Friday, November 5, 2010

Wilderness - the intent, the reality

This is an excellent essay by Geoff Baker, an avid backcountry recreationist from the great state of Idaho. I post it here because I think that the movement to create more "capital-W Wilderness" is practical ONLY if the agencies responsible for administering it get back to the intent of the people who wrote the 1964 Wilderness Act.

In truth, they've abandoned that intent by barring mountain bikes from using Wilderness trails. And because of that, people like me who would otherwise be strong advocates of wilderness are instead put in the position of fighting against it.

As a rancher, I don't howl with outrage when cattle graze in our wilderness mountains - although I do see opportunities for improved management practices. But other than that small point of contention, I think Mr. Baker is right on.


Here's what Geoff Baker said:

"I wholeheartedly support the preservation of "wild" places, so that they remain free from the intrusion of the factors that lead to environmental degredation - resource extraction, permanent, semi-permanent or temporary "development" (including, but not limited to, cattle grazing, ranching, farming, and residential or commerical facilities construction), and any sort of motorized use. I further wholeheartedly support the preservation of "wild" places to be used for recreation by man, but as long as those recreational activities do not require or depend on any sort of motorized power source or other non-living power source.

"However, I cannot and do not support the imposition of formal "capital-W Wilderness" designation. Capital W "Wilderness" advocates and their financial supporters either ignore, forget, or don't know/understand the dual intent behind the Wilderness Act of 1964 - preservation and protection of the environment AND it's recreational use by as many people in a non-motorized method as possible. "Wilderness" advocates overly focus on the former, while typically either ignoring or reducing the importance of the latter. Such focus is myopic and disregards Congressional intent behind the Wilderness Act, as well as its primary sponsor, Senator Frank Church of Idaho.

"The Congressional record and legislative history behind the 1964 Act clearly reveals that Congress did not intend for "Wilderness" to be exclusionary and enjoyed only by those on horseback or on foot. The historical era of the late 1950's and early 1960's had seen a rise in motorized recreation, which was seen by many as leading to the "softening" of America's youth and greater population. Preserving "wild" places in which people could quietly recreate in "solitude" in a "primative" environment under their own power - ie, without motorized assistance - was one of the co-equal driving forces behind the 1964 Act.

"This intent was followed in 1966, when the USFS promulgated a new regulation that interpreted the meaning of the term "mechanical transport" and how that applied to recreational use in "Wilderness." This regulation - which exists today - defines "mechanical transport" to include "any contrivance which travels over ground, snow, or water on wheels, tracks, skids, or by floatation and is propelled by a non-living power source contained or carried on or within the device." This interpretation stood for many years, and allowed for the use of bicycles, backcountry skis, snowshoes, climbing gear, and boats and rafts with oarlocks and other mechanical parts to be used and enjoyed in "Wilderness."

"In 1980, Congress' intent to permit human-powered and non-motorized recreation was confirmed in its statement of intent in the creation of the Rattlesnake Wilderness in Montana. This is the law of the United States, and it reads as follows:

"16 USC §460ll(a)
(a) The Congress finds that—
(1) certain lands on the Lolo National Forest in Montana have high value for watershed, water storage, wildlife habitat, primitive recreation, historical, scientific, ecological, and educational purposes. This national forest area has long been used as a wilderness by Montanans and by people throughout the Nation who value it as a source of solitude, wildlife, clean, free-flowing waters stored and used for municipal purposes for over a century, and primitive recreation, to include such activities as hiking, camping, backpacking, hunting, fishing, horse riding, and bicycling; and
(2) certain other lands on the Lolo National Forest, while not predominantly of wilderness quality, have high value for municipal watershed, recreation, wildlife habitat, and ecological and educational purposes.
(b) Therefore, it is hereby declared to be the policy of Congress that, to further the purposes of the Wilderness Act of 1964 (16 U.S.C. 1131) and the National Forest Management Act of 1976 (16 U.S.C. 1600), the people of the Nation and Montana would best be served by national recreation area designation of the Rattlesnake area to include the permanent preservation of certain of these lands under established statutory designation as wilderness, and to promote the watershed, recreational, wildlife, and educational values of the remainder of these lands.

"The activities listed in subsection (a)(1) were found by Congress to be consistent with the ethos and recreational purpose of Wilderness designation. One rule of statutory construction is that all words of a statute are to be considered and provided equal weight when determining the meaning and application of the statute. However, one of the words in subsection (a)(1) of this law has been and continues to be ignored by "Wilderness" advocates and the Federal government - and that word is "bicycling."

"In 1984, in a quick and hurried rulemaking process, the Forest Service arbitrarily and capriciously banned bicycles from captial W "Wilderness." While true "mountain biking" in the United States was in its relative infancy at the time, the modern "saftey" bicycles (which was invented in its current form in 1885) had been used to explore and recreate in "wild" places since its invention. Disregarding this historical use - as well as Congressional intent, legislative history, its own 1966 regulation, and Congress' express statement in 1980 that bicycling is a recreational activity consistent with capital W "Wilderness" designation, the Forest Service hurriedly banned bikes from the Wilderness. That ban stands today, barring millions of recreationalists from millions of acres of "wild' places from enjoying quiet, non-motorized use in "solitude" simply because they'd rather ride a bicycle than use another non-motorized form of transport such as skis, a horse, modern snowshoes, or a raft or rowboat.

"That the 1984 regulation banning bicycling is arbitrary and improper is supported by the words of Sen. Church. The following quote has been attributed to him (although I have not found the original source):

"'As the floor manager of the 1964 Wilderness Act, I recall quite clearly what we were trying to accomplish by setting up the National Wilderness Preservation System. It was never the intent of Congress that wilderness be managed in so 'pure' a fashion as to needlessly restrict customary public use and enjoyment. Quite the contrary, Congress fully intended that wilderness should be managed to allow its use by a wide spectrum of Americans. ... I believe . . . that the agencies are applying provisions of the Wilderness Act too strictly and thus misconstruing the intent of Congress as to how these areas should be managed.' If indeed these are the words of Sen. Church, then the 1966 interpretation of "mechanical transport" and the 1980 words of Congress support the concept that bicycling was never meant to be prohibited in those environments suitable for "Wilderness" designation.

"However, "Wilderness" advocates wrongly and disingenuously continue to support the ban on bicycles, which ironically works to directly hinder their own interests in achieiving as much "Wilderness" designation as possible. In doing so, they fabricate arguments that have no basis in law or fact - such as ignoring that bicycles have been used in "wild" places for over 100 years and straight-facedly contending that Congress intended that "wild" places are to be ONLY experienced "slowly" or "on foot" without any form of mechanical advantage. Such arguments are ignorant at best and dishonest at worst, as they ignore the use of skis with mechanical binding, boats with oarlocks, modern snowshoes, and pedal-driven kayaks that provide a "mechanical advantage," but which are allowed in capital W Wilderness. These devices - skis particularly - increase the speed of the user that could not be obtained on foot alone. But, somehow, with no real explanation, they are more palatable to "Wilderness" advocates than quiet, human-powered bicycling.

"Another argument that is constantly made by "Wilderness" advocates is that bicycles cause more environmental damage than other forms of recreation. These advocates, however, base this argument usually on anecdotal, personal examples and not hard reseach and science. Scientific studies have shown on multiple occasions that bicycles cause no more damage and often less damage than do hikers. And far LESS damage than pack trains and iron-shod horses - which are permitted in "Wilderness" - do to the environment. Further, because bicyclists using trails are usually "in and back out" users, they do not stay on the land or stay in the area, unlike backpackers and other foot-based recreationalists, who typically occupy the Wilderness for days, themselves creating their own human-caused damage. Conveniently, however, these facts are ignored.

"It is time for the "Wilderness" advocates to stop treating those who would choose to quietly recreate in "wild" places by the means of a bicycle as, at best, second-class citizens, or enemies at worst. That the 40,000,000 bicyclists in the United States could be powerful allies in the fight for "Wilderness" is lost on the "Wilderness" community - again, to their detriment. This is no more than blatant and hypocritical prejudice against persons who are "different" merely on the basis that they are "different." The America I love has shown that it can overcome prejudice and find commonalities among groups that are more important than these differences.

"The primary and ultimate commonality between bicyclists and "Wilderness" advocates is that we both want to see the continued and permanent preservation of "wild" places free from development and to be used for quiet recreation. We both work for the betterment of the environment AND the betterment of humanity. We SHOULD and MUST work together on this issue.

"However, this is not happening. The advocates - and paid lobbyists - of "Wilderness" do not see bicyclists as equals. They insist on pushing forward with misguided and sometimes dishonest arguments that somehow bicyclists are not privileged to experience "Wilderness" on our terms and our choice of human-powered recreation. They say "go ride elsewhere" and "you've got all you're going to get," like they somehow are in a position of authority to ultimately determine the rights of bicyclists. This negative attitude is moralistic, bombastic, and condescending, as well as without support. This attitude only serves to alienate and anger a constituency who could be an ally in the work to save "wild" places.

"I hike and I backpack. While these activities are enjoyable in their own right, the feelings I feel and the emotions I experience while doing so do not approach the joy, exhilaration and contentment I experience when riding a bicycle in a natural, "wild" environment. I feel far closer to nature and far more in touch with myself when on a bicycle than when I am forced to trudge along by foot. However, I am denied to experience these feelings when "Wilderness" is imposed.

"For these reasons, I will support the protection of "wild" places, but not "Wilderness" until and unless "Wilderness" advocates end their prejudice against bicycles and work towards permanently preserving equal footing for bicycles and bicyclists in our "wild" places."


  1. One can reach just about anwhere one wants in the Ruby Mountains in a day. Most people who visit the mountains like the solitude and quiet and do not want encounters with cruising bikers, as the deer, grouse and wildlife do not appreciate being spooked. There are plenty of non-wilderness areas for bikers, and if we allow bikes, can atvs be far behind? As an advocate of minimum impact, try practicing it and leave your bike out of the wilderness.

    1. "Most people who visit the mountains like the solitude and quiet and do not want encounters with cruising bikers"
      Solitude is affected by other people, not bikes
      "There are plenty of non-wilderness areas for bikers"
      Bikers are excluded from as much as 80% of roadless areas in western states by wilderness designation alone. That doesn't count all the other local restrictions they face. Hikers have access to 100%. If you were forbidden from hiking 80% of your most desirable areas, would you say "that's okay, I have the other 20%?" Do you see any kind of equitable balance here?
      "and if we allow bikes, can atvs be far behind?"
      Your slippery slope argument here is out of place. Did you even read the piece on which your are commenting? This debate has always separated motorized from nonmotorized.
      "As an advocate of minimum impact, try practicing it and leave your bike out of the wilderness."
      Every study shows bike impact to be similar to that of hikers. If minimizing impact means restricting bikers, it must restrict hikers as well.

  2. I probably spend more time on my feet in the Rubies than most folks, as well as on my skis, my snowshoes, my horse and at the end of a climbing rope. What I DON'T do is ride my mountain bike - because there isn't a single foot of mountain bike trail in the Rubies. Not one. Not only that, but the only ROAD that's available to ride is up Soldier Canyon. Every other dirt road and jeep track into the mountains is behind a locked gate.

    There is no reason for trails to be closed to bikes, other than the selfishness of people who don't want to share with other quiet users. We cause no more trail damage than hikers, we cause significantly fewer impacts than backpackers (since very, very few mountain bikers camp), and of course any damage we would cause is negligible compared to that caused by horses.

    As to spooking wildlife - human beings being up there at all spooks wildlife. I can't tell you the number of grouse, deer, bighorns, goats, snowcocks, chipmunks... the list goes on... I've scared the hell out of over the years, just by being where they weren't expecting to see me. That's a non-argument, unless you're advocating closing the mountains, whether wilderness or not, entirely to human access.

    The bottom line is that there is no reason whatsoever to bar mountain bikes from sustainably-built wilderness trails. There's plenty of solitude available for those interested in seeking it - check my posts on Gilbert Peak and Seitz Lake if you doubt me. There will never be mountain bikes heading to those destinations, or to a thousand others that I've not yet written up. Sharing a tiny fraction of the mountain with other users is only fair - our tax dollars pay for public land, as well. We shouldn't be locked out of it because of a ridiculous interpretation of a law that was never intended by the people who wrote it in the first place.

  3. You have ridden the non-wilderness part of the Ruby Crest Trail, can ride to Island Lake, Liberty Pass, Lamoille Lake, and can ride the new trail from Lamoille Canyon to Talbot Canyon (and beyond to at least Conrad Canyon). I don't spook the animals up there. There is an obvious compromise possible, which is to allow bicycles onto trails in the wilderness areas on designated dates - perhaps the first week of the month. That way mountainbikers have an opportunity to bike there and those who do not like the bikes can schedule their trip at a time when there will be no bikes there. I have a question - are mountain bikers required to stay on the trails, do they in fact go off trail and does going off trail do any damage. My bias is simple - when I go into the mountains, I want to see as few a number of people as possible and as simply as possible - preferably on foot, then on horseback, and then on mountainbikes - because I want the experience of nature and wilderness. I sense that you want the same or something close to it. I believe in hard lines, because once you let a barrier slip, it will continue to slip - if bikes come in, then come the atvs and snowmobiles, which I suspect you don't favor. We just would draw the lines in different places. Personally, I am tired of hauling other people's trash out of the Ruby Mountains and while only a few people may leave their trash, the fewer the people the lesser the impact and the fewer the trash. There also seems to be less of a giardia problem in the Ruby Mountains than in more heavily travelled areas, and that is the result of the more limited use. I drink out of most any stream in the Rubies and hope that my grandchildren will as well.

  4. nonymous, the rides you mentioned at the top of your post are pretty unsatisfactory for mountain bikers. Not only are those trails not built for bikes, but we cover a lot of ground when we're out. A short ride for us is a 10 mile ride, and I pretty regularly ride 20 miles or more. Two miles of miserable trail not built for bikes does not constitute a good mountain biking alternative. See my post "Mountain Biking in the Rubies" for an explanation.

    To be realistic, you need to have a loop system of 50+ miles or so, in order to give options for riders so they're not riding the same trail every day. Unfortunately, in the Rubies, you run into access issues because of all the private land at the base of the mountains, or you run into wilderness. With bikes locked out of wilderness you effectively lock bikes out of the mountains. That's not fair.

    I'm not, at all, a fan of the "alternating use" method of trail management, because it seems that the only people locked out of trail use are mountain bikers. On the day that hikers and horsemen are locked out of trail use for three weeks a month, too, then we can have a conversation about "alternating use." Otherwise, it's just more "I have mine and screw you" coming from the people already receiving preferential treatment.

    The slippery slope argument doesn't fly, either. The Wilderness Act clearly bars motorized vehicles from wilderness areas, and that isn't going to change. However, the Wilderness Act does NOT bar bicycles, Tom Thumb bits (levers), ski bindings (also levers, with a few screws thrown in for good measure), oar locks on boats (gee, see a pattern here?) An administrative rule singled out bicycles for the ban, but allowed the rest of this mechanized equipment to stay. Again, neither fair NOR what the original writers of the Wilderness Act intended.

    Mountain bikes stay on the trail simply by definition of how they are used. In areas like Moab that have large slickrock features, you'll see bikes playing on the slickrock. Areas like this, though, are all about trail riding. We go off-trail far less frequently than hikers and horsemen do, particularly those hikers and horsemen that camp. Very, very few mountain bikers carry camping gear with them.

    FWIW, I carry out a lot of trash, too, and it makes me very angry to have to. You can't legislate against ignorant stupidity. I see the most trash at either firepits (not mountain bikers) or along the trail to Lamoille Lake (not mountain bikers, either). Why not argue against kicking hikers and horse packers out, then, since they're the ones leaving the trash?

  5. It's always smarter, when analyzing problems, to look at the actual causes rather than the scapegoats!

    Disturbing habitat? That's an individual problem, caused by individuals. Someone who disrespcts habitat can and will do so regardless of his/her mode of travel. The problem is the disrespect, not the bicycle.

    I've had bad interactions with fellow MTB riders, people who are jerks. I've had bad interactions with hikers. And with backcountry horsemen. Generally it seems that people who want to be selfish and relatively destructive are going to be that way regardless of their mode of travel. I don't conclude hikers are evil just because a few hikers have been jerks!

  6. Agreed, Mr. Oxtrot. Many of the issues that are coming up these days are happening because of increasing pressure on backcountry areas - pressure coming from ALL users. The improvements in recreational technology, glossy magazines with all kinds of "kewl" photos (to steal a word), exploding transportation options that make trailhead access easy for increasing numbers of people... trails designed for light use are now being hammered on a daily basis, often with little thought given to sustainable re-design or even to reasonable maintenance.

    Too many people + too many agendas = increased opportunities for conflict. And - just simple mathematics, if one percent of the people up there are jerks, then 1% of 10,000 people is going to mean more jerks on the trail than there were in the days of 100 trail users in a year.

    I don't think that wrapping the mountains in rules and barbed wire is any kind of a solution, though. It just kicks the can down the road. To my mind, the better solution is to improve access in order to disperse use and therefore minimize conflicts. And - to get trail users of all types out there together working to maintain the trails. There's nothing like shared sweat for encouraging mutual respect, which will do more to minimize user conflict than any collection of rules and regulations.

  7. Mountaingirl- I applaud your well thought post and commentary. However, I think your breath is wasted on the die-hard hikers like anonymous (or equestrians for that matter). His motives are clearly stated - "when I go into the mountains, I want to see as few a number of people as possible and as simply as possible."

    Thus, there is no reasoning with someone, or a group of people for that matter, who is (are) only thinking of their own self interest. These are a group of selfish elitists who probably didn't like to share very much as a child, and are in hysterics at the possibility that a movie might attract more and "unsophisticated" hikers to the trail - take a look at PCT/hiking boards regarding the new movie "Wild."

    It is clear that the 1984 NFS regulations banning bikes arbitrarily and unfairly exclude a limited resource that we all pay for from a vast user group that would greatly help in promoting the trails. However, that means nothing to those who feel entitled to their current exclusive use, because bottom line, any additional users would serve to "tarnish" the hiker/equestrian experience. They will fight, tooth-and-nail, to exclude any additional users on every single foot of trail there is.
    -Rob K.

  8. I'll be honest... bikers CAN tarnish the equestrian experience, simply by being jerks in how they ride. And hikers can tarnish the cycling experience - I double flatted a while back when some jerk hiker tacked the trail. The bottom line is that people need to adjust their attitudes and learn to get along... but at this point, two user groups, the hikers and the horsemen, see no reason to do so. Why share when they already have everything they want w/r/t trails?