Wild Ride

David Tucker's picture
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Stop blocking mountain-bike access.

For a while, I’ve resisted the urge to write about mountain-biking access, or the lack thereof as it were. I’ve been forced to grapple with two conflicting interests: my love for biking and my love for wild places. The former employee of the Sierra Club in me cautions that land is finite, and unspoiled land rapidly disappearing. Therefore, everything should be done to manage land under the strictest designations possible: Wilderness. But the mountain biker in me looks around at the way Wilderness is currently managed and shakes his head, asking the simple question, “Why aren’t mountain bikers allowed in? And why are more and more trails being closed, even outside of Wilderness?”

Montana Mountain Biking, Wilderness Mountain Biking
Look away: a mountain bike in nature

These questions haven't been answered to my satisfaction yet.

In fact, over the past several years, since mountain biking has become more mainstream, we’ve discovered more evidence to support biking in Wilderness, not restrict it. According to multiple studies, biking has no more impact on the environment than hiking, and far less than horseback riding. Mountain bikers are devout stewards of sustainable trail building, maybe because they’re all closet tree-huggers, or maybe because riding sustainable trails is more fun—they last longer and require less maintenance. Advocacy groups are forming overnight and a commitment to conservation and responsibility is a staple of their mission statements. Why should we be denied access? And why should access be taken away? Does the sight of bikers so offend that other user groups would deny us access based on that alone? Aren’t we over the idea that mountain bikers are punks up to no good? I’d like to think that we—and when I say we I’m talking about all user groups spending time on public lands in southwest Montana—are more mature than that. I’d like to think that by now, each of us has met a mountain biker who’s instilled a sense of trust and faith that that individual is worthy of sharing our public lands.

But why are bikers the only ones who have to prove their worth? In my experience, trail users of all stripes act irresponsibly and unethically. Dog owners leave piles of shit everywhere, not just on heavily used, close-to-town trails. Safari-hat-and-trekking-pole hikers have aggressively ushered my friends and fellow riders from the trail, when there’s more than enough room for both (we were climbing, by the way). There is the unsubstantiated notion that bikers are aggressive, clueless, and destructive. None of these conclusions are true, however. And what is more unsettling to the eye: a biker resting peacefully against a rock before descending down a given trail, or a horse’s ass as it takes another monster dump right in the middle of the trail? Yet horsepackers can freely travel where they please, bringing everything with them but the kitchen sink. They can travel in large groups and bring over a dozen animals along with them. In an otherwise pristine alpine basin, they can set up camp for days, and upon leaving, leave behind them campsites that forever alter the landscape. How is that not incongruous with wilderness?

Horsepacking, Montana
A dozen horses probably won't impact the trail at all...

It isn't even that I'm asking for access to already-established Wilderness. I do, however, want closures to stop. Earlier this year, 178 miles of trail within Wilderness Study Areas were closed to mountain bikers in the Bitterroot National Forest. The Bozeman area is no stranger to trail closures in WSAs, and we know all too well how long Congress can take when deciding whether or not to designate an area officially Wilderness. Yet the closures persist. Again: why?

I’m not one to deny people access to land, or rank my recreation above another’s, but mountain bikers deserve a fair shake. It's time to stop thinking about us as destructive and rethink how we can access more trails, or at least how we can work to ensure our riding opportunities don't keep evaporating. Mostly, we have to acknowledge the contradicting and often hypocritical reasoning behind keeping bikes out.

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