Wilderness is more than a playground for bikers

The following opinion piece was written by Howie Wolke. Wolke is a former Jackson resident who now lives north of Gardiner, Mont. Along with his wife, Marilyn Olsen, he runs Big Wild Adventures. He has been guiding in the Greater Yellowstone and elsewhere in western North America since the mid-1970s.

Wilderness is more than a playground for bikers
By Howie Wolke

Whenever I begin to think that the Forest Service is becoming more conservation-minded, count on it to provide a reality check.Begin with the Bridger-Teton National Forest’s logging proposal, allegedly to reduce forest flammability, that’s partially within the Palisades Wilderness Study Area. That’s a claim, by the way, refuted by most scientists. Also, the Forest Service has recently cut mountain bike trails through the same WSA.

Unfortunately this disregard for laws designed to maintain the option for future wilderness designations is systemic, not local. For example, near my home the Forest Service was recently court-ordered to curtail illegal vehicle abuse in the Gallatin Range WSA. The agency had violated the 1977 Montana Wilderness Study Areas Act.

And east of Togwotee Pass, instead of clamping down on illegal mountain bike use in the DuNoir area, the feds plan to designate a bike route through the heart of this exceptionally wild and beautiful place. Yet the 1984 Wyoming Wilderness Act designated the DuNoir a Special Management Unit, and its language clearly forbids all vehicles.

Arguably no roadless area anywhere deserves wilderness protection more than the magnificent DuNoir. The scenery is stunning, and its deeply wooded basins and sprawling tundra provide habitat for a plethora of wild creatures, including wilderness-dependent species such as grizzly, lynx and wolverine. (To prove the point, in 2012 I watched a wolverine scale a cliff near the DuNoirs’ Bonneville Pass.)

Allowing bikes a slippery slope

Oddly, in their land management planning process, which is nearly final, the Shoshone National Forest has failed to recommend wilderness designation for a single acre of unprotected Shoshone roadless lands, including the DuNoir. So other world-class Shoshone wildlands such as the Francs Peak, Wood River and Trout Creek Roadless Areas will also remain vulnerable to mechanized vehicular abuse and resource extraction.

Wisely, the 1964 Wilderness Act, our national wilderness law for public lands, forbids resource extraction and “mechanized,” not just motorized, travel.

When mechanized mountain bikers demand access to proposed and even designated wilderness, they fail to understand that if we allow this, then owners of who-knows-what future contraptions will certainly demand equal treatment. So will snow machine and ATV owners.

To loosen wildland restrictions starts us down a steep slippery slope. And mountain bikers are not traditional users, like hikers or horse-packers. These machines didn’t even exist until the early ’80’s. By allowing them to proliferate in roadless areas the Forest Service nourishes yet another anti-wilderness constituency. A cynic might suggest that’s no accident.

The infusion of former U.S. Sen. Al Simpson into the DuNoir equation is a recent twist. His son-in-law is a vocal mountain bike advocate who runs a Cody-area bike club. Simpson now advocates biking in the DuNoir and claims that maintaining future wilderness options for the DuNoir was not a goal of the 1984 legislation. But that’s misleading. I worked on that bill and maintaining the wilderness option was important.

Backcountry biking damages the resource. Bikers simply don’t stay on trails. Often they veer off trail just to keep from crashing.

Last year I sent the district ranger photos of recent mountain bike damage to vegetation at Kissinger Lakes, in the DuNoir, but the problem persists.

Due to the speed factor, mountain bikes startle wildlife more than hikers or horseback riders. Their speed also renders remote areas more accessible, thus reducing solitude for the many in favor of the few.

Like trail runners with ear pods, mountain bikers “troll for grizzlies,” as demonstrated by the 2004 mauling of a DuNoir mountain biker. And speaking of danger, the steep unstable Pinnacles Trail above the Brooks Lake Road (along the proposed route) is a future disaster. One day when bikers speed around a corner smack dab into a pack string where there’s no place to go except down the steep scree, it will happen.

Let’s face it: Mountain bikers don’t wear all that protective gear because they’re always in control.

At this point in our history, public land decisions should be about wildness and what’s best for the land and wildlife. Recreation can adapt.

Our public lands are not outdoor gymnasiums; nor are they pies to be divvied up among user groups, “interested publics” or local “stakeholders” to use a bit of bureaucratese.

As a backpacking trip outfitter, I’ve been guiding throughout the West and in the DuNoir since the late ’70s. When these lycra-clad speedsters zip past our groups, ripping up native vegetation and spooking critters, it diminishes the clients’ hard-earned wilderness experience.

But that’s not why the DuNoir — and other qualifying wildlands — should be designated wilderness. It’s because wilderness designation is best for the land.

Wilderness about humility

Wilderness is about humility, a statement that humans don’t know it all and never will. It takes us beyond “self,” and I think that’s a good thing. More than any other landscape, in wilderness we are part of something much greater than our civilization and ourselves.

Perhaps above all, wilderness is a statement that nonhuman life and wild landscapes have intrinsic value, independent of their benefits to humans. That’s why most remaining roadless areas should be designated Wilderness. And it’s why the Forest Service and some politicians are so wrongheaded, stuck in an outmoded and myopic worldview regarding the DuNoir, the Palisades, Francs Peak, the Gallatin Range and so many other fragile wildlands throughout the United States.

12 thoughts on “Wilderness is more than a playground for bikers”

  1. I sympathize with Mr Wolke. I am no fan of mountain bikers when I’m hiking. Though it is partly the failure of the USFS to provide appropriate paths which need technical biking skills and slow the speed. It is a design problem not a machine problem.

    But it was this quote which caught my eye. “As a backpacking trip outfitter, I’ve been guiding throughout the West and in the DuNoir since the late ’70s. When these lycra-clad speedsters zip past our groups, ripping up native vegetation and spooking critters, it diminishes the clients’ hard-earned wilderness experience.” (emphasis is mine). He is protecting his interest (nothing wrong there) but also saying that some people (also as well off as the lycra clad demons) paid him for a tranquil experience.

    Mr Wolke has every right to be upset and voice his objections. Good for him. But by doing so he highlights the inherent difficulties the USFS has in trying to meet the needs of the people.

    • Nicely said. Most bike haters are protective of an income source or stakehold on public land, such as a stable. Typical arrogance, selfish protectionism an author who obviously knows what’s best for all of us.

  2. USFS, or at least the green parts, are trying to pander to mountain bikers because if the “mechanized” ban is enforced for real, MTBers might not love wilderness so much.
    Furthermore, the project in the Palisades WSA (dunno if that’s Metcalf-specific, or agency recommended, or other origin — the origin of a WSA matters in terms of time and status) is a recognition by the agency that if vegetation treatment doesn’t happen, the “values” protected are at high risk of loss.

  3. I like to mountain bike, and have many friends (and a son) who are hardcore, but still (in Idaho at least) there’s endless national forest riding to be done without the need to ride in wilderness areas. Even within the mountain bike communities, there are sharp divisions (x-c folks who tend to be very green, vs downhillers who sometimes tend to rip up the scenery, and there are often very acrimonious exchanges between those groups). Downhill bike trails at ski areas seems like a dubious trend, to me. On the other hand, horses can really rip up the backcountry too, and spread a lot of weeds (despite certified hay rules), and unfortunately some horsepacking groups can be pretty obnoxious to meet on the trail. Still, once in a while I get a chance to get out in the wilderness on a horse (and hope to do more), and I love it, like Norm says it’s hard to please everybody 🙂

      • Why not? Because of statements like this:

        “Backcountry biking damages the resource. Bikers simply don’t stay on trails. Often they veer off trail just to keep from crashing.

        Last year I sent the district ranger photos of recent mountain bike damage to vegetation at Kissinger Lakes, in the DuNoir, but the problem persists.”

        This is just making a blatant anti bike statement without any factual support. I manage a bike trail that is heavily used. This statement could not be further from the truth. As someone who actually builds trail I know 99% of damage is caused by water and improperly built trail. You really want to argue about the remaining 1%? Who knows what the author took photos of. Every damaged trail I have seen was usually built improperly.

        The last thing bikers want to do is exit the trail, hurt the environment or others. Body armor indicates cautious thinking and safety planning. I am a professional pilot, wilderness first aid cert, I do 100+ days of volunteer trail work a year. I carefully consider safety, would help anyone in distress and I am an advocate for community recreation opportunities. Yet the author would have you believe I was a ruthless hooligan.

  4. “Like trail runners with ear pods, mountain bikers “troll for grizzlies,” as demonstrated by the 2004 mauling of a DuNoir mountain biker.” I couldn’t agree more! The Wilderness requires keen attention to one’s surroundings; that is why I always bring extra batteries for my hearing aids. Also, speaking of “grizzly bait”, noisy and tender children, women during their menstrual periods, and the overweight should never be permitted in the wilderness.

  5. I’ve observed nasty and nice OHV riders, mountain bikers, and hikers. I haven’t sampled nasty horseback riders but I’m sure they’re out there. Not sure what can be concluded from this except the niceness of people has a standard normal curve.

  6. To be quite frank I’m a bit of an extremist, I don’t even like horseback riders in wilderness settings! If your lazy fat butt can’t even hike you don’t belong in the back country. If you believe flying by at 20 m.p.h. is enjoying the wilderness, then I must confront you. It is not a wilderness experience! People have thru-hiked many rugged trails without legs (using prosthetics) and blind (using guide dogs), so the only valid reason I see for anybody to enter the wilderness on horseback is if they are paralyzed. Then, and only then, should they be granted permission to use a horse in the back country. Don’t bring your damm handicapped placard that you earned through years of smoking, drinking, and other poor habits to the BC office and expect a permit for horseback.

    As far as mountain bikes go, completely worthless to the backcountry experience. You can convince yourself that it is a backcountry experience (just like the horseback riders) but as someone who has hiked and logged more than 15,000 miles of National Scenic Trails I’m here to tell you–it is not a valid argument. Foot travel is the closest that man or woman will come to assimilating with the wilderness environment in which the are there to enjoy, everything else is selfish abuse of America’s wilderness.

  7. As a climber of nearly 50 years, a cyclist since age 12, MTber since circa 1985, I have covered many miles on pavement, dirt, trails, and deer paths. As my age and joints protested I’ve shifted interest in riding over hiking in recent years, and love the fact that I can cover even ten times the miles in a day than I could do on foot, and on rugged, challenging terrain that puts me into grand places with unique vistas few others get to appreciate. Every method of travel provides a different sort of experience, and I do find a high degree of communing with nature, on a mountain bike.
    That said, I’ve come to resent the juvenile, self-absorbed attitudes of too many bikers today. The evolution of better full-suspension machines puts more and more difficult terrain in reach of more riders, and the market hype from YouTube video sensationalism makes more and more eager to attempt steeper, faster, more dangerous terrain. Geology and weather and soils play parts in how trails are stabilized, but my familiarity with Colorado Front Range paths for thirty years contradicts self-serving studies by mountain biking advocacy groups. Horses might cause the most impact per animal, but today there are hundreds of cyclists for the few equestrians where allowed. Characteristic erosion from skidding tires, and the pounding that has turned once smoother trails into loose rock and cobble scree piles, is unmistakably and entirely due to mountain bike traffic. Moreover, the newer trails and tendency is to race faster, modify or create bike-specific trails with berms and jumps and banked turns emulating the new sub-sport of freeriding, akin to amateur downhill racing. Accompanying deterioration of trail etiquette, disrespect for other users in particular hikers, and a me-first-F-you insouciance make me more angry, and trail conflicts are increasing every year.
    Regarding wilderness, it should be a non-starter to ever consider opening, or adding a new user category, to the allowed user list for such fragile, intentionally remote and difficult to access realms. Horse packing has a long historical tradition, but I suppose for purism arguments could be made to phase out such anachronistic modes of travel. Still, the impact of a very small number by this means has been well-documented, and is in no danger of suddenly exploding in popularity, in stark contrast to mountain biking. This insidious whittling down of protected areas, all for the sake of expanded recreation, is anathema to the philosophy of the National Parks and Wilderness protection. Expediting human encroachment has no place, or need, in these few remaining special places, and one may as well go all the way, and just argue that because there are homeless people in the city, we should just build shelters and “affordable housing” into every corner of the natural landscape. Of course, I have already read some urban extremists advocate that the Parks concept is somehow a rich white person’s affectation, and so such areas are neither special, nor deserve preservation.
    We either draw the line somewhere – I say no to mountain bikes – or we will keep facing further rationalizations that claim nature no longer has any rights over human overpopulation, poor life choices, socioeconomic failings, political malfeasance, etc. It’s been repeated elsewhere, but again, no one is denying your access to wilderness areas – you just have to leave your toys at home.


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