The WildeBeat

The audio journal about getting into the wilderness.


The WildeBeat edition 66: Wilderness Deals for Wheels

This is a supplementary transcript of our audio program. CLICK HERE to listen to the original program, and see the associated show notes.

Wilderness advocates and mountain bike advocates want almost the same things; and that's a problem. This week on The WildeBeat, Wilderness Deals for Wheels.

[Intro Music & SFX; 0:07.6 and under]

News from the Wildebeat, the audio journal about getting into the wilderness.

This is program number sixty six.

I'm Steve Sergeant.

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[SFX: Bike braking and halt]

STEVE: I'm in a city park, not far from my home. It's a big park with a lot of open, undeveloped space. It also has a good trail system. Usually I hike here, but sometimes, like today, I ride a mountain bike here. But those two activities are a whole different experience here, because of the way the park manages their trail system.

ROGER ABEH: The trails on the North Rim are accessible by bike, and are considered bike trails. The South Rim, everything on the south side of the canyon is pretty much closed to bikes.

STEVE: Roger Abeh is a park ranger for the City of San Jose, California.

ROGER ABEH: But as far as mountain biking, the trails are a lot more narrow, they're, being on the south side of the canyon, it's more shaded, it's softer with trees and stuff, and the trails are much more sensitive, as opposed to the north side, which is exposed and rocky and... of a different nature. Also the North Rim trails are mostly wider, too. And can easily accommodate more use. But the South Rim, the south is basically a single track narrow trail, and you just have conflicts when you have too many different kinds of users meeting each other up there and, you know, a mountain biker who wants to go fast and hikers who want to go slow, and narrow trail, and we used to have equestrians too, and that was even more problems.

[SFX: Bike ride]

STEVE: As I finished my ride, I thought about how the layout of my local park is a bit of a metaphor for the conflicting interests of wilderness and the interests of mountain bicyclists. I called up John Kramer. He's the acting wilderness manager for the Pacific Southwest Region of the National Forest Service. We talked about what the Wilderness Act says that prohibits mountain bikes.

JOHN KRAMER: Some have almost called it poetic... There's one part that's statement of policy that it mentions... the preservation of the wilderness character... and says that wilderness is further defined to mean an area of undeveloped federal land, retaining its primeval character and influence without permanent improvements or human habitation, and it's protected and managed so as to preserve natural conditions, which generally appear to have been affected primarily by the forces of nature, with the imprint of man's work substantially unnoticeable, and has outstanding opportunities for solitude or a primitive or unconfined type of recreation... It keeps mentioning that term, its wilderness character, and that's the thing that's somewhat in conflict with something as modern and technical as a bicycle, or a mountain bike, or mechanized transportation.

RYAN HENSON: There are some places where mountain biking on the non-wilderness trails is so popular that once the wilderness is opened up to them it wold definitely change the entire experience.

STEVE: Ryan Henson is the policy director for the California Wilderness Coalition.

RYAN HENSON: And actually, the one time I did go to a trail that was really popular with mountain bikers, it did change the entire experience. On every blind curve I had for listen to the little clank-clank of gears, you know, and the skidding of tires just to make sure that no one came around the corner and hit me. There were that many mountain bikers on the trail. It changed the experience from one of being at peace with nature, to having to be on my guard. And it was definitely not as fun that way, I must say.

STEVE: I tend to ride my mountain bike in places that aren't so interesting to hikers, but I've also had the same experience as Ryan when I've been out hiking. There are organizations that teach responsible use in backcountry areas where mountain bikes are allowed. One of them is the International Mountain Bicycling Association, also known as IMBA. Mark Eller is their communications director.

MARK ELLER: Well we encourage mountain bikers to, first of all, practice Leave No Trace ethics in the backcountry, ...of course that relates to how you treat the natural world, and then as far as treating other trail users, one of the best messages we can positively reinforce with our constituents is to be polite and friendly and work toward a good understanding toward different trail users that leads to better opportunities for mountain biking. We've been proponents of multi-use trails for a very long time now, and have really figured out some of the technical things that help different users get along on the same trails in terms of trail construction, and design, and management practices that allow different users to share one trail and to do it in a friendly manner.

STEVE: When a new area is proposed for wilderness protection, all kinds of political groups get involved. They all compete for who's going to get access to the area. For example, one of the newest areas of wilderness in California is the King Range Wilderness. It was established in October of this year as part of the Northern California, Coastal Wild Heritage Wilderness Act.

RYAN HENSON: Well we did have some opposition from mountain bikers, most of whom weren't local... They started out opposing -- they wanted, literally, every trail it seemed in the bill removed from our wilderness proposals. They didn't mind, so much about protecting the land in between the trails, but they wanted all the trails out, which would have created a insane wilderness map. And eventually, over time, they conceded this trail and that trail, and then finally in the end, they reduced their opposition to just a few trails. And they did succeed in getting a few trails removed from the bill.

STEVE: Ryan said that IMBA was one of the opposing groups. Here's Mark Eller from IMBA.

MARK ELLER: Well, we try to partner with groups that want to protect public lands, because we're in favor of protecting public lands. I mean, the reason most of us got into mountain biking was as a means to explore beautiful places, and we want to see those places preserved; the character of those places preserved. Not many IMBA members are interested in riding in unappealing, industrialized, mined-out areas. We want to see the quality of the land preserved. We just want to see our use acknowledged and accommodated.

RYAN HENSON: Particularly for really important places like the King Range we want them to have legislative protection. The problem with administrative protection, of course, is that what the agencies giveth, the agencies can taketh away. So even if the BLM and forest service set an area aside administratively, in a way that almost as strong as wilderness, they can change their mind when they next revise a management plan. And that's why we don't really settle for that. In fact, that's precisely why we have the Wilderness Act, because people saw over time those administrative protections being removed... The idea of leaving these areas vulnerable to development, just on the principle that people ought to be able to ride their mountain bikes there some day is just not good enough for us.

MARK ELLER: We're not interested in trying to reverse the ban on bikes in wilderness... And what we would try to put in place to make sure that that land is really protected in perpetuity like a wilderness designation might be something like a National Scenic Area designation, or a National monument Area designation. And those afford very strong land protections, quite comparable to wilderness, and are not easily overturned or adjusted, and we've had success with those designations; on the ground, real time successes with those currently, and we'd like to see more of that kind of designations utilized when these sort of decisions are being made.

RYAN HENSON: It's just harder to pass those bills, because those sorts of designations are sort of unknown quantities... But there are some enviros who are really adamantly against ever allowing mountain bikes in a wilderness. I happen to be agnostic on the issue. Probably because I haven't been chased around and whacked and blind-sided as much as perhaps some other people, like in the northern Sierra. There is a group called the Warrior Society, in Southern California, they're just pretty anti-wilderness, a hundred percent. I mean IMBA will say, sure, let's have wilderness in some places but we shouldn't get in the way of mountain bikes. These folks are like, "No! Absolutely no!" And they even side with the off-road vehicle people.

STEVE: We'd like to hear your thoughts about mountain bike use in wild lands and sharing the backcountry trails with them. You can call our toll free comment line at 866-590-7373. You'll also find bonus audio about ethical bicycle use in the backcountry, on our web site.

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Next time -- heavy weather.

Our official website is WWW dot WILDEBEAT (that's W-I-L-D-E-B-E-A-T) dot NET. Please click on the support link to make possible future editions of this free service. The WildeBeat is produced by Steve Sergeant, with help from Jean Higham, as a public service of Effable Communications.

This has been The WildeBeat, program number sixty six. Thank you for listening.

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