Mountain Biking Is Inappropriate in Wilderness

By Wuerthner, George | Earth Island Journal, Autumn 2014 | Go to article overview

Mountain Biking Is Inappropriate in Wilderness


Wuerthner, George, Earth Island Journal


I just got back from a mountain bike ride. The trails outside of my hometown of Bend, Oregon have numerous loops and degrees of difficulty, and riding my mountain bike is a pleasant way to unwind, get some exercise, and enjoy pedaling without the fear of being hit by a car. The trails are located in previously logged forests on the edge of town. These lands do not qualify for wilderness or other special protection, and thus are an appropriate location for mountain biking.

The key words here are "appropriate location."

That is the same qualifier I would have for my four-wheel drive vehicle as well other "thrillcraft." I am grateful to have a four-wheel drive vehicle when driving in snow, muddy roads and the like, but that doesn't mean I feel it's appropriate to drive it everywhere it can go. Similarly, just because my mountain bike can climb steep hillsides and traverse meadows, doesn't mean I think it's appropriate to use wherever I might feel like it.

Although I can't speak for all mountain bikers, I think my experience while on my bike is representative of most cyclists in that I am more focused on the trail and the sense of movement than I am aware of and in tune with my surroundings. In other words, the natural world I am traveling through is more a stage for my cycling experience. Whether that stage is wildlands or not is irrelevant to my biking experience. This fundamental indifference to landscape is the primary conflict between mountain biking and the Wilderness Act's goals.

This is not to say that mountain bikers do not enjoy wildlands or that they are immune to the beauty of nature. Indeed, when I stop cycling, I often look around and appreciate the setting. But the reason I am biking is not primarily to observe nature, and I think it's safe to say that most mountain bikers would agree. When careening down a mountain we must, by necessity, be focused on the trail in front of us, not the natural world around us.

Our wildlands are not outdoor gymnasiums or amusement parks. Part of the rationale for wilderness designation is to provide an opportunity for people to contemplate and observe natural systems.

It is clear from a reading of the debate around the creation of the Wilderness System that recreation is not the prime rationale for wilderness designation. The act says little about preserving recreational uses or adapting new types of recreation. In testimony before Congress in 1962, Howard Zahniser, the chief architect of the Wilderness Act, stated clearly: "Recreation is not necessarily the dominant use of an area of wilderness." In an essay he authored in 1956, Zahniser wrote about the spiritual benefits of wilderness, which he considered one of its highest purposes: "Without the gadgets, the inventions, the contrivances whereby men have seemed to establish among themselves an independence of nature, without these distractions, to know the wilderness is to know a profound humility, to recognize one's littleness, to sense dependence and interdependence, indebtedness, and responsibility."

I do not believe mountain bikes contribute to the development of humility, nor a sense of dependence, interdependence, and responsibility. There are four major reasons why mountain biking should not be permitted in officially designated wilderness areas or in any areas that are strong candidates for wilderness designation. …

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