A few weeks ago, we published a piece about the contentious ban on mountain biking in Wilderness areas. Dan Chu, the director of the Sierra Club’s, “Our Wild America” campaign, gave us the Sierra Club’s perspective on the issue. Here’s some additional food for thought on this complicated and thorny issue…

Vernon Felton: So, where does the Sierra Club stand on the issue of mountain biking in wilderness areas?
The Wilderness Act actually states no mechanized means of transport can be used within wilderness boundaries, which is why mountain biking is not allowed in official wilderness. However, I can say that the Sierra Club has been involved with the mountain bike community to try and find some consensus whenever that’s possible.

Dan Chu: We try to step back and say, “What is the area we want to protect and how can we do that and still allow for different types of recreation?” There are a variety of conservation designations that allow for that, like wild and scenic river designations, national recreation area designations, and something we’ve been focused on these last few years with President Obama, national monument designations.

Here’s an example: This past December, the Alpine Lakes Wilderness was designated by Congress as part of the National Defense Authorization Act. Our volunteers on the ground worked with mountain bikers to sit down and identify areas that were popular with mountain bikers in the Snoqualmie area, and the Middle Fork Trail was identified as an important trail for recreational mountain bikers. So they worked together on an agreement that had the Middle Fork Trail fall into the wild and scenic river designation along the river instead of it falling within the wilderness. As a result, that trail remains open to mountain bike use. And in return, the mountain bike community supported the recommendation for the wilderness designation that was on both sides of that trail.

That’s an example, certainly, of where we are trying to find common ground and that means taking a step back, talking about the areas we want to protect, and taking into account trails mountain bikers are particularly passionate about using so that we can then figure out ways to keep those trails open while protecting the land. There are opportunities for consensus here. The Alpine Lakes Wilderness is a good example of that.

Dan Chu, head of the Sierra Club's Our Wild America campaign, at Canyonlands National Park. Photo by Marion Klaus

Dan Chu, head of the Sierra Club’s Our Wild America campaign, at Canyonlands National Park. Photo by Marion Klaus

That’s basically the same approach the International Mountain Biking Association has followed-focusing on ways to re-draw boundaries and employing alternative conservation designations to Wilderness that allow for mountain biking while protecting the environment.

Obviously, that’s a better paradigm than outright hostility and deadlock between mountain bikers and groups like the Sierra Club, but a lot of riders look at a situation like the Alpine Wilderness or Columbine Hondo and they say to themselves, “Okay, we kept access to 10 miles of trail, but we lost access to a 100 miles of trail-It’s great we are keeping a great trail, but if we are losing the majority of the trails we used to ride, that’s hardly a win-win situation.”

Yeah, so I can totally appreciate that. But here’s some perspective, the law was established in 1964, before mountain bikes were around. So who knows what Howard Zahniser and the other key originators of that language would have said about mountain bikes specifically, but I think that what they were thinking, in the broader sense, was that there are some areas in this world in which humans need to be as small a element as possible.

In their minds, recreation was probably an important part of creating a constituency for wilderness and for humans to interact with nature. But the main purpose of the Wilderness Act was just to say that there are areas that need to be left alone, as much as possible, by human interactions; that, I think, was the genesis and purpose of the Wilderness Act when it got passed in `64. So, here we are, 50 years later and our policy is that we continue to believe in the purpose and intent of the Wilderness Act. We think that there are areas that are deserving of that kind of primary purpose.

But here’s the thing: If people don’t have contact with the land, they are invariably going to ask themselves, “Why should I pay to protect this land and maintain it if I can’t experience it?” People have a hard time supporting a public resource that they are excluded from-particularly if they feel like they aren’t being excluded for legitimate reasons. Particularly when other recreational users-some of them who have a much greater impact on those lands-get access to it. That’s what burns. We’re being told we can’t go there while other people who are no better for the environment get a free ticket to enjoy it. If the science showed that mountain bikers actually had a greater negative impact on trails than hikers or equestrians, I think a lot of riders would be okay with the ban, but that’s not what the science has shown.

Several studies have shown that equestrians cause more erosion than mountain bikers, yet horseback riders have access to wilderness areas.

Several studies have shown that equestrians cause more erosion than mountain bikers, yet horseback riders have access to wilderness areas.

I think there are always people who look at the world from a “what’s in it for me?” kind of perspective. That’s just human nature. You have to hope, though, that people will have a broader ethic about this.

Sure, well, ultimately the only hope for humanity is that we can move beyond asking, ‘What’s in it for me?’ I agree. But even if all mountain bikers come to that conclusion and were willing to never touch lands that must be protected, they still are, understandably, asking themselves, ‘Well, wait! Why are we the only group who has to make that altruistic sacrifice?’ That’s the question: Why are we being singled out and other trail users-some of whom have been shown to cause more erosion-aren’t being told they have to make that same sacrifice? That is, no two ways about it, unfair.

DC: Well, I can definitely see that perspective. But regardless of what is right and wrong, the idea of going to Congress right now, in this political climate, and opening up the Wilderness Act to change its provisions…that’s a truly scary proposition. I just don’t see anything good coming out of that. And that, essentially, is what it would take.

There are about a hundred million acres of wilderness, but there are also many times more acres than that of public lands that are at risk. For a number of our members, there are a lot of bigger threats right now that we’re concerned about that are affecting our very ability to have public lands-and they’re real.

There is some legislation, for instance, that is starting to get some legs under it in Congress-it’s becoming a part of the platform of the Republican party-to dispose of federal lands to the states or private entities to generate revenues. Well, the only way to generate revenues is through extraction: oil, gas, lumber, mining…so for us, that’s the bigger thing that we’re concerned about right now. I’m not saying that the concerns you mention aren’t important, it’s just that there are some very serious and energetic efforts afoot right now. We should be spending more time unifying in opposition to those things, and showing the power of recreation to protect public lands into the future. So, that’s where we’re focusing.


But isn’t that the tragedy of all this? We are truly at a tenuous point where a lot of Americans aren’t truly aware that the environment is under attack, simply because the Cuyahoga river isn’t catching on fire these days and smog alerts in Los Angeles have become, largely, a thing of the past. A lot of people are, frankly, losing connection with why we have to have environmental safeguards, why we need to push harder than ever for environmental preservation, at the exact same time that there is a growing push to mine, clear cut and extract as many resources from our public lands as possible.

If there was a time when the environmental movement needs consensus, it’s right now. But the Wilderness Act has fragmented us. We’re busy fighting one another over who has access to the wilderness instead of banding together to push for more wilderness. That’s the tragedy. The Wilderness Act is a beautiful and necessary thing because it so effectively staves off exploition of our public lands, but since 1984 when the ban on mountain biking became fixed in stone, it’s done so while simultaneously alienating a growing contingent of people who could be pushing for more wilderness.

I think there’s been a public acknowledgement that the ethic of mountain biking in recent years has turned more towards conservation. And there’s also been an acknowledgement that the political power of mountain biking is increasing-the number of people who mountain bike is on the rise.

Mountain biking is a significant force and we feel that mountain bikers are critical partners. I can think of a number of cases in which mountain bikers really helped us build the political capital to get a place protected. And along the way we hope we can make those compromises on the trails that are important to mountain bikers and keep them open through efforts to come up with alternative designations to wilderness. But you know, there will be cases when that’s just not going to happen. But as far as opening up existing Wilderness to mountain biking? That would take an act of Congress and we just don’t want to open up the Wilderness Act right now.

Top photo by Lance Pysher

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