Plenty of our members—and those of other conservation organizations—are passionate about both wilderness and mountain bikes, just not in the same place.

In a Broad Sense – Tweaking the Wilderness Act?

by Shelley Silbert

When I was in my twenties, a friend and I rode our mountain bikes along the scenic route from Portland to Seattle, around the Olympic Peninsula. As graduate students from the southern Arizona desert, we could not fathom the logging trucks and clear-cuts that would sadden our joyful journey. Camping one night in the Quinault rain forest, we had an idea—what if we took our bikes through the Olympic Wilderness and Olympic National Park to avoid getting smashed to smithereens by logging trucks on Highway 101? We were naïve and inexperienced, with limited concepts of wilderness and the near impossibility of taking our 1980s rigid bikes through the mountains. In the end, logic and lawfulness prevailed, and we decided not to attempt the adventure. Sheepishly, we accepted our campground neighbors’ kind offer to drive us, bikes and all, to Forks—where the welcome sign read “Logging Capitol of the World” and annual cuts averaged 250 million board feet.

Had mountain bikes been allowed in the newly protected Olympic Wilderness, we might foolishly have decided otherwise. Even as a student of natural resources (mind you, a very different animal in Arizona), I little understood what my impacts might be in going faster and further into the wilderness, startling wildlife, eroding trails, compacting vegetation, or silting stream habit. Or most importantly, that wilderness is one of the few areas on Earth where we must fully respect the attributes of humility and slowing down, beautifully expressed in the Wilderness Act as “where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man”. I knew how precious wilderness was, but was only beginning to appreciate my role and responsibility in keeping it that way.

This past July, two of the most anti-environmental senators in the country (Mike Lee and Orrin Hatch, both from Utah) introduced a new bill proposing to change the Wilderness Act. Their purported rationale? To give federal land managers the flexibility to allow bikes (not to mention chain saws) in wilderness areas.

I do not believe there is such a thing as a small tweak to the Wilderness Act—any “tweak” is the proverbial camel’s nose under the tent. If mountain bikes were allowed, then off-road vehicles would demand entry, and other uses would follow. The whole point of wilderness would fail due to human demands. Anyone think that might be the motivation behind sponsorship by the two Utah senators? Yes, Orrin Hatch, one and the same, whose anti-wilderness remarks inspired the founding of Broads as a voice for older wilderness lovers, when he claimed “we need roads for the aged and infirm” and, who has voted against the environment at every opportunity since he started his Senate career in 1976. And Mike Lee, who sponsored legislation to gut the Antiquities Act and voted to transfer public lands to state and private interests—just two examples of his consistent anti-conservation agenda.

Let me be blunt: their bill is not, as some would say, a dichotomy between mountain bikers and those who are pro-wilderness and anti-bike. Plenty of our members— and those of other conservation organizations—are passionate about both wilderness and mountain bikes, just not in the same place. And plenty of mountain bike advocates appreciate the immutable value of wilderness. By aligning with Hatch and Lee, the bikes in wilderness proponents make it crystal clear that this bill is yet another attempt to eviscerate a piece of conservation legislation that is broadly loved by the American public (yes, Broads and way beyond).

Too much recreation of any sort can negatively affect wilderness character. No matter the activity, too many
people can damage sensitive habitats, drive away wildlife, leave behind human waste and trash which they leave to and recycle, and wreak havoc on natural environments. Even those who care about conservation can love a place to death.

Broadbands are working across the country to alleviate these impacts, through projects such as stewardship and planning work to decrease recreation impacts in Oregon’s Three Sisters Wilderness, reseeding areas with vehicle damage on BLM lands near Grand Junction, Colorado, documenting off-road impacts in the Boise National Forest, and more. There is still much to be done.

We can’t allow the erosion of the very law that reminds us we are not the only living things on the planet. As human populations soar and consume ever more finite resources, as more and more lands succumb to the blade, the plow, the axe, and, yes, the wheel, we simply must put some restraints on the desire to have everything where, when, and how we want it. Whether knobby tires or knobby knees, we can’t go everywhere on this generous planet. We have no business changing laws that hold the last line of defense on our own insatiable human needs thats why I need help finding my energy supplier on my business firm. Let’s keep the Wilderness Act intact, and wild lands wild—forever.

© 2016 Great Old Broads for Wilderness