CVIndependent

Thu12122019

Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

First came the bare human foot, somewhere in Africa. Then, in no particular order, came the moccasin, the shoe, the horse and saddle, boat and oar, the ski, the snowshoe—and so much more.

All of these came to the backcountry and helped to enrich our travels there. Sure, there’s been some grumbling about how some of the more recent inventions make modern life too easy, but over time, those tools and technologies have become accepted parts of our adventures in even the most remote places.

But … whoa! Along came the human-powered mountain bike, and although it’s quite similar to the contrivances that hardy souls have been pedaling and pushing through cities and the backcountry since the mid-19th century, some people now consider them to be so high-tech that they should be banned from wild landscapes.

Critics complain that nothing seems to say, “I can’t truly get away,” like the thought of encountering wheels on a trail. Ignoring the gears, cams, springs, levers, satellite communication tools and highly technological gadgets already filling their packs, these critics abhor the presence of bicycles in any federally designated wilderness.

It’s been suggested that the desire to allow bicycles in wilderness is an extremist campaign by a faction of off-road cyclists—people indifferent to the conservation goals of the 1964 Wilderness Act. But bicyclists treasure designated wilderness areas, which are already shared by a wide variety of recreationists, including through-hikers, day-trippers, hunters, equestrians, skiers, snowshoers, birdwatchers, climbers and boaters. And also, of course, cows.

Bills introduced in both the Senate and House of Representatives have renewed the conversation about whether it’s high time to lift the Forest Service’s 1984 blanket ban on bicycles in federally managed wilderness. The bills would allow federal land agencies to continue to maintain complete closures to bicycles if they thought it necessary, but the decision-making authority would move from centralized control in Washington, D.C., to local supervisors of wilderness lands.

For evidence of the cyclists’ purported extremism, some critics look to the supposedly mainstream International Mountain Bicycling Association, which is on record as opposing bicycles in wilderness. But many members and IMBA-affiliated clubs have protested IMBA’s position, and some have even canceled their memberships. IMBA does good work on many fronts, but its stance on wilderness access is increasingly seen as a timid and misguided abandonment of backcountry cyclists and a denial of cyclists’ legitimate role in the conservation community.

One of IMBA’s top three affiliated clubs is just down the road from there: The San Diego Mountain Biking Association called IMBA’s board “tone-deaf to the community” before severing its IMBA affiliation in early 2018. Three years earlier, the independent, 6,000-member New England Mountain Bike Association was already pleading, unsuccessfully, for IMBA to support wilderness access for mountain bikes.

In 2016, IMBA surveyed its ranks and determined that 51 percent of members felt that including access for mountain bikes in wilderness was a “very important issue.” That result was significantly more pronounced in the Western states, where wilderness areas are concentrated. Also in 2016, one of off-road cycling’s best-known online communities, SingleTracks.com, surveyed its readers and found that 96.2 percent wanted some level of wilderness access.

It seems that the bid for wilderness access has reached the mainstream, and that the tension is less among mountain bikers and more between mountain bikers and the IMBA board of directors. Meanwhile, some cyclists continue to resist proposals for designating new wilderness, because they would be barred from riding in it. As a result, wilderness proposals sometimes get abandoned or scaled back.

Andy Kerr, former executive director at Oregon Wild, recently lamented, “There are millions of acres of qualifying roadless land that could go into the wilderness system, but the prior existing use of mountain bikes politically prevents it.” In the same post, Kerr recommends “allow(ing) mountain bikes into new wilderness areas with conditions.”

This conflict is unfortunate and unnecessary, given the largely shared vision and goals of conservationists, cyclists and other wilderness users. Shouldn’t agencies be free to at least consider bicycles?

The Wilderness Act of 1964 prohibited “mechanical transport,” but how that is defined has become ever more contested as we uncover the historical record. Moreover, bicycle opponents forget the Wilderness Act’s overarching goals, which remain the preservation of wild lands and the promotion within them of rugged, self-reliant recreation. An intrepid backcountry cyclist fits within these criteria perfectly.

It’s time to recognize that many Americans have chosen to add bicycles to their backcountry equipment and would sometimes like to use their bikes to experience the wilderness, while honoring the spirit and purpose of the Wilderness Act.

Daniel Greenstadt is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News. He is an environmental industry consultant and lives in Portland, Ore.

Published in Community Voices

You may never have heard of Izembek National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska, but it is a place of global importance. At the very southwestern tip of the mainland, it is vital to the survival of virtually the world’s entire population of emperor geese and Pacific black brant, as well as other bird species from multiple continents. It’s also important habitat for caribou, brown bears and marine mammals.

But if the Trump administration gets its way, the roar of diesel engines will soon drift across this landscape as bulldozers scour a new road across the fragile tundra.

Development here would set a terrible precedent for all the places across America that Congress has designated as wilderness areas—the highest level of protection for public lands. If a road is built through Izembek, what would prevent acts of future destruction in our Joshua Tree National Park, Minnesota’s Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness or Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park?

In January, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke signed an agreement to transfer about 500 acres of high-value habitat within Izembek and its designated wilderness to the King Cove Corp., which has long sought to build a road connecting the communities of King Cove and Cold Bay. Zinke’s move dovetails with the Trump administration’s goal of selling off and giving away federal lands for development.

The for-profit King Cove Corp. was established by the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, which allowed such corporations to select lands to be managed for the benefit of shareholders. The corporation has advocated for the road for decades because of its potential to boost commercial fishing and seafood processing. Last year, independent Alaska Gov. Bill Walker sent a letter to the Trump administration describing a purpose of the road as the “movement of goods and people between King Cove and Cold Bay.”

In recent years, however, the purported purpose of the road has changed: Proponents started selling it as a “lifesaving” measure for ambulances to drive the more than 40 miles from King Cove to the jet-capable runway in Cold Bay. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers estimates that, even in good weather, such a trip would take 90 minutes to two hours.

There are alternatives, but the King Cove Corp. and its supporters have rejected every single one of them. The corporation was given a taxpayer-funded, multi-million-dollar hovercraft that could successfully transport ambulances across the bay—less than 27 miles—in just minutes, but it chose to give it away to the nearby community of Akutan, which used it for a couple of years to transport mail and seafood workers. The corporation also was not interested in a proposal to start a marine ferry, something that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers determined would be more than 99 percent dependable.

King Cove will accept only a road, even though it would destroy wilderness on an isthmus containing a biologically rich lagoon. This was the first area in America to be recognized as a “wetlands of international importance” by the Ramsar Convention, an international treaty for conserving wetlands.

The road would set a precedent that threatens all wilderness areas and undermines bedrock environmental and conservation laws, including the Wilderness Act, the National Environmental Policy Act, the National Wildlife Refuge Improvement Act and the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act. Worst of all, the residents of King Cove would not be made any safer; the gravel road would be unreliable, given the fierce storms of winter.

In a 2013 letter to then-Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell, Pete Mjos, a longtime physician with the federal Indian Health Service and medical director for the Eastern Aleutian Tribes, wrote, “With all due respect to my many friends and former patients in King Cove, I submit that the proposed road is the Great Irony—that construction of this road to ostensibly save lives, and for health and safety, in reality poses grave dangers, and is a very real threat to life itself.”

This January, nine environmental and conservation groups, including The Wilderness Society, filed a lawsuit challenging the legality of Zinke’s land exchange with the King Cove Corp., arguing that it violates the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act.

These groups will not be silent as the Trump administration attempts to destroy wilderness and sell off our public lands for development. I hope all Americans support our efforts to preserve places like Izembek National Wildlife Refuge for future generations, and for all those species whose survival depends on wild places remaining wild.

Jamie Williams is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News. He is president of The Wilderness Society, which works to permanently protect 109 million acres of wilderness.

Published in Community Voices

In June 1966, a full-page advertisement appeared in The New York Times and The Washington Post, warning readers: “Now Only You Can Save Grand Canyon From Being Flooded … For Profit.”

David Brower, the Sierra Club’s executive director, was blasting two proposed dams that would have backed up the Colorado River into Grand Canyon National Park. The attack sounds tame in our vitriolic era, but it triggered such an unprecedented wave of anti-dam letters to Congress that the Internal Revenue Service revoked the club’s tax-exempt status as a nonpolitical organization. When dam-backers argued that a reservoir would make it easier to admire the canyon, Brower’s next ad notoriously asked, “Should We Also Flood the Sistine Chapel So Tourists Can Get Nearer the Ceiling?” By summer’s end, his public relations barrage had killed the huge project.

In The Man Who Built the Sierra Club, Robert Wyss details how Brower transformed the club from a modest Pacific Coast hiking network into America’s most-prominent environmental organization, in the process elevating the conservation movement into a national political force. Wyss portrays a true believer who fought relentlessly to protect the natural world. He succeeded, Wyss says, “because he made people care.” And he did so by becoming a deft public-relations pioneer.

Born in 1912 in Berkeley, Calif., Brower discovered the Sierra Club through mountain climbing. (He made 130 first ascents.) He honed his rhetorical skills leading the club’s popular 1930s backcountry outings, playing his accordion and telling campfire stories.

After serving in the U.S. Army’s 10th Mountain Division during World War II, Brower became the Sierra Club’s first-ever executive director. His tenure, from 1952 through 1969, marked the country’s most successful environmental protection achievements, and Brower’s outreach was essential, starting with his campaign against a proposed dam in Dinosaur National Monument in the 1950s. Brower inspired supporters through short films and an oversized book of panoramic photographs. At a time when color TV and interstate highways were novelties, Brower presented vivid and breathtaking scenes of remote natural landscapes few had visited, countering claims the region was a wasteland.

The films, screened from garden clubs to the Capitol, were “the most important thing we did in offsetting the Bureau of Reclamation’s propaganda,” Brower said. The book, edited by Wallace Stegner, launched Sierra Club’s signature coffee-table book series. “(Brower) had created a new genre, an expensive, sprawling book that openly touted an environmental message,” Wyss writes. His films, books and ads not only boosted membership; they helped protect Redwoods and North Cascades national parks and pass the 1964 Wilderness Act.

Those campaigns, Wyss writes, showed how environmental and advocacy groups could use media and public relations “in a way never seen before to win over sympathizers and outrage opponents.” Brower, however, always regretted the compromise that spared Dinosaur, since it led to the damming of the Colorado River and the creation of Lake Powell. Eventually, he opposed nearly all development.

His no-compromise message and natural charisma made Brower a hero on 1960s and 1970s college campuses. He gave what he called “The Sermon” hundreds of times, asking listeners to imagine the Earth’s 4-billion-year geologic history as an abbreviated six-day creation tale. If humans arrived on Earth just minutes before the end of the sixth day, he said, then the Industrial Revolution started 1/40th of a second before midnight, vividly symbolizing our brief but massive impact on the planet. “Brower was the evangelist, the apostle, the messiah,” Wyss writes, “drawing the young, who would become pilgrims to the cause.”

Brower’s fiery stubbornness would also be his undoing. As director, Brower publicly contradicted the Sierra Club’s support for California’s Diablo Canyon nuclear plant, and later published new books without board approval. In 1969, Sierra Club leaders forced his resignation. Brower started other environmental groups and later reconciled with the Sierra Club, but he never again wielded the same power. He died in 2000, at the age of 88. Wyss laments Brower’s downfall, and argues the conservation movement still suffers from “a leadership vacuum.”

Today, cable news and social media allow people to instantaneously spread information and communicate with officials. Environmentalists still buy newspaper ads, give campus presentations and publish photography books. They also Snapchat, fire off email blasts and give TED talks. This past spring, Patagonia Inc. launched a virtual-reality-enabled multimedia website to defend Bears Ears National Monument in Utah, which the Trump administration has since slated for a massive reduction. The website allows a visitor to listen to a Hopi archaeologist talk about Bears Ears’ cultural significance while scrolling around 360-degree views of slot canyons and rock art, as if on a hike. It’s a novel and evocative online experience, even without VR glasses, and the site is still gaining nationwide attention and support for the monument. As you click through the scenes, you see the digital legacy of David Brower’s PR successes—a sermon still being preached.

This piece originally appeared in High Country News.

The Man Who Built the Sierra Club: A Life of David Brower

By Robert Wyss

Columbia University Press

400 pages, $35

Published in Literature

Editor’s Note: On March 8, the Independent published an opinion piece titled “Community Voices: It’s a Terrible Waste of Time to Argue for Bikes in Wilderness.” Here’s a piece that takes the opposite viewpoint.

It hasn’t happened yet, but one day, bicycles and baby strollers will be welcome in wilderness.

That’s the goal of the nonprofit Sustainable Trails Coalition, which seeks to permit forms of human-powered trail travel—beyond walking—in wilderness areas.

Congress never prohibited biking or pushing a baby carriage in wilderness. Both are banned by outmoded decisions that federal agencies made in the 1970s and 1980s. Over time, those decisions became frozen into place by lethargy and inertia.

It is true that the Wilderness Act forbids “mechanical transport.” By this, however, Congress meant people being moved around by machines, not people moving themselves with mechanical assistance. Now that wilderness acreage is larger than California and Maryland combined—vastly larger than when the walk-only rules were imposed—there is a pressing need to restore Congress’ original vision.

In 1977, renowned conservationists Sen. Frank Church of Idaho and Arizona Rep. Morris Udall explained what they thought Congress’ intentions were. Church said, “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.” Udall warned against “stringent ‘purity’ criteria” that have “led to public opposition to wilderness proposals based on what is, and what is not, perceived to be … permissible in wilderness areas.” As early as 1964, some Forest Service staff wanted to ban even rowboats.

The Sustainable Trails Coalition’s proposal is modest. It would not permit mountain biking or walking with a baby stroller everywhere. Instead, local land managers would be given the discretion to allow forms of human-powered travel where they believe it’s appropriate. The United States has 765 wilderness areas, each one managed by officials who know the terrain.

Opposition to the coalition’s proposed bill apparently rests partly on unjustified fears that federal employees can’t manage land. Another argument is that where bicycles go, motorcycles and ATVs will soon follow. But members of the coalition have talked with staffers at many congressional offices, and none of them show any interest in using our proposed bill as a stalking-horse for motorized uses that, unlike bicycles, have never been allowed in wilderness.

We suspect that our opponents’ real fear is not that reform will fail, but that it will succeed. If we cease limiting wilderness travel to methods available in biblical times and thereby achieve better-managed wilderness, the previous cries of “wolf” will look foolish.

Some opponents accuse us of being pawns of giant bicycle companies with large cash reserves and a thirst to get bicycles back into wilderness. But the coalition is a grassroots effort, funded by individuals and a few small businesses.

Opponents of biking in wilderness are like pen-and-ink types opposing manual typewriters: It might be comical if the effects weren’t so grave, disconnecting more people from the outdoors and increasing their indifference to conservation.

Some people also worry that bicycles would “shrink” wilderness, and argue that we already have enough places to ride. But backpacking technology allows for more invasive intrusions into wilderness than bicycles. Most bicyclists leave the wilderness at dusk and don’t camp.

As for the call for us to “go somewhere else,” we would never patronize these critics by saying they’re not welcome in wilderness unless they travel by bicycle. We prefer to bicycle, but we don’t insist that everyone else has to ride. Bicycling is clean and environmentally benign, and has that wonderful quality of “flow,” which the human psyche rejoices in experiencing. Mountain biking may be richer in flow than any other recreational endeavor—that’s one reason so many of us prize it.

There’s a grim backdrop to the struggle over wilderness that this quarrel only worsens. In the 52 years since Congress passed the Wilderness Act of 1964, national forest wilderness has fallen victim to a number of contradictions that have warped the original vision. Some areas are overrun and loved to death, like the Maroon Bells in Colorado. Others are no longer managed and seldom visited, and marijuana growers reportedly have filled the vacuum, as in California’s Yolla Bolly. Still others, including the Pasayten in Washington, are despoiled by pack outfitters, whose abuses are ignored by many wilderness activists and the government.

Fixing these problems will take a generation, lots of money and new leadership. Cyclists can’t do it alone, but we can help, if we’re accepted as partners, and not treated as interlopers into the wilderness private club.

The Sustainable Trails Coalition loves wilderness and thinks Congress got the law right in 1964. Now, we seek restoration of the original vision. There is nothing to fear about granting federal employees the discretionary authority the coalition proposes.

Ted Stroll is a contributor to Writers on the Range, an opinion service of High Country News. He is an attorney and president of the Sustainable Trails Coalition in California.

Published in Community Voices

Last month, California’s Mojave and Colorado Deserts, along with the neighboring San Bernardino Mountains, became home to three new national monuments—Castle Mountains, Mojave Trails and Sand to Snow—thanks to President Barack Obama’s use of the Antiquities Act.

Together, these new monuments protect 1.8 million acres of desert and mountains. These new monuments will help preserve the ecological integrity of a region under tremendous pressure from two of the country’s fastest-growing urban regions, Los Angeles and Las Vegas. By connecting existing protected areas, plants and animals will have a better chance to move to cooler and wetter climates as our deserts become hotter and drier due to climate change. These new monuments will help to ensure that California’s magnificent deserts and neighboring mountains are healthy and whole for years to come.

The monuments also protect a region that’s brimming with stories of the diverse people who’ve made their homes here.

Castle Mountains provides an important buffer between an old gold mining site and the Mojave National Preserve. Prospectors first flocked to the Castles in 1908. The boomtown of Hart grew from nothing to 1,500 people in just a few months. Today, the site is barely perceptible: One can find just a chimney, tin cans and memories. When Interstate 40 was completed in 1973, the busy roadside services of US Highway 66 in Mojave Trails disappeared overnight. Proprietors simply walked away from their cafes, service stations and motels. Now these remnants of history are slowly turning to dust, even as this lonely stretch of the “Mother Road” attracts tourists from all over the world. Black Lava Butte and Flat Top Mesa in Sand to Snow host village sites that are thousands of years old. Numerous petroglyphs, pictographs and grinding stones found there offer a glimpse into the life of Native Americans before contact with the Spanish.

However, the creation of these new national monuments is just the beginning. As communities across the desert rightfully celebrate the designation of these monuments, the exciting work of making them more than lines on a map begins. Local elected officials, business leaders, tribes, recreational interests, conservation organizations and others should join together to ensure that adjacent communities such as Barstow, Needles, Morongo Valley and Desert Hot Springs, along with tribes such as the Morongo Band of Mission Indians and the Fort Mojave tribe, receive the full economic, educational and recreational benefits of the newly protected public lands.

Advocates for the new monuments have long highlighted the economic benefits that conservation would provide, and there are numerous studies to support this. However, without proper signage, well-marked trail-heads, adequate parking areas, strategically located front-country campgrounds and good maps, it will be difficult to attract visitors. To realize true economic benefits, it will take infrastructure improvements, marketing and personnel. There must be a significant financial investment, through a public-private partnership.

The Bureau of Land Management, in particular, is going to need an official partner to raise funds for things like the construction of visitor centers, campgrounds, wayside exhibits and signs, as well as the less-exciting, but no-less-important expenses, including operating costs and funding for education and interpretive programs. This new partner organization could work with groups that have existing relationships with the BLM and the Forest Service, like the Mojave Desert Land Trust and The Wildlands Conservancy, in three areas: education, stewardship and recreation. Local schoolchildren need educational resources, and there should be interpretive programs for visitors and locals alike. Stewardship programs can connect people to their public lands, help to build and maintain infrastructure, restore damaged ecosystems, and advance knowledge through citizen-science projects. Finally, we must ensure that the multiple recreational activities permitted in these monuments are carried out responsibly, without damage to natural habitat and in respect of the sacred sites of local tribes, through programs that teach and promote responsible use of our shared natural resources.

Diversity is increasing in the desert, just as it is across the nation, but California’s deserts have always been diverse. Of course, Native Americans have been here for thousands of years. Even in small, isolated railroad and mining towns, residents came from remarkably diverse backgrounds. For example, during Amboy’s heyday in the 1930s and ’40s, along Route 66 in Mojave Trails, a Greek and a Chinese immigrant each owned and operated a café, motel, gas station and garage. Hopi and Navajo railroad workers lived in town and maintained the line. Mexican Americans made up the majority of students in the Amboy School. (To learn more about the history of the Mojave Desert’s mining and railroad communities check out Joe de Kehoe’s book The Silence and the Sun.)

Ensuring that we draw Southern California’s kaleidoscope of races and cultures to enjoy these new monuments is no simple task. It will require having a workforce that reflects diversity, and the creation of an environment for visitors where cultural differences are honored and embraced. To get there, we’ll need conservation leaders who reflect our diverse communities. Fortunately, there are numerous examples of training programs that draw participants from diverse and often underserved communities throughout the Southland. One example is the San Gabriel Mountains Forever’s Leadership Academy, a rigorous program that’s training a new generation of conservation advocates who better reflect the makeup of our nation.

If we want visitors to these new monuments to be as diverse as the communities near them, we have to roll out a multicultural welcome mat. We will have to address issues of access. There must be adequate and affordable transportation and a welcoming environment, including bilingual interpreters, campgrounds that can handle multi-generational visitors, bilingual signage and information, and gender-neutral restrooms to serve both families and the transgender community. Partnering with organizations like Outward Bound Adventures and the Sierra Club’s My Generation Campaign, both of whom are already working in the Coachella Valley, could help break down barriers, economic and cultural, to greater visitation by people of color.

The secretary of the interior, whose department includes the BLM and National Park Service, agrees. Secretary Sally Jewell recently signed an order in honor of the memory of Doug Walker (a long-serving member of The Wilderness Society’s governing council) that will increase access to public lands by youth and young adults who are “disadvantaged and under-resourced.”

Finally, it all has to start by reaching out to diverse communities to ensure that there is maximum participation in the creation of the general management plans that will guide the three new national monuments. We also must include diverse user-groups: Equestrians, off-highway-vehicle users, hunters and conservationists all have interests that must be addressed. Sooner rather than later, listening sessions should be organized throughout the desert and mountain area—something both the BLM and U.S. Forest Service have expressed their determination to do.

All of this will take years to accomplish. However, I’m hopeful that when the first anniversary of these new monuments is marked in February 2017, all stakeholders will see that significant progress has been made. I’m also sure the future of these monuments will be inclusive, reflecting the very best tendencies of Southern California and the nation.

Mati Jatovsky is the California desert representative for The Wilderness Society and a former park ranger interpreter. He lives in Joshua Tree. 

Published in Community Voices

I shouldn’t be writing this, and you shouldn’t be reading it. Far more pressing issues face our public lands—but a vocal minority is drudging up the long-resolved question of mountain biking in wilderness.

They have even drafted a bill for somebody to introduce in Congress—the Human-Powered Wildlands Travel Management Act—that would open wilderness to biking. That means we have to pause and rehash the facts.

First, no legal argument supports biking in wilderness. Unambiguously, the 1964 Wilderness Act states there shall be no “form of mechanical transport” in wilderness areas. The discussion should end there, but a few claim that “mechanical transport” somehow does not include bicycles. They allege that the law unintentionally excluded an activity that emerged after it was enacted. Or they tout an early Forest Service misinterpretation of the law, which initially allowed bicycles in wilderness but was corrected more than 30 years ago.

The arguments have no legal merit. Worse, they ignore the historical context and foresight of the Wilderness Act, one of our foundational environmental laws. In doing so, they distract people from truly understanding our public lands. That’s not good for people or the land.

We should remember that the Wilderness Act grew from a half-century of public-lands battles, fought by America’s most influential conservation thinkers, including Aldo Leopold, Bob Marshall, Olaus Murie, and the indefatigable Mardy Murie, among others. Theirs was a multigenerational struggle to safeguard a vestige of the nation’s public lands from the advances of population and technology.

The technology part is important. The framers of the Wilderness Act knew human ingenuity was not somehow petering out in 1964. In fact, they lived in an era of fantastic invention. Forms of transport being tested at the time included jetpacks, gliders, aerocycles and various new wagons, boats and bicycles.

That the law anticipated future invention is indisputable, but it benefits us much more to know why it does. The reason was most concisely expressed by the bill’s principal author, Howard Zahniser, who, in 1956 defined wilderness as a place where we stand without the “mechanisms that make us immediate masters over our environment.”

Zahniser was a Thoreauvian pacifist deeply troubled by the Holocaust and other horrific events during his lifetime. In wilderness, he saw a suite of biophysical and social values that carried the potential to make us better people. But to fulfill its promise in modern times, by offering an opportunity for raw challenge, humility and solitude, wilderness had to remain a place of human restraint. For eight years, Zahniser worked with Congress to ensure that the law enshrined that ideal, with clear limits on acceptable activities in wilderness.

Some pressing for bikes in wilderness conveniently ignore this central principle. Instead, they focus on issues of trail erosion or impacts to visitors and wildlife, where they front overly rosy claims. In diminishing the purpose of wilderness, they hawk a dumbed-down version of the public estate.

Similarly, it is unhealthy to conflate the ban on bikes with a ban on a certain group of people. That tactic may stir emotion, but it undermines serious public-lands discourse. Nevertheless, some are using the trick, including Bike Magazine editor Vernon Felton, whose recent video casts bikes in wilderness as a civil rights issue. That’s an affront to anyone who has worked for voting rights, fair housing, protection against hate crimes or other actual civil rights.

Felton and others also oversimplify prohibitions on bikes in wilderness study areas, calling them overreach by conservationists or the feds. But such bans are essential to the purpose of these study areas, which must be carefully managed to preserve their eligibility as wilderness pending congressional action.

Another claim is that banning bikes turns people against wilderness, or even broader conservation issues. But I think those misrepresenting the facts are the ones driving a wedge. Either way, diminished support for wilderness is not good news. But nor is it new. The historical trajectory toward better land stewardship has always been the fight of the few.

One last thing to consider is the issue’s scale. The wilderness system is limited to roughly 53 million acres outside of Alaska. Smaller than Colorado, that portion is scattered across 43 states. And while most of the land is in the West, most of it is also rugged and unbikable. Meanwhile, hundreds of millions of acres remain open to biking.

Still, some will demand that bikes be permitted in wilderness. And they will join logging, mining, off-roading and other interests in whittling away at the boundaries of pending wilderness proposals. At a time when so many more serious issues confront our lands—climate change, ocean acidification, plastics pollution, sprawl and much more—it seems a misguided use of energy.

Tim Lydon is a contributor to Writers on the Range, an opinion service of High Country News, where this piece originally appeared.

Published in Community Voices