Wilderness Lite

In the past, I've written about options hikers and wilderness groups had to make peace with mountain bikers so the two key constituencies could work together to protect roadless land. One option was urging Congress to pass another organic act creating a true alternative land designation. But what to call it?

I've used the words "Wilderness Lite" to refer to various land designations that provide almost as much protection as the "Big W" Wilderness that Congress designates under the Wilderness Act of 1964. Basically, cutting to the chase, I can more precisely define "Wilderness Lite" as "Wilderness that allows mountain biking."

We already have several Wilderness Lite land designations: National Recreation Areas, National Scenic Areas, National Conservation Areas, Special Management Areas, and National Protection Areas. None of these prohibit, by statute, motorized recreation. Congress can, however, mandate nonmotorized only when creating one of these areas, but this rarely happens because, in essence, these designations are considered motorized alternatives to Wilderness.

See the problem? Nothing in between that allows all forms of nonmotorized recreation. (I should interject that I’m referring mainly to national forests and to a lesser extent land managed by the Bureau of Land Management, not national parks. That's another issue, and the National Park Service already has a great alternative, national monuments, which have slightly less protection, but where bicycling can be allowed.)

Creating areas that clearly ban wreckreaction could proceed on a large scale, creating a mish-mash that people might not understand, but would that matter? If politicians had the spines to actually write "non-motorized only" in legalese, this approach might even be a path of least resistance compared to passing the Wilderness Lite Act of 2010. But for those of us who believe we need this type of alternative to "Big W," it would be better to combine all these Wilderness Lite options included under one brand.

Congress has always had the option of creating a new Wilderness and specifically allowing mountain biking, but this has never happened and probably won't in the future, which further begs for a new option. Let's concentrate on how to protect roadless lands, especially near urban areas, where mountain biking use has become well established just like horse use was established in roadless areas later designated as Wilderness.

In the corporate world, any good business or marketing plan has a good branding strategy as its core. Mountain bikers should develop such a "marketing plan" and the critical first step is creating the right brand. "Wilderness" is a brand, and a good one. When somebody says the word, we know what he or she is saying. "National Protection Area" is not a brand. Few people have a clue what it is, nor does it say "non-motorized." Most people, even most wilderness advocates, haven’t even heard of it. Ditto for the other current land designations--how many people even know what a National Scenic Area is?

I've been talking up this branding idea with a few people, and we bounced around various possibilities before narrowing it down to two "Primitive Area" and "Backcountry." Both say "non-motorized" and already mean the same thing, sort of, something like "not quite as pristine as Wilderness."

So, with that background, I'm going to put up this trial balloon. I propose that wilderness and mountain biking groups join in support of a new organic act called the Backcountry Act of 2010, modeled after the Wilderness Act.

When Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Wilderness Act on September 3, 1964, he also created the National Wilderness Preservation System and immediately designated 54 Wilderness areas encompassing 9.1 million acres in 13 states, including many of our most iconic names like Bob Marshall, Maroon Bells-Snowmass, Boundary Waters, John Muir, Eagle Cap, Bridger, and Three Sisters. Let's re-use that model, when the Backcountry Act passes, and create a National Backcountry Preservation System with a starter list of areas that a majority wants permanently protected but are currently mired in a debate over mountain biking. It won't be hard to find this starter list. I can think of several here in Montana that would easily qualify.

Here's the rub. The Wilderness lobby, led by the Wilderness Society, Sierra Club and the Campaign for American Wilderness, might have some serious heartburn over this idea. To be more blunt, they fear it. They know Backcountry will be more popular with politicians than Wilderness. From the day we create a National Backcountry Preservation System, we might not see many more additions to the National Wilderness Preservation System.

For me, a person who wants Wilderness as much as any person reading this, it bothers me to more or less accept defeat on Wilderness. But if we can replace it with Backcountry, I say this looks mighty good compared the rut to nowhere we're currently stuck in.

Bill Schneider wrote a weekly column called Wild Bill for NewWest.net, a now-defunct online magazine, where this commentary was originally published.