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Rough Ride

Mark Poutenis

Here's a brainteaser for you and your mountain-biking buds to ponder over a bottle of Fat Tire after your latest single-track adventure:

Is a mountain bike a machine?

It's not exactly the riddle of the Sphinx. But like many seemingly inane sports ponderables (how, exactly, did Carmelo get into bars when he was under 21?), there is something serious at its core.

When it comes to the public lands known as wilderness areas, mountain bikers have long been faced with an aggravating dilemma: Would they prefer to fight to keep participating in the sport they love on that pristine turf, or are they prepared to walk away from millions of acres of backcountry land -- much of it ideal terrain for mountain biking? For many riders, it's agonizing, because mountain bikers and land preservationists usually sing from the same pro-environmental songbook.

"Some hikers don't want to see a biker, and some bikers are rude," acknowledges Gary Sprung, senior national policy advisor for the Golden-based International Mountain Bicycling Association. Yet the conflict runs deeper than that, and how you answer the question of fight or flight cuts to the core of what wilderness is and how humans should appreciate its wonders.

The Wilderness Act of 1964 gave legislators an avenue to preserve land in a way in which the natural surroundings, and not people, came first. Now four decades old, the law is full of high-minded musings about what makes a wilderness, well, wild.

So that people didn't leave too many unsightly footprints, the act's authors were also very specific about what sort of human residue would be excluded from the newly designated wild spots: "There shall be no temporary road, no use of motor vehicles, motorized equipment or motorboats, no landing of aircraft, no other form of mechanical transport, and no structure or installation within any such area."

The mountain bikers' bugaboo has always been the phrase "mechanical transport." Over the years, various federal agencies -- and staunch environmentalists -- have usually concluded that this wording excludes bicycles from public lands. After all, if a bike isn't a machine and isn't used to haul people, then what the hell is it? "Any way you slice it, a mountain bike is mechanical transport," notes Michael Carroll, associate director of the Wilderness Support Center in Durango. "The Wilderness Act was pretty specific about that."

Such strict interpretations have effectively banned bikers from plenty of prime pedaling. There are 106.5 million acres of designated wilderness area in the country, and Colorado is home to 3.4 million of them -- just over 5 percent of the state's entire acreage. Another million or so acres are under consideration for wilderness-area designation in this state alone -- all of them with a large "Do Not Enter" sign potentially waiting to greet mountain bikers.

Recently, however, Theodore Stroll, a staff attorney with the Supreme Court of California -- and a passionate mountain biker -- has reignited the long-simmering debate. Late last year, working on his own time, Stroll researched and published a lengthy paper in the Penn State Environmental Law Review. In it, he claims that if there had been such a thing as mountain biking in 1964, legislators at the time almost certainly would have permitted the sport in the newly chosen wilderness areas.

"The more I looked into it," Stroll says in an interview, "it became quite apparent that Congress never intended to exclude healthful, quiet, low-impact activities" -- like, say, single-track bicycling.

What intrigued Stroll the most were the goals of the 1964 law. Certainly, one was to preserve the landscape and protect it from the ravages of an over-adoring public. But plenty of people would still be allowed in. Who did Congress want to enter?

Scouring the Congressional Record, Stroll discovered that another objective was to buff the nation's collective body. Even then, legislators were wringing their hands over Americans' softness. Relying upon a plump and gasping army of urban warriors seemed a big risk to take at the height of the Cold War. "We must recognize and emphasize more than we have the values of wilderness recreation in providing for the health and vigor of our citizens," one congressman intoned from the Senate floor.

Getting people into the forest under their own steam, in other words, was a genuine goal of the Wilderness Act. According to Stroll's interpretation, whoever could propel himself into a wilderness area was welcome to stay and look around. Viewed that way, mountain bikes would be a fine addition to the backcountry.

Stroll's research naturally has found a receptive audience at IMBA, whose members are only too happy to point out other hiccups in the law. For example, Sprung notes that if you really want to get technical, an oar on a rowboat is "mechanical transport." Unlike bikes, however, non-motorized boats are permitted in wilderness areas.

So are cross-country skis, most climbing equipment, spring-loaded walking sticks, and kayaks -- some newer versions of which have foot-operated propellers on them, which would seem to qualify them as "mechanical transport." (Oddly, since 1977, hang gliders have been prohibited in wilderness areas.) A more delicate issue is wheelchairs, which have been allowed to roll into them since 1991, following the passage of the Americans With Disabilities Act.

Preservationists such as Carroll worry about the stress that hordes of mountain bikers might cause to the wilderness. Twenty years ago, mountain-biking technology was so primitive that riders needed the lungs of Lance Armstrong and Serena Williams's legs to get into the backcountry. Today, lighter material and better gearing mean just about anyone without a bum knee can wheel into the woods. IMBA estimates that about forty million people ride mountain bikes. And more bikes mean more eco-destruction.

Erosion isn't necessarily a perfect test to decide who gets in, though. Sprung points to studies showing that, on established trails, a bike causes little more wear and tear than the average hiker -- there are an estimated 70 million of those in the country -- and that both do less damage than pack horses, which are permitted in wilderness-designated areas. When it comes to pack animals, even Carroll admits, "The impacts are obvious. And, frankly, [horses] shouldn't be in some of the places they're going." But they are.

Another environmentalist concern is ambience: Do mountain bikers somehow tarnish the wilderness experience? Undoubtedly, they do for some. But that's a personal preference. Stroll says that after sweating his way into the wild, he gets irritated watching "massive pack trains of horses carrying sedentary people and cases of beer."

IMBA's new director, Mike Van Able, concedes it's unlikely that mountain biking will be permitted in existing wilderness areas in his lifetime. Instead, the organization has concentrated its efforts on new wilderness proposals. The fiercest battleground is in California, which is in the process of earmarking 300,000 acres -- home to 170 miles of prime single track -- on its northern coast as a wilderness area.

With so much at stake, neither side seems inclined to compromise. "The environmental movement there has this thing against mountain bikers," Sprung claims.

"We're agreeing to disagree," Carroll says politely.

Colorado has plenty of ground to argue over, too, although both sides insist they will play nice. Cross Mountain, an 18,500-acre plot near Dinosaur National Park that has been targeted as a future wilderness area, has an existing single-track trail running along its south side that IMBA would like to keep. The organization has proposed shifting the boundary of the proposed area slightly to keep the bike trail open without violating the integrity of the sacred spot.

Indeed, a little accommodation would go a long way toward mending fences between the two camps. Environmentalists need to focus on those territories genuinely worthy of being called "wilderness." There are plenty of official land designations that aren't as strict as those for wilderness areas but that nonetheless promise to maintain the character and eco-integrity of the terrain. Roadless Areas and National Recreation Areas all preserve wilderness without shutting out pedalers.

For its part, IMBA needs to realize that some places are worth keeping quiet. "Within the environmental camp, there is a fundamentalist strain," Stroll complains. "They're looking at this thing in a quasi-religious way -- wilderness as a cathedral, a place for quiet worship."

Sometimes, it is.


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