Foreground and background go well together–as they should. Flickr Crested Butte photo.
If you like mountain biking and go charging around state parks, federal land, private trusts, gravel pathways or wherever; somebody manages that land you're riding on. And right now they are deciding whether you belong there or not. Strong pressure, and rhetoric, against your access is on land managers.
But what’s a land access fight really about: your right to enjoy the outdoors on a bike, your rights versus business interests, protecting the environment, petty legislative squabbling? A bit of all that actually and, make no mistake, the issue is serious.
At its core, access is about reasonably balancing protection and usage. Without protection or some sort of management, America's wilderness areas will be abused for profit and destroyed. That’s the way we humans work. But too much protection and nobody can use it for anything. If properly protected, we'll all get to enjoy it for reflection and recreation, but it remains 'wild'. Worst case scenario is wilderness becomes a legislated privilege available only to some but not others.
Unfortunately, mountain bikers are currently on the wrong side of the balance. Despite playing (mostly) nice for 30 years we find ourselves in the environment abuser/destroyer camp, restricted from much of America's wilderness. Let’s move through some relevant background info quickly and then (further below) take action to help us all mountain bike, hike and coexist going forward.
How Federal Wilderness Came To Be
Yosemite is one of many natural spaces that is federally protected from personal and commercial use. Flickr photo.
Following pressure from naturalist and wilderness advocacy groups, the Wilderness Act of 1964 designated certain U.S. areas as strictly protected from commercial interests. Again, that’s a good thing. We don’t want federal land used for predatory toxic waste dumping, fracking, clear-cutting, strip mining, etc.
Specifically, the act did 3 things:
#1: Created a way for Congress and Americans to designate "Wilderness Areas." That designation would represent our nation's most stringent form of land protection. The areas include any land under the jurisdiction of the U.S. government: national forests, national parks, national wildlife refuges, and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) lands. No roads, motorized vehicles [emphasis added], commercial activity like logging or mining, or permanent structures were to be allowed in these designated Wilderness Areas.
#2: Created the National Wilderness Preservation System to manage these protected wilderness areas. This System leverages the USDA Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management, the National Park Service, and the US Fish & Wildlife Service.
#3: Immediately put 9.1 million acres of wild American lands into this National Preservation System for protection. Today, the amount of land has grown to roughly 109 million acres within 762 individual Wilderness Areas.
The Act also succinctly and beautifully defines wilderness :
A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.
We need space where ecosystems remain intact and evolve organically, where wildlife can go unmolested and a place where we as a people can reconnect with nature and be at peace. So… we leave it alone. And for 20 years, we were all able to bike, hike, ride horses and enjoy these areas together.
Then, in 1984, We Got The Boot
In In 1984 mountain bikers got the boot from places like Grand Teton National Park. Ryan Dunfee photo.
In 1984, the Wilderness Act was reinterpreted by the US Department of Agriculture/Forest Service because of pressure from The Sierra Club and The Wilderness Society to specifically ban bicycles from Wilderness Areas. They don’t (or didn't) like mountain bikes.
The relevant provision reinterpreted in the Act is Section 4(b), which prohibits all "use of motor vehicles, motorized equipment or motorboats, no landing of aircraft, no other form of mechanical transport..." The initial USDA interpretation of that section was “Mechanical transport, as herein used, shall include any contrivance which travels over ground, snow, or water on wheels, tracks, skids, or by floatation and is propelled by a nonliving power source contained or carried on or within the device." [emphasis added] Of course this explicitly defined restricted motorized and/or mechanized travel as any conveyance propelled by a non-living power source. Specifically, motors.
That original regulation language probably came from a discussion in 1964 about what "mechanical transport" actually means. A bicycle is certainly a machine which provides mechanical advantage to propel us faster than we could go on two legs. Though Congress was most certainly NOT thinking about regulating bikes in 1964. And, obviously, neither was the Forest Service. The four agencies responsible for implementing the Act had broad discretion to each define terms on their own—though why four separate agencies enforce the act, and why they were given broad discretion to interpret it, is anyone's guess.
Regardless, in 1984, the USDA Forest Service reinterpreted mechanical with language amending the definition to include "...or is a bicycle or a hang glider.” Yes, just that simple bit was added in ‘84 for designated Wilderness areas.
In their defense, there was not a lot of data that showed mountain biking's impact one way or another and the USDA was under pressure to do something. They were just being cautious, I guess.
Unfortunately one domino tips others. The other three agencies that manage wilderness–the Bureau of Land Management, the National Park Service and the US Fish & Wildlife Service–soon also reinterpreted 'mechanical' to mean 'bicycle'. And out the door we went.
Maddeningly, all current research shows mountain biking does NOT have a greater impact on trails and nature than any other activity allowed by the Wilderness Act. NO GREATER IMPACT. But government isn't great at changing policy, even in the face of overwhelming research, if there's support for an entrenched position.
To be clear, not all national forests carry the Wilderness designation. There is singletrack riding on some national forests that don't carry that protection. However, the balance between management and riders can be sketchy in those areas, too. The goverment position is often used as guidance.
Where We're At Today
Cruising through Moab, where mountain bikers enjoy some of the best desert riding anywhere in the world. Flickr photo.
This is where the crux of stupidity is for me; Mountain bikers are now forced to OPPOSE using the Wilderness designation to protect beautiful spaces, even though we ride, dig trails, and advocate for nature because we enjoy being out in it. We don’t like strip mining. We find peace, excitement and invigoration in nature just like everyone else. If you prick us, do we not bleed? Yet protecting what we love shuts us out.
If you like mountain biking, and go charging around state parks, federal land, private trusts, gravel pathways or wherever; somebody manages that land you're riding on. And right now they either have made, or will soon make, a decision about whether you belong there or not.
You know that reverent, almost religious feeling as you come upon a magnificent vista or epic bit of scenery out in the middle of nowhere? If you ask yourself in that moment, does this place deserve America’s most stringent and precious environmental protections, the answer should be "YES!" not "Umm… it’s complicated."
We can’t fault most non-cyclists for supporting the Wilderness designation. They’re not aware of our horrible conundrum and would rather see nature protected than not. They know if mining, grazing or industry exist on any land, that activity is likely to get grandfathered in even after an area becomes Wilderness designated, so protect it quick. Also, not all Wilderness lands are even suitable for mountain biking.
Vernon Felton, long time editor at Bike Magazine and now with Pinkbike, has done some really great think pieces on this. If you haven’t seen this video, check it out below:
Great stuff, right? Especially because it has Rebecca Rusch in it; she’s awesome. The loss of Boulder/White Clouds is tragic and hopefully you will take action.
But there’s also an interesting take-away in it. You may have noticed Aaron Clark, IMBA conservation manager, shows how not to be taken seriously even if you have something good to say. As an MTB advocate, he puts in some hard work on our behalf, and probably doesn’t always ride as much as he likes because of it. However, when trying to impress an audience who may or may not be on your side, sit up straight, put the beer away, take off your sunglasses, don’t whine, and don’t make faces. The Sierra Club guy, while I disagree with him 100%, is firm in his position, holds his ground, and doesn’t hedge.
As Felton points out, at the bottom of all this is petty human crap. That much of the reason we’re denied access to land is not because of MTB's impact, it’s because other, more organized people just don’t feel like sharing a scarce resource. We have to create a better impression than those people.
State and Local Lands: Unique And Also Tough
State and local land manager relationships still need careful management. You wouldn't want her kicked off the trail. Ryan Dunfee photo.
Of course, Wilderness designation is only relative to federal land. But that doesn’t mean you can just ride anyplace that’s not federally managed. The rest of our riding land is either state or privately owned. Someone always manages any land and, unless that’s you, they get to decide if mountain bikers can use it or not. Inspiration for many current rules came from federal guidelines and the fight is the same.
State parks are generally amenable to mountain biking unless a particularly onerous relationship exists between them and us. Often, control of state land is ceded to ‘Friends of... [name of area]” organizations, towns or local land groups for upkeep, trail maintenance and management. If that's the case, making nice with those organizations is critical.
Local governments can go either way. Sometimes they view trails and riders as a tourism and economic boon, or they could think of us as troublemakers. Rural populations have occasionally even spoken out against the federal Wilderness designation, keeping lands local, because of their economic reliance on bicycle tourism or natural resources, or may protest other restrictions Wilderness brings to public lands.
Private lands, and land managed by trusts, need to be coaxed to allow mountain bikers. Ryan Dunfee photo.
Land trusts and private lands can be particularly fickle. If some old lady's Bichon Frise gets spooked by a rider, she’ll likely write a nasty letter with several hyperbolic overstatements (or outright fabrications) to her friend on the board of the land trust to try to get us restricted. I’ve seen mountain bikers accused of throwing water bottles at children for fun–which is silly. Those cost money! Some people hate mountain bikers to the point of trying to murder us.
Get out there and dig trail. Dig like you never dug before. Land managers love that and it’s pretty much impossible for them to kick you off once you’ve (legally) dug the actual trail you’re riding.
I’ve seen letters to the editor from citizens appalled that riders might have the audacity to ride in groups. GROUPS! Some people want to walk alone in leisure socks and sandals, composing Victorian poetry, unburdened by any possibility of having a mountain biker pass through their sight. Some people think we might run into them. Some people don’t want us near their horses.
Local trusts can be great friends, though, and some even have mountain bikers running them. With these, a bit of help with trail maintenance and tree-fall cleanup goes a long way to bridging different people. Most citizens don’t know how trails are made, maintained, or that mountain bikers spend hours and days taking care of them. We dig in the dirt, spend money on tools, pick deer ticks off ourselves so that EVERYONE can enjoy the outdoors. Once folks find that out, they usually gain a bit of respect very quickly.
Action: who’s doing what, and what you can do
Think globally, act locally when it comes to advocating for trail access and new trails. Ryan Dunfee photo.
So, what do we do? Some mountain bikers say we have to be nice, be ambassadors, yield rights of way, and be nice. That’s a good starting point, I do that, and so should you. But there’s only so much shit I’ll eat. Being human, I hate being told what to do. I’d rather do a lot and than expect a lot in return.
Think globally and act locally seems to work as a good strategy. Join national groups like IMBA or STC who advocate for changes to federal law or managed lands access policy. And then also join and be active in your local chapters.
Join A National Group
IMBA advocates for mountain biking nationally, and promotes the economic vitality brought out by good trails with their Ride Center designations, like Park City's Gold level trails above. Ryan Dunfee photo.
I’m sure most of you have heard of the International Mountain Bike Association. Many of you might be members. IMBA's position on Wilderness Access is “...mountain biking, as a rigorous test of the human body mind and spirit, is compatible with the purposes of Wilderness. However, IMBA is not advocating the introduction of mountain bikes in designated Wilderness. IMBA also respects the authority of our partners in the U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, the National Park Service and the Fish and Wildlife Service and does not encourage breaking the law by mountain biking in designated Wilderness.” Here's their specific advocacy link.
I disagree and think we should be able to ride in Wilderness areas. I believe we can help be responsible for maintaining trails on those lands. And I’d like to see IMBA put its formidable resources toward advocating our access to these areas. Regardless, IMBA feels greater impact can be made focusing on other areas, both federal and state. IMBA membership is very valuable and not wasted, so consider it.
The Sustainable Trails Coalition arose in response to IMBA’s position in the Wilderness debate. They’ve fundraised and hired lobbyists, because they feel mountain bikers should be allowed in Wilderness areas. In fact, one of the founders of IMBA, Jim Hasenauer, a Mountain Bike hall of fame inductee, wrote an open letter supporting STC’s efforts. Join STC here.
NEMBA serves the New England mountain biking community. It's a coalition of local chapters like IMBA, only in chowda flavor. If you are in New England, you'd join this instead of IMBA, because there are very few actual IMBA chapters (well, just one, in northern Maine) in the Northeast. NEMBA differs with IMBA on how to handle the Wilderness Act, thinking we should get access, but there's less federal land out here to fight over.
There's also a host of others. JORBA (for New Jersey), CORBA etc. etc. Here's a complete list so you can find the advocacy group closest to you.
What To Do After You Join? Be Nice, Be Disciplined, Be a Partner
Bonus! We get to play with chainsaws. FCNEMBA photo.
I have the good fortune to belong to a local NEMBA chapter with an incredibly engaged and talented group of individuals, FC NEMBA. The president of FC Nemba is Ryan Tucker, who offered his thoughts below on this issue. From Ryan's perspective, good advocacy drives great sustainable trails and positive relationships with our land managers and fellow outdoor enthusiasts.
An advocate's goal in a nutshell is to have mountain bikes and bikers be an accepted and positive member of the outdoor trail user community, while providing that entire trail user community access to great trails. - Ryan Tucker
FC NEMBA's Principles:
#1: We’re the new kids on the block with regards to trail access, so as with anything where you’re new to the scene, be polite, respectful, and helpful. Stating that, we know access is a privilege and not a right.
#2: Be disciplined. If your mountain bike group’s internal organization is a mess, be disciplined and present one clear calm face to the outside. You will encounter people that want nothing to do with mountain biking and mountain bikers, and they can be vitriolic.
Stick to your goals & objectives while being respectful. If you’re not getting meetings or time at the table, keep trying to find the person with the relationship and stick to being polite, respectful, and helpful however you can.
#3: Get to know the people you’re interacting with and find common ground. After all, they’re humans and love the outdoors, too. Don’t like mountain biking? Maybe they’re beer/sports/Star Wars/travel/something fans. Connect and find the common place.
#4: Be credible. Know what you’re talking about–hyperbole and assumptions aren’t easy to back up with a smart land manager or other user groups that want to restrict access and don't even want to hear us out. Start small and know that you’re not going to get the three-mile flow or DH-only trail after your first meeting, but that crappy, muddy 10-foot section that could use some armor or drainage? That’s where you begin. Do the small things, do them well, and you build credibility. Credibility will turn into responsibility.
Respect land management rules, even if February happens to stay warm and there's some trails you can't ride.
#5: Be a partner. It is not just about the trails, it is also about keeping beautiful places to be beautiful places to be on foot or bike. Remember that your land managers and other user groups begin to see you as a partner. You get access and an opportunity to shape and improve trails… you don’t just do the work you want to do and walk away.
Help the other groups with their goals; don’t be shy to advocate both ways, as in “Hey fellow mountain bikers, the Laurel Trail runs by a vernal pool and given the ecosystems around it–let's stay off Laurel for a few weeks and give the salamanders a chance."
#6: Work with your local advocacy group. They have credibility and can help you. They’re probably all volunteers, so expect lots of leg work on your part, but having a group with organization makes life easier and tells land managers it is more than just YOU asking for something."
Contact Your Representatives
Find your representatives using the links below. Send them emails. Tell your MTB friends to do the same. Seriously, if they know your position and want your vote, they’ll act. Email Congress is a great website to start with, as is the fed's comprehensive list of publicly elected officials. Here, also, is a link to your Senators. And one for finding your person in the House of Reps by using your zip code.
What To Do On The Ground
Building trail is building bridges. Dave Francefort photo.
After joining your local chapter, connect with local land managers as part of that group and help maintain trails where you like to ride. Listen to land managers. Find out what their main points are and address them. If they don’t like when mountain bikers ride wet trails, then help stop that.
Get out there and dig trail. Dig like you've never dug before. Land managers love that, and it’s pretty much impossible for them to kick you off once you’ve (legally) dug the actual trail you’re riding. This can also be a lot of fun. My own chapter has some majorly talented trail builders.
We also have outreach, sponsorship, group rides, etc. We have a beer sponsor for our trail days (beer after digging trail tastes ALMOST as good as beer after a ride), a retail sponsor for our tools, we get grants and bike shops sometimes sponsor trail days with food. We usually group ride after we dig, too.
The always critical rock cradle. Dave Francefort photo.
Again, Ryan Tucker on what to look for going forward: "As alluded to above, there’s always going to be someone in your advocacy experience who is anti-bikes. Being respectful and continuing to show up and be a positive member of the trail user community means eventually you get to know more about the other than whatever labels you had given each other early on. Be patient and find intermediaries where you can.
The rogue user–whether it’s a rider or builder–they’re out there and they’re doing everything on their own terms. Maybe they build decent trail or show up every trail day, but no matter what you do, they do their own thing. If it's destructive to access, you have to reign them in. Peer pressure, email campaign, direct communication, or even reminding people of the legal outcomes associated with trespassing and illegally building. Some people know advocates will clean up their messes, crappy building, illegal building, etc… not cool because we lose time away from getting new trails open or built and from building positive credibility."
And... What About E-Bikes?
FCNEMBA's Kyaiera Tucker running mini excavator at Farrington Woods Park, Danbury, Connecticut. Paula Burton photo.
Tucker: "E-bikes, they have a non-human power source and have motors. Slippery slope and what every land manager that has worried about with allowing mountain bike access since day one. They’re welcome on trails where motorized use is permitted. The progress we’ve made for access in the past five years is stunning, and it's because we, as mountain bike advocates, have spent the time investing in credibility with land managers and other trail users. Continuing to keep building that credibility would be great. There are numerous arguments from both sides here, but the imperative is to maintain access, and in the US, e-bikes are a clear threat to that."
So, where do we go from here?
There's been a little movement on the IMBA/STC front; less than a month ago they released a joint press statement supporting each other's efforts. After all, we both like mountain biking and want to see trail access. And it's tough to see mommy and daddy fight.
NEMBA, initially strongly in STC's camp, remains strongly in STC's camp, because fuck you, we took it to the British and started the Revolution.
In all seriousness, write to your local representation. Use this form if you like. Join a national organization, whichever one you feel best represents your point of view. And take care of your local MTB trails and scene, and keep riding.
In the near term at least, there's more to riding than just pedaling. You'll have to do a little work legitimizing the sport you love. But that doesn't have to be painful; you might even make a friend or two doing it. I have.
There's not much point to guess what the 'framers' of the Wilderness act had it mind other than protecting the land for everyone, for all time. And even though it seems clear as day that we should have every right afforded to other users of America's trails, not everyone sees it that way. I feel interpretation of law, and appropriate modification, is the responsibility of a current population, not past politicians. And while, at this moment, our culture seems coarse, and willing to entrench on any issue without regard to other's rights or feelings, we still need to be cool, rise above, and think about other people.
This is a fluid and dynamic situation that can be positively influenced by YOUR actions. Take a moment to move the needle. Join. Engage. Dig. Ride.
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