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Playgrounds in Peril: Wilderness Access for Mountain Bikes Gets Closer, But is that a Good Thing?

Most mountain bikers would salivate over the opportunity to ride untouched, unexplored areas. But is that access worth the risk? Pexels photo.

Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Calif, has proposed legislation in the House of Reps to again amend the 1964 Wilderness Act to allow mountain biking in wilderness-protected areas. While no Dakota Access Pipeline fight, it's (re)stirring the pot in the commerce vs preservation land war (The amendment was approved 22-18 by the House Committee on Natural Resources; it currently awaits scheduling by Speaker Paul Ryan for a full House vote).

RELATED: The fight for mountain bike trail access

HR 1349 is very similar to the 2016 Senate bill proposed by Utah’s Mike Lee and Orrin Hatch and, obviously, comes at a time when public lands are under attack by those seeking to reduce their size and open them to grazing, mining and drilling.

Senator Lee. Wikimedia Commons.

In response to HR 1349, IMBA (the International Mountain Bike Association)  has departed from its recent solidarity with the Sustainable Trails Coalition (STC), which supports any legislation which grants mountain bikers access, and put itself at odds with riders and mountain biking chapters who want to ride in those wilderness areas.

Our wilderness areas were never intended by Congress to prohibit human-powered mountain bikes

To be sure, there’s some nice riding in those areas. But for many of us, this issue turns more on principle than practicality; mountain bikers don't like being shut out even if we don't actually live near federal land. The New England Mountain Biking Association created a campaign urging IMBA to retract its opposition to the bill even though we have no real skin in the game.

RELATED: An honest review of Hatch and Lee's bill that didn't pass

But I see IMBA's point; we also have cause for skepticism. Senators Lee and Hatch are full-on Koch brothers cronies (and STC paid them $120,000 to introduce the bill to grant MTB to wilderness access).  

Obviously a Mountain Biker, right? Wikimedia commons.

Rep. Tom McClintock’s district includes some Sacramento suburbs, Lake Tahoe and Yosemite National Park. All three voted to reduce of the Size of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante monuments and voted for opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas drilling. So… there’s that.

“Our wilderness areas were never intended by Congress to prohibit human-powered mountain bikes,” McClintock said in defense of his legislation. Well, sure, but mountain bikes weren’t invented then either. So you could also say that “Wilderness areas were never intended to prohibit fracking." Given  the recent reporting by the New York Times that resource exploration was the key factor in the decision to redraw the Bears Ears boundaries, that doesn't seem that implausible.

Not gonna be me that starts this. photo.

IMBA openly states their stance is less about denying mountain biking in wilderness and more about the hidden agenda of those introducing the legislation and aligning with the ultimate interests the bills represent. IMBA Executive Director Dave Wiens released a statement saying, "...we simply do not think the answer to our challenges is to change a bedrock conservation law, especially right now. Public lands are being threatened at an unprecedented level, and it's imperative that public land users come together to protect these cherished places and offer our voices in this critical decision."

Though, if you read the bills, they are pretty simple and seemingly innocuous. And, ostensibly, give land managers latitude to make access decisions case-by-case. If Elizabeth Warren had introduced the same bill, would we be okay with it? McClintock’s play could well be just designed to shore up some votes in what promises to be a hot election cycle.

Tom McClintock. Wikimedia commons.

The question is: Are we being used?

Access and protections are for sure a hot red/blue political football. So how in the heck did mountain bikers get in the middle of access for mineral rights and commercial interests versus access for "wilderness" appreciation? Somehow, we currently stand opposed to both nature lovers AND the "drill, baby, drill" crowd. It's a strange place to be. How would you feel if, five years from now, it turned out we were the tip of the spear which busted open the door to natural areas for drilling, mining and despoiling? That would suck, right? Even if we just opened the doors for ATV’s and moto, how about that? Probably also not ok.

We're like the cool friend who DJ's all your parties for free but doesn't get invited to Thanksgiving

On the other hand, while we should be able to harmoniously exist alongside our hiking/horse/nature brethren, we don't get a lot of traction from the growing volume of research showing mountain biking causes no more harm than hiking. No idea why, we just don’t in this post-truth era. Often we don't even get credit for the trail work we do which they hike/horse/walk on. Even though most mountain bikers share a strong conservation ethic, Sierra Club types don’t really want us around. Which leaves us to fend for ourselves and build coalition where we can.

Maybe it has something to do with our optics. MTB's visibility is elevated in countless (countless!) marketing campaigns. BMW to Hyundai to Subaru to Gillette to Miller to Bud to Coors to Liberty Mutual and on and on. You see our heroes shredding as part of upscale active lifestyle branding effort.

We're like the cool friend who DJ's all your parties for free but doesn't get invited to Thanksgiving (lest we slip a loose joint to your teen). Maybe those goggles and full face lids make us too agro to have hikers and Birkenstock types like us.

There are 40 million mountain bikers in the US. So, we’re able to move the needle should we be able to get together

“Wilderness” appreciation to Sierra Club (I have no hate for the Sierra Club) types means quiet reflection and unplugging from society with introspection. A 6-inch travel Enduro bike ripping at them probably busts their nature high. We don’t really fit in with the Walt Whitman/Robert Frost/H.D. Thoreau "wilderness" archetype. Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—I shredded the crap out of the one less traveled by, though honestly, I’m kind of down with being slightly more rad than 19th century poets.

Slightly more rad than Thoreau. Wikimedia commons photo.

Maybe our nature is exactly what makes us good pawns in this game.

Moving on from being jaded about not having more intellectual friends; How can mountain biking walk the tightrope of access for us, but no access for Georgia Pacific to strip the shit out of that place? How do we get in to ride, but close the door behind us? Is that fair? Do we spoil the primitive experience of these wilderness lands? Do we mess with the animals who live in these areas that desperately need protections? Can we advocate for riding access without it being about something else?

Bears Ears in all of her glory. Wikimedia commons photo.

If we fight to preserve something like Bear's Ears as a national monument, would we be willing to not ride in it as a result of our efforts? Yes? No?

IMBA and the Outdoor Industry Foundation estimate there are 40 million mountain bikers in the U.S. So, we’re able to move the needle should we be able to get togetherfor wilderness protections or against.  

It might be better to bide time, working case-by-case, until this strange political inflection-point passes and we can get more aggressive about it without the fight being about broader issues.  Wiens’ release sites “examples like the Continental Divide Wilderness and Recreation Act in Colorado and the Blackfoot-Clearwater Stewardship Act in Montana” as models for how collaborative efforts involving mountain bikers and land managers throughout the process can carve out wins by splitting areas into protected and accessible parcels.

Acting locally and working to balance land managers, protections and access seems like the way to go until mommy and daddy stop fighting. But also do some hard thinking about our own priorities and willingness to sacrifice some riding space for the good of the land.

From The Column: TGR Playgrounds

STC paid Hatch and Lee $120,000?!????!? What a rip off!

such fear mongering. bringing up Dakota access pipeline, Koch brothers, fracking, etc - which have nothing to do with this - is just an attempt to scare people.

There is no lemon or canary vivid enough to describe the shade of yellow to apply to this “journalism.”

STC gave not one single penny to Hatch, Lee, McClintock, or any other politician.  None. Nada. Zilch.

If you are so willing to deliberately spread so blatant a like, we certainly can’t trust any of your so-called analysis either.  This whole article amounts to nothing more than a thinly disguised hit piece.

Gunnar, Nice job presenting both sides and the history of these bills.  However, I read the bills and all they allow is “non motorized recreational use”.  There is no opening for anything else.  So I don’t understand why the mountain bikers wouldn’t support this bill and take the access.  If any further uses are sought in future legislation, decide whether to oppose it.  However, opposing a bill that clearly grants limited access in fear of some grander scheme, seems counterproductive to me and chasing shadows.  Also, I see you stirred up the trolls with attacks like “canary journalism” and “blatant lies”.  I wonder why they don’t just make their argument rather than attack the author.  In my view it would be a lot more effective.

    Article asserts that STC paid politicians $120K to put their bill forward.

    Fact is that STC has never paid one penny to any politician. 

    That is a blatant lie, no way around it.  Really, there’s no other way to put it.  Deliberatly publishing blatant lies is yellow journalism, pure and simple.  Personally, I have no trouble calling a liar a liar. 

    When the article states such blatant lies, it has no credibility, and nothing about it can be trusted, so it’s not worth addressing specific arguments.  There is not conversing with a deliberate liar. 

    As for the arguments against, they have been debunked time and time again in other forums.  But if you want a response to specifics here, we can see the ridiculousness of this piece early on:

    “Well, sure, but mountain bikes weren’t invented then either. “
    That, while not flat out false, is disingenuously misleading.  While purpose built and marketed mountain bikes did not appear until the late ‘70s, people had indeed been riding bikes in the backcountry, including areas which would become dedicate wilderness, for almost a hundred years.  Just because it wasn’t marketed as a mountain bike didn’t mean it couldn’t be ridden in the mountains…. and indeed it was!

    Moreover, in subsequent Wilderness legislation, Congress listed cycling alongside hiking and horseback riding as a wilderness use, specifically calling it “primitive recreation” in accordance with the original 1964 act.  So when the mountain bike was “invented” Congress obliged in clarifying intent; that the Act wasn’t to exclude human powered transport. 

    “So you could also say that “Wilderness areas were never intended to prohibit fracking.”“
    Actually, no you couldn’t.  The Wilderness Act is full of language that specifically prohibits development and places certain limits on human use.  Fracking is wayyyy on the wrong side of the line.  This statement rests on multiple logical fallacies including slippery slope and false analogy. 

    And it only gets worse from there.  It would take me longer to write a response to all the falsehoods than the original article. 

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