Among the many threats to our public lands now before Congress is House Bill HR 1349, which would amend the Wilderness Act to allow mountain biking throughout the nation’s wilderness preservation system. A similar bill was introduced in the Senate. The legislation is being promoted by a mountain biking group with the happy-sounding, inclusive name of the Sustainable Trails Coalition.
The House Committee on Natural Resources will vote Thursday, Dec. 7, on this legislation. It’s critical that public lands advocates contact their representatives to oppose this legislation.
Many folks, including myself, see this as the camel’s nose under the tent that poses a threat to all public lands, as some members of Congress, particularly in the GOP, attempt to dismantle our public lands conservation system.
Mountain bikes pose a threat to many of the intrinsic values of wilderness. One of the most important values is self-restraint. In our designated wilderness areas, we effectively say these are lands that are not open to the same uses and development of other landscapes. We as a nation see these lands are deserving special treatment as part of our collective national patrimony.
There are other issues as well. Mountain bikes, due to their speed, shrink wild places, allowing human access to areas that are ordinarily remote. These remote parcels of our public domain are sanctuaries for sensitive wildlife. This is particularly critical due to the overwhelming increase in all recreational pursuits on public lands where the landscapes without human disturbance is shrinking rapidly.
Recreational use was not the primary purpose of the Wilderness Act.
Indeed, the Wilderness Act’s opening paragraph says as much: “In order to assure that an increasing population, accompanied by expanding settlement and growing mechanization, does not occupy and modify all areas within the United States and its possessions, leaving no lands designated for preservation and protection in their natural condition, it is hereby declared to be the policy of the Congress to secure for the American people of present and future generations the benefits of an enduring resource of wilderness.”
One of the rallying cries of mountain bikers is that they are “losing” access to public lands. As someone who explores many public lands around the West every year, I find such assertions to be laughable. There are new mountain biking trails and trail systems being constructed everywhere on public lands — indeed, many of them illegally and without oversight.
There are 700 million acres in our public domain. Some 109 million acres are within the National Wilderness Preservation System, with more than half in Alaska. There are perhaps at best another 100 million acres eligible for inclusion in the system. That leaves roughly 500 million acres for mountain bikers and anyone else to use.
In the lower 48 states, we have a mere 2.7 percent of the land within the wilderness system. Is it too much to ask that this tiny fraction of our country be set aside primarily for wildlife, wildlands and natural processes?