Story and photographs by Aaron Teasdale
Cresting a ridge studded with subalpine fir in Montana’s Kootenai National Forest, our party of mountain bikers breaks out maps. As adventure cyclists and friends from northwest Montana, the unknown is our preferred terrain. “That’s where we’re going,” says local mountain bike advocate Marc O’Brien, pointing across a forested basin to a line of mountains rising in the north. We’re a few miles south of the British Columbia border. Our goal: a circumnavigation of the 14,945-acre tangle of mountains, lakes, and dinner-plate-sized grizzly tracks known as the Ten Lakes Scenic Area. We carry backpacks with water, food, first-aid, fire starters, and emergency supplies. On this October Saturday there is no one here but us. Stopping to marvel, I look down and comment on the minuscule margin of error the off-camber, seven-inch-wide singletrack offers. “Yeah, you really gotta keep your concentration up compared to a machine-made trail,” says Jason Hanchett, a local rider who works at nearby Whitefish Mountain Resort.
Back at the truck, after seven hours without seeing another trail user, we crack barley sodas and toast the day’s adventure. Backcountry trail riding like this is why we ride bikes. I ask the guys if they’re worried this could be their last ride here. The Kootenai National Forest is proposing to ban bikes from more than 70 miles of these trails because the land falls within the Ten Lakes Wilderness Study Area, a fact that leaves this group of wilderness loving mountain bikers emotionally confused. “I never thought in a million years I’d be anti-Wilderness,” says O’Brien. “I just want to ride my bike.”
Throughout the West, land managers are banning mountain bikes from hundreds of miles of trails that riders have pedaled, and often maintained, for years. The issue boils down to the difference between Wilderness with a capital W—where you can only walk or ride a horse in summer—and the type of lower-case wilderness trails that backcountry mountain bikers know as “epics.” After simmering for decades, a spate of recent closures now pits wildland-loving riders against Wilderness-loving conservationists. The fallout threatens to split the mountain bike advocacy community in two. And it’s poised to get worse.
Given the threats facing public lands from extractive industries and development, to say nothing of climate change, you might ask why the hell nature-loving people are wasting their energy fighting with other nature-loving people. To answer that requires a look back.
By the 1950s, the automobile was taking over America. The wild landscapes that once defined the nation were increasingly crisscrossed with roads—and the dams, mines, and logging operations they accessed. A conservation movement arose to protect what remained of America’s once great wilderness. It’s these conservationists we have to thank for many of our most prized wild places today. In 1964 came their crowning achievement: the passage of the Wilderness Act.
The strictest form of land protection in American history, the Wilderness Act called for protecting landscapes “where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”
In its all-out effort to create a place where people can escape the din of modern civilization, the Wilderness Act banned not just all motorized access, but all motors as well. To repair a historic Wilderness cabin you can’t even haul in chainsaws. The act predated the mass production of mountain bikes by 17 years, and bicycles weren’t referenced in the act at all. But when mountain biking boomed in the early 1980s, conservation groups pressured the government to explicitly ban bicycles from Wilderness. The U.S. Forest Service did exactly that in 1984. And the Bureau of Land Management and National Park Service followed suit, banning bikes in BLM and National Park Wilderness from coast to coast. Today, there are more than 109 million acres of designated Wilderness in America. Every one of those acres is closed to bikes.
“The Wilderness Act preserves that sense of timeless, primitive recreation,” says George Nickas, the executive director of Wilderness Watch, a national organization dedicated to protecting areas designated as Wilderness. “It’s not about discrimination. It doesn’t say I can go, but you can’t. It says if you or I choose to go, we have to go on foot or on horse.”
The thing to understand about Wilderness, though, is that it’s not real. Which is to say it’s an idea. To an urbanite from Los Angeles, a roadside picnic area in northern Idaho is wilderness. To a seasoned outdoorsperson, only remote Alaska qualifies. Environmental historian Roderick Nash, in Wilderness and the American Mind, wrote, “There is no specific material object that is wilderness. The term designates a quality…that produces a certain mood or feeling.” More simply, Nickas says that Wilderness, and the reverence it engenders, “is essential to the preservation of the world.” You can’t understand the current struggles over Wilderness without understanding this perspective.
Many mountain bikers you survey are fine with that. Sure, there are a few key trails mountain bikers would love to ride, but for years the blanket ban on bikes in Wilderness was something most cyclists accepted. Mountain bikers were content to work with land managers and conservation groups, often volunteering in huge numbers, to gain the respect of the greater outdoor community. Partnerships were created. Trails were built. Life was good.
But now, things aren’t so good for backcountry mountain bikers. More than 300 Wilderness designations have occurred since 1984. In recent years, new Wilderness closures piled up in New Mexico, California, Oregon, and Montana, and mountain bikers began losing not just remote parcels of forest, but established trails. Suddenly, capital W Wilderness became very real to them—and the number of disgruntled cyclists grew.
Mountain bikes don’t undermine Wilderness, they cried. Horses do far more damage. And if a wheel and gears are mechanical, what about a snowshoe with a mechanical hinge? Conservationists countered these arguments: bikes shatter the primitive remoteness Wilderness offers; our impact on nature extends far beyond our contact patch with the soil; the technological line needs to be drawn somewhere. There’s a reasonable debate to be had here, but instead mountain bikers too often found their interests ignored in the quest for more and more Wilderness.
Other mountain bikers argued a blanket ban on bikes was never the intention of the Wilderness Act. The original language explicitly bans all “mechanized travel,” which seems plain enough; mountain bikes are mechanical. But taken in the context of its day, and looking at uses the act specifically references, it could be argued that the act intends to restrict only “motorized” travel.
And then, the cacophony of griping cyclists reached a crescendo last August with the bizarre story of Idaho’s White Cloud Mountains.
A wild thrust of rolling sagebrush and sharp peaks sprinkled with alpine lakes, the White Cloud Mountains lie immediately east of the Sawtooth Wilderness and directly south of the Frank Church–River of No Return Wilderness. Only a small number of mountain bikers rode here, but the area and especially the Castle Divide Trail had earned life list status among trail riders. Not just for the terrain, which is ruggedly excellent, but for the back-of-beyond vibe. Like many remote backcountry zones with few users, there were no trail conflicts. The Adventure Cycling Association even mapped a long-distance bikepacking network, the Idaho Hot Springs Mountain Bike Route, through the White Clouds.
Conservationists, however, initially had different plans for the White Clouds. They’d been hoping to designate the range Wilderness since the 1960s. But as their effort stalled, they shifted strategy, reaching out to recreationists—including mountain bikers—to build a coalition to support not a new Wilderness designation, but a new Boulder-White Clouds National Monument. National Monuments are, in general, more open to multiple forms of recreation while still protecting land from development. In an exciting breakthrough, the International Mountain Bicycling Association (IMBA), along with local bike clubs, signed a memorandum of understanding with The Wilderness Society, Wood River Bike Coalition, and the Idaho Conservation League in support of the proposed 571,000-acre monument. That support was seen as a model for the type of collaborative, landscape-scale conservation planning that could unite the Wilderness and mountain bike communities.
All good. Groundbreaking, even. Except that Idaho’s Republicans weren’t about to let President Obama create a National Monument in their state. Unlike a Wilderness designation, which is an act of Congress, a National Monument can be assigned by presidential decree. The right wing sees these as government land grabs and opposes them. So in an ironic end run, Idaho Republicans craftily proposed three Wilderness areas in place of the one monument. Even though the protected land would only encompass half the acreage proposed for the National Monument, and it was meticulously drawn up to preserve motorized routes, conservation groups quickly turned their backs on mountain bikers to support the proposal. The boundary mapping was the ecological equivalent of gerrymandering—creating Wilderness to suit political needs.
With Republican support, something rarely seen for a modern Wilderness proposal, the bill sailed through Congress, and on August 7, 2015, President Obama signed it into law. With the stroke of a pen, it became illegal to pedal a bicycle in most of the White Cloud Mountains. The Forest Service gradually enforced the ban, eventually posting a ranger on the trails and ticketing bikers hoping to ride them one last time.
“The conservation community sought all this out to curb motorized use, but in the end they didn’t really do that,” says Brett Stevenson, formerly of the Idaho Conservation League and now on the board of the Wood River Bike Coalition. “The biggest losers were mountain bikers.”
And it was no small loss. Greg Randolph, an Olympic cyclist and avid mountain biker from Sun Valley, describes the legendary Castle Divide Trail as, “The sickest mountain bike trail I’ve ever ridden in my life. It gives you this sense of remoteness and beauty. I couldn’t believe it was real.”
“We’re non-motorized, human-powered, pro-Wilderness people being put in a position where we want to protect our public lands as we’re simultaneously getting booted off ’em,” says photographer Bob Allen, president of the Montana Mountain Bike Alliance who has seen close to 700 miles of singletrack lost to Wilderness, including the legendary Gallatin Crest and Sapphire Crest Trails. “And the conservation community’s response is, ‘Why don’t you go for a hike?’”
In 2003, IMBA commissioned a D.C. law firm to investigate suing to overturn the Wilderness ban. The lawyers concluded IMBA would burn money and political capital—and lose.
“That’s when we decided we needed to work more in partnership with the conservation community,” says Mike Van Abel, IMBA’s executive director. “When you’re dealing with public lands, mountain biking is just not big enough politically without working in partnership with others.” In the years since, IMBA formed the Outdoor Alliance—a coalition that brings together likeminded groups and works to conserve public lands for recreational access—and built thousands of miles of new trail while winning the respect of land managers accross the country. It would appear that they had indeed built that political base. Still, conservation groups count their members in the millions. With only eight million mountain biking enthusiasts in the country, IMBA claims all of 41,000 members.
But for many mountain bikers feeling the bite of lost trails, IMBA was glad-handing when they should have bare-knuckled. “IMBA has forged alliances, it’s true, but a lot of mountain bikers feel we’re still the red-headed stepchild of the outdoors,” says Mike McCormack, an open-space advocate and organizer of the Breck Epic mountain bike stage race. “Success is defined by what we haven’t lost. So we got to keep 10 miles of trail when the truth is that we lost 90.”
In response, last summer, Ted Stroll, a lawyer from California who’d been encouraging IMBA to fight the Wilderness bike ban for years, announced the formation of the Sustainable Trails Coalition. The STC’s goal is simple: remove the blanket ban issued in 1984. They drafted legislation—the Human-Powered Wildlands Travel Management Act of 2015—and hired lobbyists in D.C. to push it in Congress. The STC doesn’t seek access to all Wilderness trails; rather, they propose giving local land managers the discretion to open trails they deem appropriate. While that, in turn, could open a hornet’s nest of lawsuits and Forest Service infighting (what happens when forest managers change?), obstructionism is not the STC’s goal.
“Entire Wilderness areas might not accommodate bicycles at all,” says Stroll. “We’re fine with that. We just don’t like the blanket ban issued in Washington decades ago and maintained because the agency finds it convenient.”
The response of the conservation community to the STC’s proposal was as expected. The Wilderness Society and Wilderness Watch quickly issued strong statements opposing it. More surprising were the mountain bikers who melted Internet comment sections with invective aimed not just at Wilderness advocates but IMBA itself, accusing it of betraying the sport. “IMBA continues to display an advocacy Stockholm syndrome towards the organizations that try and uphold the blanket ban on bikes,” read one post.
“After losing trails for so long, Boulder-White Clouds was the tipping point,” says McCormack, who assists STC with media relations. “People are just done. IMBA doesn’t want to damage the relationships they’ve forged with Wilderness groups. STC is a berserker in the room to those people.”
The New England Mountain Bike Association, a prominent IMBA affiliate, penned an open letter calling on IMBA to support the STC. Former IMBA chair John Bliss joined STC’s board and released a blistering statement condemning IMBA’s inaction and calling it “ossified.” IMBA’s co-founder Jim Hasenauer (an early advocate of Wilderness cycling), stated, “I’m tremendously disappointed by IMBA’s lack of support for the STC.”
Meanwhile, IMBA stayed quiet, its internal calculations a mystery. It fell to Ashley Korenblat, owner of the esteemed guiding outfit Western Spirit Cycling, and a former IMBA president, to respond publicly. “The amount of damage that will be wrought [by STC’s proposal] will take us years and years to undo, and we will not gain one inch of trail,” she wrote in a heated Facebook debate among high-powered mountain bike elites.
Finally, IMBA’s executive director Van Abel announced in February that while it promised to be more assertive on Wilderness issues, “IMBA will not expend its hard-earned political capital on such a risky and unnecessary endeavor when so much more access can be achieved on 90 percent of public lands that are not currently protected as Wilderness.”
The statement hardly put STC supporters like McCormack at ease: “I’d like to know that if STC gets this legislation introduced, whether or not IMBA is going to stand in the way—or work behind the scenes to derail progress.”
However the rift between IMBA and the STC eventually plays out, more Wilderness will certainly be designated in the coming decade and beyond. How mountain bikers respond now could save many miles of cherished track. The White Clouds fiasco, however painful, is a worthy lesson. Convincing land managers and conservationists that there are effective alternatives and tweaks to Wilderness designations is the first step. In the case of the White Clouds, that almost meant a more user-friendly National Monument designation, which would have kept mountain bikers riding—and maintaining—many miles of beetle kill infested trail. “The White Clouds is an example of an otherwise successful strategy that backfired on us,” says IMBA’s Van Abel. “But the key is still to be at the table, steering Wilderness planning and proposals.”
In Southern California, IMBA and its local chapters negotiated for a non-Wilderness “corridor” in a Wilderness proposal for the Los Padres National Forest. Meaning the trail will be open to non-motorized recreation, but surrounded by Wilderness. A similar fix to a proposal in Summit County, Colorado, saw an existing trail system labeled as a National Recreation Area while the untrammeled country around it received Wilderness protection. And in 2014, IMBA and local cycling advocates in Northern New Mexico scored a pioneering victory by working with Senator Martin Heinrich and the conservation community to pass federal legislation adjusting the boundary of the existing Wheeler Peak Wilderness near Taos. That’s correct: After long negotiations, they were able to open a 20-mile, alpine singletrack loop that had been closed for half a century. It was the first time in history that IMBA and local mountain bikers negotiated access to a tract of land once labeled Wilderness.
This grow-up and show-up mentality has proven effective, whether a local club is just looking to build dirt jumps in an abandoned part of town, or if they’re fighting to save another trail from a Wilderness closure. Advocates say it’s vital to do the grunt work first, with shovels and pulaskis—and then to never miss a meeting as you build political clout. “Mountain bikers as a group tend to be very organized and highly productive on volunteer days,” says the Forest Service’s Garrett Villanueva, who heads up the trail program for the entire Pacific Southwest Region. “They’re motivated, dedicated, and they can bring out pretty good numbers.”
Forging working partnerships pays off. In Bozeman, the Montana Mountain Bike Alliance and IMBA sat down with The Wilderness Society and the Montana Wilderness Association in 2014 to pare down a proposed 275,000-acre Wilderness area to 67,000 acres with an adjacent 208,000-acre National Conservation Area preserving bicycle access. In a similar effort in North Carolina, local mountain bike organizations, supported by IMBA, are partnering with The Wilderness Society, the local Audubon Society, and hiking and equestrian groups to propose a sprawling conservation package that includes a new, 109,000-acre Wilderness area while putting the region’s beloved mountain bike trails into two new National Recreation Areas. This type of cooperative, consensus-based effort is what Eric Melson, IMBA’s associate regional director for Montana, calls, “the future of conservation.”
Van Abel adds, “Has there been a tipping point politically? Absolutely not. But, there are many in the conservation community that are rethinking the whole idea that bicycles in the backcountry are somehow anathema to a Wilderness experience. I see new acceptance and new thinking—that a bicycle is low impact, quiet, healthy, and is consistent with Wilderness. That’s happening.”
Another sign of change? The graying of the Wilderness base. The average age of visitors to designated Wilderness areas is rising. In one study of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, the age of the average visitor in 1969 was 26. In 1991 it was 36. In 2007 it was 45. “The writing is on the wall for the conservation community,” says Melson, who was a Forest Service Wilderness Ranger for seven years before working for IMBA. “There will be a generational and cultural shift to more inclusive forms of recreation in wild lands.”
That all may be true, but change isn’t happening fast enough for some. The flip side to that 20-mile ride opening in former Wilderness by Taos? The creation of the nearby Columbine Hondo Wilderness, which booted bikes from 75 miles of trail.
“We would love to work with the conservation community so we can go to bat together for the landscape and ecological values, knowing our trails our safe,” says Aaron Clark, who worked for Wilderness advocacy groups for nine years before joining IMBA as the conservation manager. “But too often the Wilderness community is dead set on Wilderness because that’s where they raise money. They don’t need more enemies, they need more supporters. Yet they’re doing a really good job of creating more enemies.”
As this story went to press, IMBA and the STC issued a joint release urging their respective followers not to split the mountain bike advocacy community.
Chad DeVall owns Red Barn Bicycles, a shop just outside of the town of Hamilton, Montana, which is currently 5,000 vertical feet below us. We’re out for a ride and DeVall is telling us about meeting a guy from the Bay Area who had so few legal options for mountain biking that he just poached and figured tickets were part of the cost of riding. “I didn’t want to tell him how many miles of trails we had,” DeVall said, before adding quietly, “I had no idea what was going to happen here.”
It’s October, 2015, and DeVall, Tim Buhl, and I are sneaking in the season’s final ride on the Sapphire Crest Trail in Montana’s Bitterroot Valley. More like the last ride ever. One hundred and seventy-eight miles of singletrack in the Bitterroot National Forest, including the Sapphire Crest, are slated for closure next spring; this, in a state with more than 3.4 million acres of Wilderness.
DeVall leads trail-work sessions in the forest every summer. His business and his passion drive his advocacy, but he says: “I’m scared. When does this stop? Are they just going to keep pushing and pushing, kicking us out of more and more places?”
We ride for hours across mountain ridgelines and past cliff-sheltered tarns, chasing adventure down little-used trails. At the sight of some old horse tracks, Buhl jokes, “We’re talking about getting fat bikes with horseshoe tread so we can keep riding in here.” Soon the trail fades entirely, leaving us route finding through the wilds as the sun sinks behind the western mountains. It’s perfect, if gut wrenching. As stars spray the Montana night we know we’ll never ride the Sapphire Crest Trail again.
Editor’s note: On July 13, thanks to lobbying from the Sustainable Trails Coalition, senators Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) introduced legislation that, if passed, would reverse the blanket ban on mountain biking in Wilderness areas, enabling decisions at the local level (the bill would also allow the use of motorized tools, like chainsaws, for trail maintenance). Despite the bill’s Republican sponsors—and the entire party’s new anti-federal land platform—many STC members see it as a cause for celebration.
From our Early Summer 2016 issue.