biking are any higher than that of hikers or equestrians. But you will get a lot of argument about the social impacts of including mountain biking. The rationale for banning bikes from wilderness has more to do with bikes ruining other trail users’ experience of a primitive landscape.”
POLITICALLY SAVVY OR BEGGING FOR SCRAPS?
You might expect IMBA, mountain biking’s largest advocacy group, to oppose the ban on wilderness. They don’t. Not outright. Instead, IMBA works with policy makers and competing trail users to preserve access on existing multi-use trails by redrawing proposed wilderness boundaries and/or employing alternative preservation classifications (such as National Recreation Areas or National Conservation Areas) that allow for bike access.
It’s a tactic that has preserved some trail access in the past. Critics within the mountain bike community, however, contend that this strategy is a losing one. Mountain bikers might retain 10 miles of trail, they argue, but in doing so riders also lose access to a hundred more miles in the same area. Less charitable types have characterized IMBA’s approach as coming to the negotiating table, intent on merely begging for scraps.
As evidence that IMBA’s approach yields results, IMBA President Mike Van Abel points to a recent meeting with Colorado Congressman Jared Polis, who met with IMBA to get its input on drawing the boundaries of a proposed wilderness area in central Colorado’s White River National Forest. “Having direct involvement in a land protection bill that will include wilderness is real time evidence that this practice is working,” says Abel. “You talk about a whole new paradigm-that conversation would never have existed ten years ago. Back then, we just got steamrolled.”
But the question remains: If IMBA holds that mountain bikes fundamentally belong in the wilderness, why aren’t they fighting to overturn the actual ban on bikes?
“Because it’s a political non-starter,” says Van Abel. “You can say that the law is unjust, but who makes the laws? Congress does. Well, who elects Congress? We do. We have what we have as a law because the citizens of this country deem it so. That’s democracy in action. So if we, as a society see that as unjust, then we should change the law, but the political reality is that most people-including a lot of IMBA members-do not see the law as unjust.”
BITTER IN THE BITTERROOTS
Back in Montana, Lance Pysher and fellow members of the Bitterroot Backcountry Cyclists, are trying to come to terms with what all this means. Montana’s backcountry is a hodgepodge of Wilderness Study Areas and recommended wilderness areas. Congress has voted relatively little wilderness into being within Montana in the past few decades. In recent years, wilderness advocates have sued the Forest Service, alleging that the agency isn’t doing enough to manage its recommended wilderness areas with a rigor in keeping with the spirit of the Wilderness Act.
In response, the Forest Service is revising travel management plans for several of its forests and those plans have advocated for the exclusion of mountain bikers from hundreds of miles of singletrack. The Forest Service did not conduct any studies to determine whether bikes have had an adverse impact in those areas, but rather has maintained that the mere presence of mountain bikes in recommended wilderness areas might make it less likely for Congress to one day grant them wilderness status.
To mountain bikers, the Forest Service’s actions look a lot like a land grab. Even when trails aren’t in wilderness areas, they are increasingly being managed as if they were. Mountain bikers, no matter how conscientious they prove to be, are losing ground with no end in sight. IMBA’s president is quick to voice his organization’s opposition to this.
“This is wrong management and, quite frankly, bad policy,” says Van Abel. “IMBA does not believe that a bicycle on a trail in an area recommended for wilderness somehow detracts from its wilderness characteristics or potential. Taking the wilderness management framework beyond a congressional act is poor public policy.”
To Montana mountain bikers, the rulings come as a cruel blow and raise an ugly question: Would mountain bikers be able to maintain access if they took a page out of their critics’ playbook and simply sued federal agencies to retain their access? Do mountain bikers need to play hardball?
“Sure, while drinking post-ride beers we have batted around the idea of getting lawyered up,” says Pysher. “The consensus is that it’s a road we’d rather avoid. The idea just leaves a bitter taste, maybe because we see groups on the other side of the fence always ready to sue, but never around to fix a trail. We’re an IMBA chapter and we still think the best approach is through engagement, maintaining trails, and being good stewards.”
“Wilderness is supposed to be about solitude and preserving the environment and we want those too,” says Pysher. “But now the Wilderness Act is being used to regulate the ‘right’ way to appreciate that environment. That’s not being pro-wilderness, that’s being anti-bike.”
Photos by Lance Pysher