Wilderness redux

Sorry, have been here before but a new example of the wilderness myth just cropped up and it seems worth revisiting this chestnut.  In an op-ed in the New York Times, Doug Scott argues against bikes in Wilderness (unfortunately, he does not really distinguish capital-W Wilderness areas, which are a legal description, from lowercase w wilderness, which might extend to areas not so protected).  Anyways, GG agrees that bikes in Wilderness is a bad idea. But Scott then goes on to say just why we have Wilderness

We set aside wilderness areas to protect them for what they are — wild places, untrammeled, as much as possible, by man, a reminder of what this country was like before Columbus set foot on this side of the Atlantic.

Now this is carefully worded, but as we’ve noted before, by removing Native Americans and greatly changing the populations of wild animals, these Wilderness areas look quite different from what was here before Columbus. They might indeed be a “reminder,” but that reminder leaves something of a false impression. They are wild in the sense of being unmanaged, but not wild in the sense of a natural balance free of human impact.

Also, this was only one of the motivations for creating Wilderness areas.  Other motivations might actually encourage the use of bikes (such a possibility is discussed in some of those earlier posts linked above).

The bill in question is inspired in part by closure of popular mountain bike trails in a recently created Wilderness. It isn’t much a leap for mountain bike advocates to say, if we were using it and it was still in a pristine enough condition to become Wilderness, then why say that Wilderness must exclude bikes? The answer above is, basically, because Wilderness visitors require there be no bikes. Yet Wilderness does not prevent the use of boom boxes (GG can testify from a recent trip that such use along Wilderness trails is actually growing), smart phones, handheld radios, or GPS units, none of which embody the essence of Wilderness. Leaning too hard on the experience visitors get will get very sticky very fast.

Or, had Wilderness advocates allowed this Wilderness to permit bikes, why exclude them elsewhere? This is presumably why the bikes were excluded, the old camel’s nose under the tent flap argument taking hold.

This headache is the product of using Wilderness as a one-size-fits-all means of protecting a landscape. We desperately need a more nuanced approach that buffers sensitive lands rather than extending complete protection right to the edge of civilization. Originally things like National Forests (originally the Forest Reserves) were meant to serve such a purpose, but conservationists increasingly grew wary of allowing Forest administrators to decide the fate of pristine lands as they showed an appetite for getting the cut out and promoted the number of miles of new road they were creating. The result are very contentious land management decisions made at the highest levels. This might not always produce results really consistent with Scott’s vision of WIlderness.

Consider the Ansel Adams Wilderness, which includes several lakes dammed for hydroelectric power, dams with cable railways and lakes with big bathtub rings late in the summer.  (To be clear, the cable railway and associated maintenance buildings are indeed cherry-stemmed in). How much of a “reminder of what this country was like before Columbus set foot on this side of the Atlantic” is that? And this is “untrammeled, as much as possible”? Really? By jamming stuff like this inside Wilderness and running these boundaries right to the very edge of civilization, we have cheapened the concept of–in Scott’s view, the very justification for–Wilderness areas. In a very real way, Wilderness advocates have brought this down on themselves.

Much as we have seen National Parks and Monuments evolve in some instances to be administered by non-Park Service agencies and continue to allow activities not usually consistent with parks, it seems possible that we might see something like this happen to Wilderness areas. And you know, that would actually be too bad because, well, the camel’s nose argument, the slippery slope–those are plausible outcomes.

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4 responses to “Wilderness redux”

  1. Tricksin Dricksin says :

    That was a good contribution, it has not been worded like that from what I have read on this subject. Could you explain why you believe that allowing bicycles on some Wilderness trails is a bad idea?


    • cjonescu says :

      Thank you for the complement. First, to be clear, there should be places that are free of motorized vehicles that allow bikes; such places maybe should have a different name than Wilderness (or maybe bike-free Wilderness have a different name–maybe recover the old Primitive Area label). And of course there are trails that simply are physically incompatible with bikes (but surprisingly few), but that isn’t what you are asking about, I think.
      Anyways, when I have hiked trails where bikes were allowed I was always a bit on edge; I’ve had a few close calls when somebody came around a corner suddenly, for instance. I’d rather that wilderness not include that distraction–you don’t look to the sides as much, at the scenery or flora or fauna if you are keeping an eye out for bikes. The difference in speed is what does this, not really that there are tire tracks or loud clothing. I’d be curious to know if there is a different effect on fauna by bikes vs. hikers–I could imagine that bikes would disturb animals more, but maybe they’d be disturbed less (given a mountain lion killed a biker in Southern California a few years back, I guess that is a fauna that isn’t too disturbed by bikes). I used to buy the argument that bikes always damage the landscape because the constant contact with the ground creates ruts focusing water and causing erosion; this is certainly true on many existing trails, but this is a trail construction sort of thing that can be mitigated as long as riders are responsible, so I no longer view it as a compelling reason for a blanket ban.
      On the other side of the handlebars, the experience and mindset of many mountain bikers is more of the gym-rat kind than the enjoying the outdoors kind. I remember even 20+ years ago when many mountain bikers were in it to bash down a trail at high speeds for the joy of just going really fast; some of the heavy downhill-only bikes now available just formalize the practice, and the focus of ski area bike routes is similar–it is a kind of adreneline-junky industrial recreation of the kind Ed Abbey used to rail against. Sorry, that is amusement park kind of stuff. Even for the many who bike to get into nature, the experience is a different one as speed compresses landscapes and the focus necessary to stay on the trail prevents a more unstructured interaction with the surroundings.
      As I said, Wilderness as legislated suffers from (or benefits from) a mixed set of justifications. Unless there is demonstration of resource damage or impact on wildlife, though, the main conflict bikes create is with other users in the Wilderness. Wilderness as presently managed permits and even fosters a quiet, focused and contemplative view of the world we are part of–and our part in it, a mindset increasingly difficult to reach in our always-connected, ADD-addled lifestyle. That, I think, is the gift of Wilderness that bikes threaten and one I would rue losing. So I regret that Wilderness advocates have pushed too hard in places, alienating likely allies even as they are acting, in essence, to preserve marginal lands that, themselves, do not provide a wilderness experience but are included merely as a buffer against intrusion into the real wilderness. Hence my plea for gradational edges. While you’d have to hike probably the better part of a mile or more to really escape the sounds and smells of a commercial roadway, it would only take a few steps from a mountain bike trail to lose any impact from mountain bikes.
      Just my two cents. Land protection shouldn’t be a binary yes or no, it should be a grayscale of how much tinted by the particular needs of a spot. I’ve biked and hiked (and skied and snowshoed for that matter) and have accepted limitations in places on all of these. The world is a more crowded place than when I first started exploring it, and so I’ve come to see the need to say no to some activities in some places.


  2. Lucian Hand says :

    Without a doubt, there are many trails in Wilderness where bikes are inappropriate. I would suggest that any Wilderness trail which invites adrenaline junky downhill riding should be closely scrutinized before opening it to bikes. That said, there are many miles of remote Wilderness trails which are perfectly appropriate to cycling, just as they are appropriate to equestrian use. While horse racing is a fine sport, we generally agree that horse racing is not an appropriate use of wilderness – but there is little argument that equestrian trail riding is appropriate in Wilderness. Similarly, some Wilderness trails are conducive to long rides, and should be open cyclists pursuing long rides. The CDT comes to mind, along with many other remote Montana trails.

    A blanket opening of Wilderness to bikes would be ill-conceived, just as the blanket closure of Wilderness to bikes is ill-considered.


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