To Bike or Not to Bike

“Wilderness is 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; wilderness areas are devoted to the public purposes of outstanding opportunities for solitude or a primitive and unconfined type of recreation, scenic, scientific, educational, conservation, and historical use.” —from The Wilderness Act of 1964

This definition, while generally an excellent one (it was drafted by Howard Zahniser, a former U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service employee and early director of the Wilderness Society), is not without its faults. Namely, what do “solitude,” “primitive,” and “unconfined” mean, exactly? Given the ongoing debate among Wilderness users, these terms mean different things to different people. Currently, recreationists are forbidden to bike on land designated as Wilderness, while hiking and horseback riding are permitted. Some consider it unjust to prohibit bikes, while others maintain that bikes should most certainly be excluded, based on the language written into the act itself. Who’s right? -The Editors

Why Bikes Belong in the Wilderness: Appropriate recreation in the backcountry

As a traditional form of recreation, muscle-powered wheels have trekked throughout the pristine Montana landscape since the 1800s—before the establishment of the Forest Service, and prior to the declaration of Yellowstone as the world’s first national park. Undeterred by exorbitant tourist train fares, the two-wheeled, nonmotorized wonder afforded equal opportunity to working-class adventurers who pedaled and explored the challenging frontier of the New West.

Even the U.S. Army saddled up on bikes instead of horses in the 1890s for quiet, efficient transport of soldiers. Bikes needed no food or fossil fuel and freed one-fourth of the force from horsesitting. An experimental bicycle troop, the Fort Missoula Buffalo Soldiers Bicycle Corp, patrolled vast areas from Fort Missoula to the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi rivers in St. Louis, Missouri; they also scouted the unique Yellowstone ecosystem, including the Gallatin Valley.

Bicycles were also an important part of Montana's heritage in 1964 when Congress created The Wilderness Act to protect 9.1 million acres of land from most forms of resource extraction and manmade structures; the law also proscribed road construction, development, and motorized travel. But later, during the 1980s, federal land agencies reinterpreted the Wilderness Act and prohibited bicycles in Wilderness.

The intentions of the Wilderness Act are worthy ones, and so is the notion that the bicycle is a nonmotorized technology that is as appropriate in the solitude of wild areas as hiking and horseback riding are. Mountain biking is a low-impact, quiet activity that, according to a 2001 study conducted by Canadian researcher Eden Thurston and University of Guelph botany professor Richard J. Reader, is no more harmful to trails than hiking is. Additionally, bicycles cover distances similar to horses and significantly less terrain than motorized vehicles, with less impact than either one.

Furthermore, mountain biking energizes the economy as well as the heart. A 2006 economic analysis of active outdoor recreation commissioned by the Outdoor Industry Foundation found that in the Mountain States Region, cycling (including mountain biking) contributes $6.2 billion annually to the regional economy and provides sustainable growth in rural communities; that figure amounts to $133 billion annually nationwide.

Congress has empowered public land managers with a toolbox of alternative land protection allocations to preserve primitive areas. Wildlife and migratory corridors, national scenic routes, national monuments, and recreational and conservation areas can coexist with historic recreational trails important to mountain bikes, whether they're in Recommended Wilderness Areas or Wilderness Study Areas.

All recreationists must work together for more land conservation, resource education, and sustainable public trails; the future sanctity of our last, wild places and their native inhabitants will ride on our intelligent, compassionate progress toward viable activities balanced with a healthy environment. But the demagogue against public land access only sabotages the recreational community, local governments, private business, landowners, environmentalists, and public land managers from working together to design sustainable economic alternatives and protect important wildlands.

-Estela Villaseñor Allen

Wilderness: It's not about the bikes

Have you ever spent a glorious July day walking shin-deep in colorful wildflowers at Windy Pass? It’s one of those places of expansive alpine meadows with top-of-the world views and solitude. The drive to the trailhead is a long, bumpy ride on rocky Portal Creek Road. Rather than continue to the pass, the road stops at the Hyalite-Porcupine-Buffalo Horn Wilderness Study Area (WSA) boundary. Thank goodness the boundary is there to preserve the wildness and splendor of Windy Pass.

Congress established this particular WSA in 1977. It is centered on the rugged crest of the northern Gallatin Range, where grizzly bears roam and elk herds winter. The purpose of the WSA is to preserve the area’s character until it is formally designated as Wilderness under the 1964 Wilderness Act or judged unsuitable for such designation. A 1985 Forest Service study recognized the area's outstanding wilderness qualities but did not recommend Wilderness designation because much of the land was privately owned as a result of railroad land grants in the 1800s. Over 30 years, however, while the WSA has languished in uncertain status, the Forest Service has managed to acquire most of the private land, removing the major obstacle to wilderness designation.

Despite the original mandate to maintain the wilderness character, travel by new types of vehicles has been allowed to exceed 1977 levels greatly. Conservation groups have sued to require the Forest Service to obey the law and follow its own policies, which allow for specific levels and types of mechanized travel in Wilderness Study Areas. Recently, some local mountain bikers have opposed the suit, considering it a threat to their use of certain trails.

Their idea that remoteness and difficulty of travel will keep the Gallatin Crest trails uncongested is unrealistic. Without the protection of WSA status, the Forest Service can manage the land in many other ways, such as allowing oil and gas exploration, mining, and logging. There is little to prevent a scenic highway from being built over the crest from the Paradise Valley to Big Sky, or a national recreation trail for ATVs along the crest (as proposed in 1985).

The only means of preserving the remoteness and wildness of the Gallatin Crest is designation as federally protected wilderness. The purpose of Wilderness designation is not to provide recreational opportunities for hikers and horse riders. Wilderness is set aside to preserve land in a natural state in order to allow natural processes to operate freely, to protect water supplies (such as Bozeman’s drinking water), and provide food and homes for wildlife. Wilderness is a refuge for people from the stresses of modern society. It is open to everyone and offers solitude and opportunities for people to experience freedom and develop self-reliance. It preserves the heritage that built the American character and continues to shape the character of Montanans.

Larry Barnard, born and raised in central Montana, is a hunter and Wilderness advocate who worries that most people take the wildness of the Gallatin Crest for granted. He says, "Their only message is, 'We want to ride our bikes here.' Our message is much broader and not just about our personal needs."

The issue of protecting wilderness is much larger than a question of places to hike or ride. It means preserving all the benefits that wild lands offer us. Rapid population growth in the Gallatin Valley is putting development pressures on our public lands. The fact that we live near so much Wilderness-quality land should be cause for celebration rather than friction. Locals need to find ways to work together to make sure that our special places remain that way.

-Noreen Breeding