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Wilderness: America's Second-Best Idea Is Under Attack—Unfortunately By Some Recreationists

Part 2: Franz Camenzind says greatest threat to wilderness preservation coming from mountain bikers

Montana painter Monte Dolack's painting, A Peaceable Kingdom of Wilderness, featured on Wilderness Watch's 50th anniversary celebration for The Wilderness Act of 1964
Montana painter Monte Dolack's painting, A Peaceable Kingdom of Wilderness, featured on Wilderness Watch's 50th anniversary celebration for The Wilderness Act of 1964
As if designating new wilderness areas was not a great-enough challenge, there is today a well-orchestrated effort underway to weaken the very heart of The Wilderness Act itself. This effort, which would degrade the superlative quality of existing wilderness and impair the character of future wilderness areas, involves both the predictable usual suspects and others.

These "others" are entities that claim to understand conservation but whose agenda really involves a contemporary version of Manifest Destiny: to extend civilization into the last vestiges of our wildlands. They see wilderness as being there to be manipulated for their own use. Behind this mentality is not maliciousness but an ignorance about the habitat needs of creatures whose survival depends upon expansive, undisturbed landscapes.  

Along with their self-serving motives, and perhaps most insidious, is their claim that by opening up wilderness and bringing the same kind of industrial-strength approach to outdoor recreation that has eroded the values of other wildlands, they are acting as true conservationists and passionate defenders of wilderness. 

But there is absolutely no empirical evidence which supports their premise, that by turning wilderness into high-adrenaline playgrounds with cleared tracks, where crossing landscapes at higher speeds is the prime objective, they are advancing the cause of conservation or protecting wilderness values.

Driving this effort is a recently formed special interest organization, calling itself the Sustainable Trails Coalition. Behind this innocuous-sounding name is a group of well-organized mountain biking enthusiasts whose singular mission is to re-write the 1964 Wilderness Act so as to allow biking and certain other mechanized activities within wilderness boundaries. They have distorted the clear intent of the Wilderness Act and have become expert in portraying alternative facts as truth.

If successful in their efforts, this single group would forever gut the core of the Act and convert wilderness areas from peaceable landscapes where the modern world is held at bay, to a mechanized playground where noise and fast passage replace the quiet, leisurely pace set by feet on the ground and eyes on the wide landscape.  

By contrast, when you are mountain biking, you are making tracks along steep trails strewn with rocks and have little time to admire the scenery; you are staring over handlebars toward the ground trying to avoid hitting a tree or worse, a startled hiker, horse-packer or animal.

Imagine while fast tracking through the Teton Wilderness, you don’t have time to reflect on the needs of the grizzly, the wolf or even other wilderness travelers; the focus is on yourself and the track a few yards ahead.  And you could be doing that anywhere else because there are thousands of other great places to ride, more than you could ever get to in a lifetime. 

But there are few places in America inhabited by the caliber of wildlife we have in Greater Yellowstone. The Moab model to mountain biking does not fit here, nor does Colorado's Front Range model or the California model. 
"There are few places in America inhabited by the caliber of wildlife we have in Greater Yellowstone.The Moab model to mountain biking does not fit here, nor does Colorado's Front Range model or the California model." —Franz Camenzind 
In the Lower 48, wilderness provides the core home range for grizzlies and wolves, elk, bighorn sheep, moose and other species that have few remaining large, undisturbed landscapes within which to live. Why is this so hard to understand for members of the Sustainable Trails Coalition? 

Perhaps it is because they don't care to comprehend the needs of wildlife and when you have that attitude, you have no right to call yourself a conservationist. Any hunter, who takes pride in knowing the essence of an animal, understands the irrefutable importance of maintaining secure habitat. A landscape that benefits an elk benefits a grizzly. Secure habitat that benefits a duck benefits a frog. A wilderness that benefits wildlife benefits the hunter, wildlife watcher and naturalist. 

With the urging of the Sustainable Trails Coalition, bills have been introduced in both houses of Congress that would open wilderness areas to mountain bikes and other mechanized transport. Although the two bills differ in detail, both would significantly change the clear intent and purpose of The 1964 Wilderness Act. 

California Republican Congressman Tom McMclintock introduced H.B.1349 in March, 2017. His bill would “…amend the Wilderness Act to ensure that the use of bicycles, wheelchairs (both motorized and non-motorized), strollers, and game carts is not prohibited in Wilderness Areas, and for other purposes.”

The bill has been referred to the Subcommittee on Federal Lands. No action has yet been taken, however, U.S. Rep. Rob Bishop, Republican of Utah and chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, has just announced that he is ready to bring forth a “whole backlog of bills” for discussion after the current August recess. Given Rep. Bishop’s history of anti-environment positions, this is nothing short of a very ominous promise.

The Senate version of the Bill: S. 3205 was introduced in the last session of Congress on July 13, 2016 by Sen. Mike Lee, Republican of Utah. The bill was read twice and then referred to the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources. No further action was taken. The Sustainable Trails Coalition “…hope[s] to have this bill reintroduced in the (current) 115th Congress soon.” 

The Senate bill redefines mechanical transportation by distinguishing between motorized and non-motorized mechanized transport –­ prohibiting the former and allowing the latter. With the explosive growth of mountain biking, it is no stretch to say that if the bill passes as written, the use of favorite wilderness trails would grow from hundreds of foot travelers a year to upwards of thousands of mountain bikers per year. 

This tremendous shift in use would very likely lead to a proportionate increase in dangerous wildlife encounters and a displacement of wildlife, increased trail erosion, and a demand for new trails. This change in use would directly impact the very purpose of wilderness areas- to protect the land so as to remain unimpaired for future use and enjoyment. 

And with the development of electric bikes, it is inevitable that a push will come to permit e-bikes in wilderness areas too. A debate regarding the appropriateness of e-bikes on non-wilderness trails is already occurring in the region.

As written, the Senate bill would also require the Forest Service and the public land administrators within the Department of Interior to determine all permissible forms of recreational use by non-motorized transportation methods over any permitted routes. And, if such determination is not made within two years after the bill’s enactment, then any form of recreational use by non-motorized transportation methods shall be allowed on permitted routes. 

This bill would even allow the use of chainsaws to clear wilderness trails. (Heaven forbid having to step over or go around fallen timber during a “wilderness experience”.)

It must be made clear that not all mountain bikers are in favor of allowing bikes in wilderness areas, perhaps not even the majority.  The International Mountain Bicycling Association, coming under pressure from its avid, conservation-minded membership, issued a press release that makes its position clear. "IMBA will not support any broad efforts by any organization to amend the existing Wilderness Act in its entirety or the federal land management agencies’ regulations on existing Wilderness areas as these are not strategically aligned with achieving our long-term mission," the organization stated.

The Sustainable Trails Coalition, meanwhile, is hell-bent on changing the law that has served wilderness and our nation well for over half a century. And it must be said that there are already tens of thousands of miles of public land trails open to mountain biking. 
The video, above, is an example of how wildland mountain biking is being promoted on social media to younger generations. Is this fast-paced, high-adrenalyn outdoor recreation conducive with the values of federal wilderness and is it compatible with the tenets of responsible human travel in Greater Yellowstone's grizzly country?

This is not a matter of shutting down mountain biking; it is about holding the line on the no biking zone within wilderness areas (2 percent of the contiguous United States). Wilderness defenders simply ask, “Are there not a few places where mechanized travel can be prohibited? Where the law of the land can remain intact in order to protect these remaining untrammeled relics of our natural heritage? Where we travel as did the First People?”

Whether it’s amending The Wilderness Act to simply allow mountain bikes, or redefining mechanical so as to allow them in wilderness areas, this effort, if successful will change the core intent of The Wilderness Act itself. The result will be a lessening of the wilderness experience for future generations and the erosion of the ecological function of wilderness areas. This threat is very real and with the current political climate, anything is possible, particularly, when the effort is driven by a special interest demanding increased access to our public lands, and by default, a weakening of a premier environmental law.

America’s second-best conservation idea—our designated wilderness areas—must remain free of the noise and excesses accompanying the hustle and speed of the modern world. And that means, free of today’s highly mechanized mountain bikes and all other forms of mechanical entry and uses. To allow otherwise would mean that Manifest Destiny has subdued yet another part of our continent, torn another part of the wild from the wilderness, and for all that, made us a much poorer nation.

Wilderness is the place where speed should be left to the deer and the mountain lion, the wolf and the eagle. Where the sounds are the bugling of elk and the calls of sandhill cranes, not the rumbling of chains on bicycle wheels or the whining of chain saws clearing trails.

Wilderness must remain the sanctuary for the sounds of a free and wild nature; where man treads lightly, slowly and quietly. Wilderness must be a place where nature prevails and humans enter humbly and find peace and solitude in the silence and slow pace of the wild, untrammeled land.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Read Franz Camenzind's first piece, Wilderness, America' Second-Best Conservation Idea, Is Under Attack, part of Mountain Journal's ongoing series on wilderness in America.

SILENCE, PLEASE (a poem about American wilderness by Franz Camenzind)

Please- leave your cell phone behind
Lose your ear-buds too
Lower your voice –­ Please
Clear your mind of rushing thoughts

Be still
This is a beautiful place
Silence is a gift received

The silence I seek is not the absence of sound
The silence I seek is the sound of the land –
Air moving, quacking leaves
Streams flowing, splashing the sky

Grasshoppers buzzing away on wings
A red squirrel chattering
Gray jays calling
This is the silence I treasure

The silence of the living land
With no barriers between me and earth’s songs
Between today and creation
The primeval sounds found here still

On a wild lands trail
My backpack creaking
Footfalls on a hardened earth
The scuffing of dirt

My own breathing
Heartbeats heard inside
Pack straps rubbing
The clicking of my walking stick

Sounds unknown by far too many

We avert our eyes from the unsightly
But cannot avert
Our ears from the world’s new noise
So persistent is the clamor

We have accepted
Being numbed to the noise
Accepting the unnatural
Removed from the wild

I seek the wild places
Where the land still speaks
By mechanized sound

We treasure tranquility
The feeling born
From the silence of the land
Becoming every more rare

Silence, Please
For wilderness harbors the sounds of our soul
Freely given
We need only visit – and listen
Franz Camenzind
About Franz Camenzind

Dr. Franz Camenzind is a wildlife biologist turned filmmaker and environmental activist. In his career he conducted numerous wildlife assessments, often focusing on threatened and endangered species. Serendipitous opportunities lead him to a long career in the documentary film industry where he produced award-winning films on coyotes, wolves, grizzly bears, pronghorn antelope, giant pandas and black rhinos. Although now enjoying retirement in his Jackson, Wyoming home of 44 years, he is still very much involved in local, regional and national environmental issues. He spent 13 years as Executive Director of the Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance. Prior to that he served on its board for 13 years and was one of the founding board members of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition. In addition, Camenzind writes a column, Wild Ideas, often with a focus on the importance of Wilderness lands, for Mountain Journal.
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