Guest column: A mechanized wilderness?
February 3, 2016
A recent story published in The Aspen Times ("Aspen cyclists opposed to national group's push for bikes in wilderness," Jan. 25) is simultaneously disconcerting and reaffirming. It is disconcerting because the article describes efforts by a new group called the Sustainable Trails Coalition to amend the Wilderness Act to allow mountain bikes in wilderness areas. They propose to do so by hiring a D.C. firm to lobby what they describe as a Congress that "favor(s) limited government and oppose(s) severe and overzealous regulation." I'll be blunt: Opening up designated wilderness areas to mechanized travel of any kind, be that mountain biking or anything else, would be a disaster for conservation.
The reaffirming part of the article is the response from local cyclists and our country's pre-eminent mountain-bike organization. Neither the Roaring Fork Mountain Biking Association nor the International Mountain Biking Association supports what it sees as unproductive efforts by the Sustainable Trails Coalition to amend our country's strongest conservation law. As Mark Eller, communication director for the International Mountain Biking Association, recently wrote, "For some, … there is no value in wilderness if it prohibits their bike access. Respectfully, (the International Mountain Biking Association's) view differs: Wilderness is a proven land-protection measure that can be used to effectively safeguard landscapes from extraction, development and other threats." I couldn't agree more.
Wilderness is the gold standard, our country's highest level of public-land protection. Its primary purpose is to preserve parcels of the natural world in perpetuity and to provide a unique human experience of solitude, freedom and primitive recreation. Industrial development (logging, mining, and oil and gas drilling) is prohibited along with both motorized and mechanized forms of travel. This last protection is what the Sustainable Trails Coalition hopes to unravel.
Among the myriad reasons not to amend the Wilderness Act, two in particular stand out to me. First, mechanization means much more than bikes. In describing the goals of the act, Congress was clear in its intentions: "In order to assure that an increasing population, accompanied by expanding settlement and growing mechanization, does not occupy and modify all areas within the United States and its possessions, leaving no lands designated for preservation and protection in their natural condition." The word "mechanization" appeared in the first draft of the Wilderness Act and survived 65 subsequent drafts and 18 congressional hearings. Congress deliberately chose to use "mechanization" to mean a broad and inclusive class of potential threats to wilderness that includes, but was not limited to, motorized use.
In other words, Congress did not specifically single out mountain bikes. Rather, Congress was concerned about the whole category of mechanized transport as a threat to untrammeled landscapes. Mountain bikes just happen to be the most widely discussed right now, but who knows what new forms of mechanized transport and recreation will be in use in another 50 years? Cracking the Wilderness Act open to accommodate today's mountain bikes opens Pandora's box to every special interest that can afford a lobbyist.
To put this in perspective, consider that only 2.7 percent of the contiguous U.S. is designated as wilderness. In Colorado, about 15 percent of federal public land is protected wilderness. There are plenty of places to ride a bike in the woods besides the slim minority of federal land that was set aside to remain quietly non-mechanized, where human influence is subordinate to natural rhythms.
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Secondly, while I'm generally a pretty forgiving person, it strikes me as pure folly and politically naive in the extreme to ask what is arguably the most anti-environmental Congress in the history of our country to amend the Wilderness Act. Do we really want to rewrite our strongest public-lands law at a time when the cries to hand public land over to state and private hands is reaching a fever pitch? The Sustainable Trails Coalition claims, "The political stars are currently aligned in our favor on Capitol Hill." If it wants to align with a Congress that is doing its damnedest to increase motorized use and industrial extraction on public lands, prevent future national monuments and gut the Land and Water Conservation Fund, the Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Policy Act (the bedrock environmental law that will likely provide our path to protecting Thompson Divide), then it's no wonder the International Mountain Biking Association and the Roaring Fork Mountain Biking Association choose not to support the Sustainable Trails Coalition's goal of amending the Wilderness Act.
I agree with the International Mountain Biking Association and the Roaring Fork Mountain Biking Association that there are more productive and promising opportunities to expand bike access. The Wilderness Workshop is partnering with the International Mountain Biking Association and other local biking groups to establish a 10,000-acre, bike-friendly recreation-management area in Summit and Eagle counties as part of a broader public-lands-conservation bill. In the Roaring Fork Valley, we're working closely with the Roaring Fork Mountain Biking Association to find areas where new trails (like the Hummingbird Traverse) can be built in the Hunter Creek Valley, and we continue to work toward consensus on lands proposed for wilderness in Pitkin County.
And perhaps most importantly, there are more pressing conservation and recreation issues than amending the Wilderness Act, like making sure the remaining extremists occupying the Malheur Wildlife Refuge in Oregon and their backers in Congress and state legislatures don't turn your national forest and Bureau of Land Management lands over to private hands, locking you out. In today's climate of hostility toward the very notion of public lands, we must find common cause, like this community has on Thompson Divide, to protect our shared conservation and recreation values. We all have much more in common than not.
Will Roush is conservation director of the Wilderness Workshop, based in Carbondale. In the winter, you can find him on skis and in the summer on a bike or in the wilderness. The Wilderness Workshop works to protect public lands and wilderness on the Western Slope of Colorado.