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National Flashpoint: The Gallatin Range Is Ground Zero For Americans Talking About Wilderness

History shows those pushing for mountain bikes in wilderness lands have no factual traction. Read this excerpt of Todd Burritt's recent book on Greater Yellowstone

The Gallatins are the only mountains encircling Yellowstone National Park without designated federal wilderness—the highest form of land protection and a classification credited by scientists with giving critical protection to wildlife against growing human presence and development.  All photos courtesy Todd Burritt
The Gallatins are the only mountains encircling Yellowstone National Park without designated federal wilderness—the highest form of land protection and a classification credited by scientists with giving critical protection to wildlife against growing human presence and development. All photos courtesy Todd Burritt
EDITOR'S NOTE
: Mountain Journal brings you this excerpt from Todd Burritt's recent book Outside Ourselves: Landscape and Meaning in the Greater Yellowstone.  In our opinion, it is one of the most thoughtful books about the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem as the region ponders important decisions in the 21st century.  —MoJo eds

Where We're Going
An Excerpt from Outside Ourselves

by Todd Burritt

Of all the mountain ranges we walked in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem in 2015, the Gallatins are the most geologically diverse.

There you can find a smorgasbord of limestones and shales; volcanic vents, dikes, and lahars; metamorphic basement rocks that approach the vintage of the oldest parts of the Winds. Eclectic topography makes manifest this complicated back-story. 

The southern range, over 20 miles long, features broad, blocky mountains, abutting the divide, which are favored by grizzly bears and great herds of elk. Moving north out of  Yellowstone National Park, the ridge rises and falls fitfully along a slender, often-grassy ridge, spitting off a great diversity of watercourses in the process—from steep timbered chutes like Moose Creek, to broad ranching basins like Tom Miner. 

The northernmost quarter or so of the range forks and forks again into a sharply honed, high relief cluster of Absaroka-style volcanic summits. As a package, the range is varied, distinct, and endearing; a weekend warrior’s dream. The Gallatins are also the only major mountain range bordering Yellowstone that lacks designated wilderness—a distinction that makes its long and narrow footprint feel all the spindlier as it absorbs pressure from the rapidly developing valleys and canyons below. 

Because the Gallatins have come very close to having their still-unroaded flanks achieving wilderness protection, but never quite made it over the hump, its heart carries (in eighteen awkward syllables) a special designation—the Hyalite-Porcupine-Buffalo Horn (HPBH) Wilderness Study Area (WSA). 

What does it mean, “WSA,” and how is that different than wilderness? Well, everybody’s still trying to figure that out. As Frederick Swanson recounts in his book, Where Roads Will Never Reach, “The leaders of the wilderness movements in the Northern Rockies never constrained their efforts, as some histories imply, to preserving hiking areas and treeless mountain basins. They enjoyed their recreation, to be sure, but for most of them wildlife was key.” 

The Gallatin story testifies to this claim: these mountains were recognized for their importance to wildlife from the very outset of the modern conservation movement. Area outdoors-people in the early 1940s (ranchers, in other words) were the first to request additional protections from the Forest Service.

 In 1954, a group of cowpunchers, outfitters, plus a pastor and his family—a group “representative of a significant section of local public opinion”—drew up an outline for what they called the Hilgard Hold Area. This prospective wilderness encompassed high-priority wildlife range in both the Gallatins and the Madison Range.

Burritt's book is available from local booksellers and online.
Burritt's book is available from local booksellers and online.
 In 1958, Olaus Murie of Jackson Hole, councilman of the Wilderness Society and “father of modern elk management,” took an extended trip to the area. The purpose was to both “discuss the mundane and realistic matters” of establishing the hold, and in the meantime, enjoy a five-day pack trip into the high country. 

The trip was a success: the landscape “idyllic,” the local support strong, Murie gave his blessing. Six years later, despite nearly unanimous public support and assurances from the supervisor of the Gallatin National Forest, it would come as a community shock when the 1964 Wilderness Act passed over the Gallatins and Madisons. The reason wouldn’t be addressed for over 30 years. 

With no definitive decision-making framework to determine which areas of wilderness character should receive designation or when, the possibility of Gallatin wilderness languished like a dormant seed, awaiting a favorable political climate. And as America lurched ahead with explosive population, prosperity, and industrialization, the window for achieving permanent protection started closing even more rapidly.

By 1977, additional roads tangled the contours of the Gallatins, others had been fended off, and Congress passed the Montana Wilderness Study Act to get things moving again. This act obligated the Secretary of Agriculture to determine in five years whether or not the HPBH and eight other WSAs met the criteria for wilderness, and then to make formal recommendations to Congress—otherwise, it was written, “the wilderness study areas designated by this Act shall, until Congress determines otherwise, be administered by the Secretary of Agriculture so as to maintain their presently existing wilderness character and potential for inclusion in the National Wilderness Preservation System.” 
The Gallatin Range is home to a greater complement of large mammals than every national park in the Lower 48 states, except for Yellowstone, Grand Teton and Glacier.  While scientists and conservationists have called for their protection for a century, they have remained vulnerable, especially during the era when they were checkerboarded with private tracts owned by the Northern Pacific Railroad and timber baron Tim Blixseth. Miraculously, because the land remains intact, so does the wildlife. Many say how much land gets protected is the most important question facing the core of Greater Yellowstone in decades.
The Gallatin Range is home to a greater complement of large mammals than every national park in the Lower 48 states, except for Yellowstone, Grand Teton and Glacier. While scientists and conservationists have called for their protection for a century, they have remained vulnerable, especially during the era when they were checkerboarded with private tracts owned by the Northern Pacific Railroad and timber baron Tim Blixseth. Miraculously, because the land remains intact, so does the wildlife. Many say how much land gets protected is the most important question facing the core of Greater Yellowstone in decades.
When the study finally concluded years later, the HPBH was found ineligible for wilderness status. But not because the land in question didn’t possess all the qualities warranting such protection. Rather, national forest land in the Gallatins was peppered with inholdings of private land—about ten percent of the total area in what is known as checker boarding.  Hastily deeded to the Northern Pacific railroad in 1864 to incentivize the western conquest, financially productive in no obvious way, these alternating sections were rarely used as intended and left a particularly cumbersome legacy to all stakeholders. 

The WSA inventory came as a reminder for managers to re-up their efforts to swap out and consolidate the checkerboard, which they did—and though it meant the public lost access to many peripheral parts of the forest, the backcountry was gradually secured in the process. It wasn’t until 1998 that things could finally move forward. By that time, the WSA inventory had been scrapped for not following protocol, and nobody planned to start a new one. Likewise, the viability of a 600,000-acre Hilgard Hold Area was lost forever.

 In the western half, in the center of the Madison Range, TV anchor Chet Huntley founded a ski hill called Big Sky, which rapidly swelled into thousands of acres of tasteless vacation condos and trophy homes (now the third largest ski resort in America); two more adjacent ski hills were forthcoming. In the eastern half of the former Hold Area, the newly consolidated HPBH—which drapes the Gallatin Crest for 155,000 of its most glorious acres—slouched further into the purgatory where it remains to this day. Still, Congress never “determined otherwise,” therefore the HPBH would continue to be managed as wilderness. But for some time that protection was applied in only the loosest possible way.

° ° ° °
For decades after its designation, motorized and mechanized uses were overlooked in the HPBH, despite the standards of WSAs. It was only a matter of time before advancing wildlife research began to question the impacts of these uses which would ordinarily be banned. And it's worth noting that mountain biking, as we know it today, did not exist. 

The HPBH, after all, has been a place for imperiled species like the grizzly bear to find refuge from intensified recreation use and  explosive exurban development in Big Sky; where elk fenced out of developed valley bottoms find winter forage. A bear expert said that mountain biking is a grave threat to grizzlies in terms of safety dangers and displacing bruins from habitat. Other animals, of which too little is known to even be considered endangered—like lynx and wolverines—haunt the HPBH’s corners, causing rare sightings to resonate like myth in the valleys below. 

The three parallel black lines roughly show where the Gallatin Mountains are located.
The three parallel black lines roughly show where the Gallatin Mountains are located.
After consulting the language and intent of the WSA Act, several conservation groups challenged the Forest Service’s complacency in court: due to the popularization of rapidly developing recreational technologies, in places where “the imprint of man’s work” was once “substantially unnoticeable,” imprints were becoming substantially more so. The District Court that heard the case sided with conservationists. Vehicles should be excluded (with a couple exceptions) from the HPBH, it said, in accordance with the ground rules of the WSA Act. That was in 2009.

 The weight of the determination fell, of course, on the people who’d gotten used to bringing vehicles there—and the following spring a consortium of interests in private-property rights, resource extraction, mountain biking, and motorized recreation, called Citizens for Balanced Use, appealed the decision. Their argument: “the Wilderness Study Act only authorized the Forest Service to issue an Interim Order that maintained wilderness character, not to enhance it.” 

Though it's appeal failed, the cause did not die. Almost ten years later, backlash against environmental protections in the Gallatin Range is still gaining momentum, and becoming more audacious in scope. Today, the establishment of a Gallatin Range wilderness area is mired in an increasingly polarized discourse, and mountain bikers have gone on the offensive to take on the concept of wilderness altogether. 

In 2015, Ted Stroll, a mountain biker and retired California attorney, founded a group called The Sustainable Trails Coalition. Within the year, his group would draft “The Human-Powered Wildlands Travel Management Act of 2016” to open wilderness areas to many types of mechanical and motorized equipment, from mountain bikes to chain saws. 
In 1961, when Stewart Udall was sworn in as Secretary of the Interior under John F. Kennedy, he promised that “nature will take precedence over the needs of modern man.” His meaning should not be confused with Lord Byron’s famous line, “I love not Man the less, but Nature more,” because Udall did not believe that the interests of the human and non-human needed to be adversarial, nor even distinct from one another. He’d explain, “Plans to protect air and water, wilderness and wildlife, are in fact plans to protect man.” For the sake of our shared future, he framed the relationship as a cooperative one. Udall’s philosophy reflects brightly in the legislation passed during his tenure, legislation that continues to guard our collective interests today. He was there for the Water Quality Act, the Solid Waste Disposal Act, and—among many others—the Wilderness Act of 1964. 

Though the Wilderness Act is approaching 60 years old, it safeguards what is as old as time: features and qualities of the landscape that are relatively unaltered by human ambition. In a nation that religiously esteems techno-industrial expansion, this level of protection was bound to be contentious. Its drafters were well aware of that. They knew that intact ecosystems could not be trusted to the temperamental politics of an abstract future—so much had been lost already—so they created this specific congressional protection instead. It is not wise to separate this world into human places and natural places. 

This important observation is often employed as a critique of the wilderness idea. In doing so, the critique plants a false assumption, because wilderness is not the end goal toward which all conservation efforts aspire. It is only one land designation on a spectrum, each one equally important, that must work together to achieve a sustainable relationship between human civilization and the natural resources upon which it depends. That is, we need wilderness lands—places where every lesser interest is subordinated to the preservation of the most complex and essential public resources of clean water, clean air, and biodiversity—but we also need buffer lands, in which functioning ecological systems are managed for the sustainable yield of more concrete resources. 

Other places we need to manage even more intensively, to support the overwhelming needs of the human population. And, of course, we need places where the heaviest impacts of human lifestyle and industry can be concentrated: fully mechanized urban environments. 

Yes, sadly, the demands of human civilization are such that everything must ultimately be considered by their terms. But as Udall understood, these interests take many forms, and occasionally what we need is the opposite of what we want. Almost by definition, the functions of wilderness are difficult to measure.

For some people, this calls their legitimacy into question; for others, it strikes at an irreducible complexity, and even helps to illuminate their fundamental importance. Wilderness is a way to preserve all the things that we have not yet learned to quantify or synthesize, yet rely upon nonetheless. 

Throughout the fermentative prehistory of the Wilderness Act, a lot of red flags were going up in the natural world. Rain fell as acid, bald eagles laid rubber eggs, a hole in the atmosphere allowed the sunlight to sear our skin. All of these costly and dangerous impacts were direct side effects of human industry. The damages were accidental, sure, but that didn’t make them any more acceptable. It was becoming increasingly obvious that, no matter how impressive or well-meaning the human talent for innovation, our industriousness was nevertheless capable of almost inconceivable harm. 

Somehow, we needed to hold ourselves to a higher standard. Wilderness designation is the most binding outgrowth of this resolution. In 2009, Bike Magazine published an article by its editor, Lou Mazzante, that brainstormed ways to include bicycle use in wilderness study areas. The article was long, sleek, and a little bit panicked. It could be seen as a reaction to the failed appeal-of-the-appeal of the Gallatin Travel Management Plan made by Citizens for Balanced Use. 
Here, a legal mountain biker goes airborne down a trail. Mountain bikers have pushed to overturn the prohibition on riding in federal wilderness and they've blazed "user-created" trails in wilderness study areas in national forests and BLM lands. Illegal trails represent a chronic problem in Greater Yellowstone and throughout the West. On the internet, mountain bikers have vowed to carve out trails whether it's legal or not.  Given the lax record of enforcement by the Forest Service and BLM in putting a stop to outlaw trails, can the Custer-Gallatin be trusted to regulate mountain biking use in areas like the Porcupine and Buffalo Horn drainages in the Gallatins?  Photo courtesy BLM/Bob Wick.
Here, a legal mountain biker goes airborne down a trail. Mountain bikers have pushed to overturn the prohibition on riding in federal wilderness and they've blazed "user-created" trails in wilderness study areas in national forests and BLM lands. Illegal trails represent a chronic problem in Greater Yellowstone and throughout the West. On the internet, mountain bikers have vowed to carve out trails whether it's legal or not. Given the lax record of enforcement by the Forest Service and BLM in putting a stop to outlaw trails, can the Custer-Gallatin be trusted to regulate mountain biking use in areas like the Porcupine and Buffalo Horn drainages in the Gallatins? Photo courtesy BLM/Bob Wick.
Despite his investment in the issue, or perhaps in consideration of it, Mazzante cautioned his readers to keep clarity and not get carried away. As he pointed out, “The rules are clear when it comes to Congressionally designated Wilderness: no roads, no buildings, no mining or logging, no motorized travel, no mechanized transport, and no bikes.” 

In just a couple years, however, Bike Magazine would swing this common sense observation 180 degrees. Mazzante’s moderate message was reformulated to “restore Congress’ original vision.” That is, we were now made to believe that bicycles are supposed to be in wilderness. 

The rhetorical about-face was doctored by the Californian lawyer behind The Human-Powered Wildlands Travel Management Act of 2016 (HPWTMA, or bill S.3205), Ted Stroll. Somewhere in the midst of “400 hours” of research, Stroll found a 1973 Forest Service document that defined “mechanized equipment” as “propelled by a non-living power source,” conceivably making an opening for bikes. 

This key document—with wording that may have carried over from 1966—was created internally by only one of the four agencies that administrate wilderness, at best two years after the Wilderness Act was passed. It does not reflect the democratic process and it reveals nothing about the intentions of Congress—just some carelessness within the warrens of a very large government bureau. 

But like deniers of climate change, single-mindedly rooting from mountains of evidence to the contrary, Stroll proceeded to cobble a case together from random outliers, quotes out of context, and the opposite of consensus. For everyone who does not intend to bicycle in wilderness, or seek to categorically dismantle federal land protections like the Utah senators who picked up Stroll’s bill, the Wilderness Act is a more-than adequate guide as to whether or not bicycles belong there. 
A sign at a Custer-Gallatin National Forest trailhead on the east side of the Madison Mountains and an entryway to the Lee Metcalf Wilderness.  One of the reasons cited for yearlong closures of mechanized vehicles is to "improve wildlife security."  Mountain Journal photo.
A sign at a Custer-Gallatin National Forest trailhead on the east side of the Madison Mountains and an entryway to the Lee Metcalf Wilderness. One of the reasons cited for yearlong closures of mechanized vehicles is to "improve wildlife security." Mountain Journal photo.
Because, as Mazzante knew well, it is clear on this point. Honed over sixty-six drafts and eighteen hearings, the Act does not mention bicycles specifically, just as it doesn’t mention jeeps or bulldozers. Rather, in its very first line, we learn that wilderness is intended to “assure that an increasing population, accompanied by expanding settlement and growing mechanization, does not occupy and modify all areas within the United States.” 

Mountain bikes, which became commercially available seventeen years after the Act, epitomize this trend toward mechanization. It then elucidates: “There shall be no temporary road, no use of motor vehicles… [and] no other form of mechanical transport.” The fact that this legislation specifies mechanical transport in addition to motorized transport—despite its belabored economy—should be enough to end the debate over the intentions of Congress.
Mountain bikes, which became commercially available seventeen years after the Act, epitomize this trend toward mechanization. It then elucidates: “There shall be no temporary road, no use of motor vehicles… [and] no other form of mechanical transport.” The fact that this legislation specifies mechanical transport in addition to motorized transport—despite its belabored economy—should be enough to end the debate over the intentions of Congress.
 If it’s not enough, corroborating evidence is readily available. From Aldo Leopold’s sketches of the concept in the 1920s, right up to the final language of the Act, wilderness-appropriate recreation is specified as “primitive” almost as often as not. By primitive, it is unlikely its architects meant to include forms of transportation that were not yet invented. 

And Wallace Stegner, whose “Wilderness Letter” was a seminal document to the passage of the Act, spelled it out even more clearly: these would be places “barred from wheels.” Which brings us to the crux of the matter: the case for the HPWTMA is not about facts.  It is about an evolving democratic process in which facts are drowned out by collective feelings of anger and powerlessness, and amplified by the echo chamber of the internet. It is about a process so democratic that what is factual and what is fabricated is ultimately entrusted to the court of public opinion. It is about a society addicted to living beyond its means, coming up against the natural (and already much deferred) constraints of their definition of “freedom,” and construing all safeguards and regulations as the enemy.
The case for the [HPWTMA [Human-Powered Wildlands Travel Management Act]  is not about facts.  It is about an evolving democratic process in which facts are drowned out by collective feelings of anger and powerlessness, and amplified by the echo chamber of the internet. It is about a process so democratic that what is factual and what is fabricated is ultimately entrusted to the court of public opinion. It is about a society addicted to living beyond its means, coming up against the natural (and already much deferred) constraints of their definition of “freedom,” and construing all safeguards and regulations as the enemy.
It is about a year when the most powerful country in the world elected the cartoon of a plutocratic demagogue for their president. To understand the momentum behind the bikes-in-wilderness movement, we must look beyond the factual bases of this debate and consider the emotional ones. 

° ° ° °

A couple weeks before Jen and I left for the summer, we took a day hike elsewhere in the Gallatin Range. We were talking; I’d just found a low-profile orchid (Piperia unalascensis) that I’d learned of recently and wanted to share with her. 

But our words broke off at the sound of rubber on dirt. In fact, we literally jumped into the ninebark. The mountain biker who flashed between us shouted “THREE MORE!” so we stood back, wearing the same beleaguered expression. Another bike shot by, then another. It was a routine occurrence. 

They didn’t acknowledge us, and their wrap-around helmets and armor prevented us from seeing anything specifically human about them. A minute passed and I started feeling stupid. I pictured the little sign at the trailhead illustrating trail etiquette: bikes yield to pedestrians… a nice thought that I’ve never seen in practice. So we started walking again, and that’s when the last bike appeared, mashing the brakes and skidding into the brush. 

The girl riding it was livid. “Didn’t they tell you to get out of the way?” she demanded. “Yes,” I said, and thought about it. “But that’s a lot to ask.” 

There’s a reason why bikes are banned from sidewalks in town, along with other vehicles. Part of the danger is simple physics, while part of it appears to be psychological: that same summer, on another trail in the Gallatins, a mountain biker intentionally pedaled directly into a cow moose with calf, breaking his own arm. 

“If I’m going to be encountered by a moose and I’m going to die,” Brian Steddum declared to a reporter, “I’m going to die fighting.” 

Agreeing with Steddum’s aphorism is easier than understanding his application of it—taking the leap from wildlife sighting to “Thunderdome.” The Bozeman Daily Chronicle, in relating his story, clearly explains that Steddum stopped his bike some distance away, and yelled at the stationary moose, before he decided to “die fighting.” I’ve literally had dozens of such encounters on foot, but one is usually enough to understand that, if it escalates, you’ll have only yourself to blame. 
A grizzly that inhabits Grand Teton National Park and the adjacent national forest. Wilderness areas in Greater Yellowstone and other parts of the northern Rockies are different from wilderness areas elsewhere in the West. They function as refugia for grizzlies.  Photo courtesy C. Adams/NPS
A grizzly that inhabits Grand Teton National Park and the adjacent national forest. Wilderness areas in Greater Yellowstone and other parts of the northern Rockies are different from wilderness areas elsewhere in the West. They function as refugia for grizzlies. Photo courtesy C. Adams/NPS
I should take a step back. Here I am, demarcating the impasse of an old-fashioned user conflict. This is a hard one for me, because in so many ways I consider myself a bike advocate. I can boast over 10,000 miles on one of my current rides, and I’ve had unforgettably glorious days mountain biking around Greater Yellowstone on the other. Even when the members of hiking and biking communities overlap, however, an in-the-moment rub exists between those operating vehicles and those that aren’t, just like it does between sometimes-pedestrians driving cars and car owners who happen to be traveling on foot. 

The playing field is not level: that’s why it is regulated. Tight trails with blind turns often require split-second reflexes to prevent parties from physically colliding. Even when they don’t, many on horseback have been thrown by a spooked mount, and we’re not the only hikers who have found themselves jumping in the brush. This tension is the biking activist’s primary ammunition. 
Tight trails with blind turns often require split-second reflexes to prevent parties from physically colliding. Even when they don’t, many on horseback have been thrown by a spooked mount, and we’re not the only hikers who have found themselves jumping in the brush. This tension is the biking activist’s primary ammunition. 
Because everyone can walk in places they can’t necessarily bike, and the specialist mindset irreducibly bundles identities with hobbies, it creates the illusion of segregation. Bicyclists who demand to be seen as nothing less claim the status of a persecuted minority. They would have you believe that bigotry is what excludes them, personally, from wilderness—and forget that the principles excluding vehicles are fundamental to wilderness, predating the existence of their very sport by nearly a generation. 

While this sense of wronged-ness permeates the biking-in-wilderness community, it is best observed in the voice of one its most prolific writers—a Washington man named Vernon Felton. His pieces ceaselessly goad mountain bikers to simplify the debate into a question of discrimination. He taunts his readers: “You are not welcome here. …You’ve been banned.” He makes authoritative announcements: “We’ve come to the root of the issue …it’s a question of intolerance.” 

Central to his sense of injustice is the Wilderness Act itself. Felton describes this piece of legislation as “dangerous:” a government effort to “aid and abet …intolerance” and create “second-class citizens.” In taking this stance, Felton and others have succeeded in whipping up a polarizing atmosphere of mutual disgust. Lost is complexity—such as the very important fact that no person is just a mountain biker or just a hiker. The imposed framework forces us to pigeonhole ourselves into one camp or the other, and then to take up arms. 
Bicyclists . . .claim the status of a persecuted minority. They would have you believe that bigotry is what excludes them, personally, from wilderness—and forget that the principles excluding vehicles are fundamental to wilderness, predating the existence of their very sport by nearly a generation. 
More than one mountain biker, answering the call, has concluded that their only remaining hope is to strike preemptively, and otherwise overwhelm their opponents with righteous indignation. They evoke civil disobedience. One advocate, Lance Pysher, advises his peers in a classic statement of the times, “It doesn’t matter if you are right or wrong. It’s just a matter of how much political force you can bring to bear on the situation.” 

Contemporaneous with the introduction of  The Human-Powered Wildlands Travel Management Act , I watched a rash of vandalism break out on the national forests near my home. It wasn’t long before I couldn’t find a single wilderness sign that hadn’t been defaced by bicyclists (it is easy to identify the perpetrators, because on the list of prohibited uses, “bicycles” was the only word getting scratched out). In one case on my ranger district, trail workers spent weeks of cumulative labor resurrecting an overgrown path for mountain bike access to ameliorate this very issue. 

When we finished, we placed signs at the junctions of wilderness trails. Mountain bikers ruined those signs in less than a week. All the while, tire tracks keep popping up where they shouldn’t have. Once a conflict becomes this escalated, it is incredibly difficult to back it down. 
Contemporaneous with the introduction of the The Human-Powered Wildlands Travel Management Act, I watched a rash of vandalism break out on the national forests near my home. It wasn’t long before I couldn’t find a single wilderness sign that hadn’t been defaced by bicyclists (it is easy to identify the perpetrators, because on the list of prohibited uses, “bicycles” was the only word getting scratched out). In one case on my ranger district, trail workers spent weeks of cumulative labor resurrecting an overgrown path for mountain bike access to ameliorate this very issue. 
Participants fixate on their wrongs—the low blows, the actions of the few most desperate individuals—and the actual issues become lost. As Justin Farrell summarizes in a sociological study of the Greater Yellowstone, most social actors involved simply miss the fact that they are fighting tooth and nail to promote and defend incommensurable moral orders, obsessively marshalling evidence that is itself meaningless when abstracted from their larger narratives and moral commitments, all the while in so doing obscuring what the debate is ultimately about. 

There are many good examples related to this issue coming from both camps. Mountain bikers have tried to implicate “spring-loaded trekking poles” (I don’t even know what those are) as mechanical transport, while hikers double-down on the unlikely claim that bicycles cause excessive trail erosion. But at the end of the day, most telling to me is that we currently have an interest group, billing itself as the future of both the civil rights and environmental movements, all while promoting a form of vehicular recreation. 

This is the sort of appropriation of terms that, with a unified voice, we must resoundingly disavow. Perhaps the first fallacious implication of Bill S.3205 is that wilderness would benefit from popularization, because that would be its primary function. Now, human use is not just appropriate in wilderness, it is vital. 

Yet no responsible managers are promoting increased use. That’s because they aren’t selling a product—they’re safeguarding a treasure. Crowds endanger not only the integrity of the resource but our ability to experience it, and its own popularity is already wilderness’s fastest-growing and most complicated threat. Here, the old Forest Service adage of achieving the greatest good for the greatest number is not as simple as achieving the greatest number—just as the greatest possible number of humans is not a sensible goal for planet Earth. 

Quota and permit systems are already used in some overcrowded wilderness areas; in those units, the obstacles to “unconfined recreation” go far beyond not riding a bike there. This is why managers speak of the “wilderness experience”: not to put value judgments on user-groups but to categorize preferences, so that people can be directed toward places managed for their preferences. 
Quota and permit systems are already used in some overcrowded wilderness areas; in those units, the obstacles to “unconfined recreation” go far beyond not riding a bike there. This is why managers speak of the “wilderness experience”: not to put value judgments on user-groups but to categorize preferences, so that people can be directed toward places managed for their preferences. 
Wilderness, like every land designation, is managed for its highest use. It is not meant to offer all things to all people. If riding a mountain bike has anything to do with wilderness character, its riders have little interest in explaining how. Advocates are transparent on this: if wilderness is not redefined to accommodate mechanized vehicles, then wilderness will have a fervent new enemy.

Mountain biker Kurt Gensheimer promises a growing “anti-conservationist movement,” while Felton shrugs: “Mountain bikers have been put in a position in which every new Wilderness gained is a wild place lost to them.” Felton’s admission illuminates an important distinction between mechanized and non-mechanized transport. Mountain bikes are not a tool for experiencing nature—they are a tool for enhancing it.

Riders pursue a relationship between the body, a vehicle loaded with sophisticated technology, and a constructed riding surface—and two of those players are antithetical to wilderness. We might even infer that this sport discourages the central goal of wilderness: the “preservation and protection [of landscapes] in their natural condition,” and conclude that nature for nature’s sake is incompatible with mountain biking. 

Not only does the The Human-Powered Wildlands Travel Management Act  aim to popularize wilderness, it aims to popularize it with those who are averse to wilderness character. Even this observation, however, needn’t constitute a judgment on any one who enjoys mountain biking.

Rather, it’s to establish an inevitability, given the nature of the sport: one consequence of pursuing “flow” is that attendant mountain bikers cannot look away from the trail for much more than a split second. 

Wilderness trails are rocky and winding, and if you look around too much, you’ll eat dirt. As long as a person is engaged in this fast-paced, attention-demanding pursuit, the quality of the surrounding environment—the wilderness character, if you will—becomes peripheral at best. This is a sport in which it profoundly does not matter if those endemic flowers keep blooming along the wayside, or if they go extinct. 
Remoteness and ruggedness are cornerstones of wildlife habitat security in the Gallatins, scientists say.  Mechanized vehicles enable riders to cover lots of miles in a day. The Interior Department has ordered that trails used by bicyclists be opened to e-bikes.  Many worry that if the Gallatin makes permanent mountain bike riding in the Hyalite-Porcupine-Buffalo Horn wilderness study area that e-bikes could one-day be granted access too, degrading the habitat security that wildlife need.
Remoteness and ruggedness are cornerstones of wildlife habitat security in the Gallatins, scientists say. Mechanized vehicles enable riders to cover lots of miles in a day. The Interior Department has ordered that trails used by bicyclists be opened to e-bikes. Many worry that if the Gallatin makes permanent mountain bike riding in the Hyalite-Porcupine-Buffalo Horn wilderness study area that e-bikes could one-day be granted access too, degrading the habitat security that wildlife need.
As we’ve seen, deliberately increasing use in wilderness is in itself a prospect with serious implications, contrary to the goals of the Act. But with mountain bikes, this concern is compounded by the fact that vehicles invite different types of impacts, ones that introduce unique concerns. The appeal of any backcountry vehicle, mountain bikes included, is traveling faster and further. In so doing, they encourage the disruption of more wildlife habitat than would otherwise be possible. 

Mechanical efficiency shrinks the functional size of wilderness. The correlation between isolation from human presence and environmental health led the Wilderness Act to place a premium on the simple vastness of protected space. It’s in there twice, actually—as a human value, because larger areas facilitate “opportunities for solitude,” and as a non-human value, because wilderness must be of “sufficient size as to make practicable its preservation and use in an unimpaired condition.” 

The time and energy required to penetrate wilderness is perhaps its greatest asset: it insulates the non-human from evermore-pervasive human disruptions. That’s the whole idea. And nothing poses a greater threat to natural autonomy than humans boosted by high-geared mechanical advantage. Not only do mountain bikes have an outsized presence as a result of their efficiency, but even if they covered the same amount of ground as foot-travelers, some evidence shows that their impact on wildlife would still be unnecessarily large. 

The Starkey Project, a study of land use and wildlife interactions on national forest in the American West, is pretty much the most comprehensive study of its kind imaginable. Over twenty-four years it incorporated the work of fifty-plus scientists, and generated over 140 research papers. One thing it tells us is that ungulate tolerance of mountain bikes is about the same as it is for ATVs: they will flee when either type of vehicle approaches within 1500 meters, compared to 500 meters for a hiker or 750 meters for a horseman.

In short, the corridor of disruption created by mountain biker appears to be about three times wider than necessary. This disruption pattern is supported by other wildlife research. Karsten Heuer describes a radio-collared grizzly sow abandoning a foraging circuit after a mountain-biking route showed rapidly increasing use (the self-identifying mountain-biking demographic grew 16 percent from 2010 to 2015). 

In a different sort of conflict, a mountain biker was killed in northwestern Montana after plowing into a grizzly in June 2016. “Investigators believe Treat had no time to react or avoid the collision.” While it isn’t fair to indict bicycling as a mode based on this single incident, because hikers are usually the ones getting attacked (in one study, however, biking has caused proportionately more conflicts in grizzly country than hiking), it is a good reminder that there are right and wrong ways to confront dangerous wildlife—and speedy surprises make for the worst of all. When we know that so many wild animals are already facing heat stress, reduced forage, and declining numbers, it would be irresponsible to throw more stressors into the mix without very good reason. 

And there is not a good reason. There is only an amplified demand, on the part of one user group, to engage protected places only on their own, weighted terms. To concede to such a demand would invert the core value for which wilderness is managed—from natural integrity to popular appeal—and throw out the counsel of science in the process. 
Wilderness is a place to put down our favorite amenities and explore what it means to go without. As our self-images become more intricately tangled with advancing technology, this challenge is bound to feel more and more personal. But for continuing to challenge us while essentially remaining the same, the value of wilderness to our society can only grow
Today, the sorts of red flags that prompted the conservation movements of the 1960s have only increased. Disturbing phenomena mar the most seemingly isolated places: there is a raft of garbage in the middle of the Pacific almost continental in scale, ice sheets failing at both poles, consistently unprecedented weather events, ecosystems collapsing almost everywhere we can think to look—all the while, the vanquishment of nature endures as the default human mode.

 As before, the causes of our planet’s deepest wounds are almost too removed and complex to begin to address. They must, therefore, be seen as symptomatic of something profound—a hubristic human tendency—a broken relationship. They are reminders that we have to slow down, reduce our footprint, and pay more attention. 
Do we know where we're going to? This is not merely an inquiry about navigation but anticipating the ever-accruing value of wildlife and wild places in an ever more crowded, fragmented and warmer world.  With the question of Gallatin Wilderness, it's not solely about today but anticipating the future.
Do we know where we're going to? This is not merely an inquiry about navigation but anticipating the ever-accruing value of wildlife and wild places in an ever more crowded, fragmented and warmer world. With the question of Gallatin Wilderness, it's not solely about today but anticipating the future.
Wilderness safeguards the most ephemeral yet basic resources of survival: water, air, and biodiversity. We entrust to wilderness baselines of ecological data. It is emblematic of a cooperative relationship. And for people who appreciate these things, wilderness incidentally provides opportunities for a unique form of recreation, one that is defined by human deference and self-restraint. 

Wilderness is a place to put down our favorite amenities and explore what it means to go without. As our self-images become more intricately tangled with advancing technology, this challenge is bound to feel more and more personal. But for continuing to challenge us while essentially remaining the same, the value of wilderness to our society can only grow. That was true before mountain bikes came along—and it’s even truer, now.
Todd Burritt
About Todd Burritt

Todd Burritt is an award-winning writer. He lives in southwest Montana. His book Outside Ourselves: Landscape and Meaning in the Greater Yellowstone was published in 2018. Burritt describes himself as a life-long student of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, having lived and worked in five of its communities, leading trail crews and working as a ranger in five different wilderness areas, as well as walking and skiing the lengths of all 12 of the region’s core mountain ranges.
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