Paul Andersen: Fair Game |

Paul Andersen: Fair Game

Paul Andersen
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado

There’s trouble in paradise. The rift between mountain bikers and wilderness advocates over the Hidden Gems wilderness campaign has become embittered. Personalities have clashed. Lines have been drawn.

Mountain bikers are adamant that no trails are lost to them. They charge that the proposed wilderness designation is overly restrictive because trail riding doesn’t fit with the guidelines of the Wilderness Act of 1964, under which the Hidden Gems seeks additions.

Hidden Gems points out that only six trails remain under negotiation and that 35,000 acres of its proposal have already been compromised to protect 18 bike trails. Still, the Roaring Fork Mountain Bike Association opposes the Hidden Gems. For the good of the community, mountain bikers should give their support instead. Here’s why.

Wilderness advocates are striving for long-term conservation values through the highest statutory protection available. They take Thoreau’s dictum – “In wildness is the preservation of the world” – as a personal ethic of voluntary restraint. They believe that wild lands should be saved for the future – yes, even at the sacrifice of a few rides.

Wilderness advocates reason that saving wild places is more important than the adrenal rush of mountain biking. They assert that leaving the bike behind doesn’t impinge on recreational opportunities. Wilderness is not closed to bikers, only to their bikes.

The nuances in this debate are subtle where impacts are concerned. For those with Vibram soles or tire treads, it’s clear that trails are often impacted most gravely by horses and cattle, which are grandfathered into most public lands, no matter what classification. The conflict with bikes and wilderness lies in their mechanical mobility.

Trail use follows a hierarchy of right-of-way. Hikers yield to horses and bikers yield to both. Putting bikers at the bottom of the order rankles some cyclists whose trail etiquette is less than civil to other uses. You can’t legislate attitudes, but you can legislate use, which is what Wilderness does.

Mountain bikers revel in single-track trails threading through woods and meadows. They know biking to be rejuvenating, healthy, adventuresome and challenging. To some, it is the ultimate in summer fun. Still, there are higher values.

A Wilderness designation is supposed to be forever, a lasting legacy to Creation, the very fount of life. Wilderness values include scientific, spiritual, historical and psychological. Wilderness is a geographical rarity, and its importance is incalculable in the long run. The loss of wilderness is also incalculable because it takes away from future generations who have no say once wilderness is gone.

Mountain bikes represent a compromise to wild lands. They cause erosion, not only to sensitive topography, but to the organic purity of wilderness. Biking terrain is designed primarily for human pleasure, which is where this debate needs to focus.

In his book “The Rights of Nature,” Rod Nash offers a centering perspective that should speak to all public land users. The rights of nature should override our temporal wants and pleasures by sanctifying the web of life from which we sprang and to which we belong.

This is a difficult concept for those who believe that an individual’s rights trump all else. Egocentrism puts the focus on the here and now. Biocentrism, a cornerstone of wilderness, enlarges the picture, asking us to weigh our life decisions based on the holistic health of the living Earth, in perpetuity.

Conservation biologist Aldo Leopold advocated a “man-to-land code of conduct,” which is slowly awakening in the human conscience. We are still far from adopting that code, but we are beginning to understand its necessity. Leopold’s code implies leaving the smallest footprint possible on the land, of protecting pristine resources, of adopting a sense of humility and a reverence for all life.

Leopold’s code is the highest moral ground we can take, requiring voluntary submission to higher values that may not seem immediately gratifying. Biking or hiking? Wilderness or non-wilderness? These decisions must reflect our deepest spiritual connections to life, which is where Leopold’s code must live – deep in our spirit.

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