Boots not Bikes

Posted by on Oct 22, 2009 in Bike, Outdoor | 8 Comments
Henry's Fork Basin, High Uinta Wilderness

Henry's Fork Basin, High Uinta Wilderness

One of the problems I have with the “boots not bikes” argument surrounding the designation of Wilderness areas is how subjective it has all become. Because bikes have proven to be safe, quiet, sustainable methods of backcountry travel, there is no other sort of argument to be made, other than an appeal to some mythical reverence and experience that only the absence of bikes can provide. It’s hogwash, because that experience cannot be defined. It – whatever that is – is different for everyone who ventures into wild places. And yet, the rhetoric being piled on the no-bikes fire is soaked in the emotional butane of indefensible, purely subjective, rancor that serves only to paint with a broad brush both proponents, and opponents of Wilderness.

For example, in an otherwise excellent article, the conclusion that:

despite what mountain bikes offer, there comes a point when you’ve got to get off your bike and experience the world directly, as up close as possible…Wilderness is about re-creating the fundamental conditions given to us as a human species. It is a place to walk softly while we try to figure out how we got here and where we’re heading. It is that place out there where you’ve got to get off your bike.

Why? Why do I need to get off my bike to be able to appreciate the world up close and personal? Every ride I have ever been on, and I can claim this without hyperbole or exaggeration, has helped to reconnect me with an innate love for the outdoors, the mountains, the deserts. The desire to feel alive and fit and at one with the world around me is continually rekindled. This blog is evidence enough of that. Too often our human experience has become clouded in the everyday urban demands of economic and social survival. People are not making these connections nearly enough. But then, again, those connections are largely personal, intimate, and unpredictable occurrences that might be sparked by an unplanned encounter with wild and primitive landscapes. Or, simply, with wild and primitive emotions.

Wilderness has no monopoly on wilderness.

But an appeal to those emotions is a shallow approach to argument and policy. Indeed, it reeks of an elitist stance in which objection for the sake of objection is the highest and most authoritative form of dialogue. That sort of attitude never endears anyone on the opposite side of any argument. Collaboration and compromise (the essence of capitalism, just to add a little potential for reader participation) is usually the best form of policy making and discussion. Essentially mountain bikers have been locked out of the committee room, and barred from any meaningful Wilderness negotiations or discussions.

The original intent of the Wilderness Act of 1964 was to cull the automobile expansion in the West. The text of the 1964 legislation does not specifically ban bikes. That came in 1984. (ever wondered what IS allowed in Wilderness? You might be surprised) At that time the ban was somewhat understandable. Mountain biking was catching on as a valid recreational outlet, but its impact on trails and on the safety of other trail users was largely unknown. Today those questions have been answered. And they have rendered the 1984 amendment “anachronistic, an indication of prejudice and lack of accurate information at the time.” In fact, since then, because of user impact studies we also know that horses have a much more negative impact on trails, and on the environment surrounding them than that of either hikers or mountain bikers. However, I respect, even if I despise the effects, the right of a horsemen to seek that backcountry experience. For all the grumbling I do about manure on the trail, neither its presence, nor that of horses themselves have ever really endangered the enjoyability of being in the outdoors.

But looking beyond the emotional rhetoric, which could be argued is all I ever write in this space, I still have a hard time supporting Wilderness Areas because they paint very diverse lands with one very broad stroke. It is unrealistic to manage the desert near Moab the same as the Cottonwood Canyons. As I argued earlier, land ought to be managed by those who use that space. By those informed of the resources, the usage, and the impact that the local population is having on any given acreage. Sometimes Wilderness designation is appropriate. Often times much less restrictive, more reasonable designations achieve the same purpose, but do so without alienating any user groups. And in those cases, user groups are much more likely to work together toward a common end.

But for some, that common end is not enough. It is more satisfying to object, because objection feels empowering and important (and I get that, trust me, I’m libertarian – I have a lot to object to these days). But the subjective and emotional nature of the bikes VS. Wilderness argument has been reduced to one, rather short sighted sentiment, expressed concisely in this 2008 article: “We weren’t happy about having to share the trails with the group [of mountain bikers]”.

As long as that is the driving force behind “boots not bikes” then no common progress will ever be achieved. That sort of attitude also negates any appeal to that obtuse “experience” that is supposedly being rendered moot by pedal bikes.


  1. Ed
    October 22, 2009

    “despite what mountain bikes offer, there comes a point when you’ve got to get off your bike and experience the world directly, as up close as possible…Wilderness is about re-creating the fundamental conditions given to us as a human species. It is a place to walk softly while we try to figure out how we got here and where we’re heading. It is that place out there where you’ve got to get off your bike.”

    LOL!! Tell that to the equestrians who sit 6 feet off the ground on SADDLES whilst their 1,000 lbs. horses trod the ground with metal-shod hooves and defecate freely on and around the trails.

    While I agree that there are times to get of the bike, put feet to the ground and experience wilderness on a new level, it does not mean I don’t enjoy and respect wilderness from my bike saddle.

    So much hypocrisy, elitism and BS.


  2. mark
    October 22, 2009

    If we give primacy to the hiker in this argument (which I’ll only do for argument’s sake), I’d still rather, as a hiker, share the trails with mountain bikes than horses. Mountain bikes are smaller, easier to get around, less dangerous. And last I checked, mountain bikers didn’t poo on the trails. Maybe some do, but none I ride with.

    If wilderness were just for hikers, I could see (but not agree with) banning bikes. But since horses are allowed, the bike ban makes no sense.

    Here’s the thing though, when was the last time you saw a ranger in the wilderness? Go ride there and enjoy it until you get caught. If/when you get yourself in trouble, then fight the ban in court. That may actually be the best approach.

  3. mark
    October 22, 2009

    Ed, I think you meant to say HS, not BS.

  4. forrest
    October 22, 2009

    I like to fly fish. On the East Fork of the Blacks in the Uintas where the trail starts to hike into the wilderness area grazing horses have completely decimated streamside vegetation and have ruined the stream in this area. It will take decades to heal. Also dont get me started on the grazing of cattle and sheep on Federal lands. I have seen that ruin so many ecosytems far worse than any biker ever will. Its a double standard out there. Horses have ruined my “wilderness” experience more than once and I think they do more harm to the wilderness than any other mode of transportation except ATVs.

  5. mtb w
    October 22, 2009

    I’m with you on this. I can’t believe what a limited viewpoint these other articles have – that there can’t possibly be more than one type of user, particularly one that has such a small impact comparable to hikers. If it is truly “wilderness”, then even hikers should be banned. These authors just can’t comprehend that cyclists can fully appreciate the “wildnerness”.

    I do not know, however, to what extent these writers are able to influence FS managers or its policy. I suspect very little. FS was set up to manage, lease and sell federal lands for mining, oil, timber, etc. purposes. I would like to know who does set FS policy and what factors are taken into account and how it is weighed.

    mtb w

  6. Jake
    October 22, 2009

    I appreciate the insight and well thought out arguement you present for allowing bikes into the “wilderness”. It is a subject that, like it or not, we should all be up to speed on. Unfortuneately we are not. Keep it coming.

  7. Kendra
    October 23, 2009

    If we have to walk to see the forest/wilderness I will miss out. If it wasn’t for mountain bikes I would not have seen all the trails and forest that I have seen. The most I can walk is a mile, but I can ride forever. Well, at least until I get tired.


  8. GWH
    October 24, 2009

    I agree with the reasoning of your argument but I think your conclusion of local control over wilderness would have some negative consequences for mountain bikers and other users. If conservative UT voters had their say, our wilderness would be crawling with 4 wheelers, motorcycles, (even more) grazing animals, ski resorts, etc. I agree with local control as an ideal but there is no way we would have anything like Grand Staircase/Escalante if it were left up to the locals. Bikes should absolutely be allowed in wilderness areas, but I don’t think it is the “hippies” that are the primary group keeping us out.
    As a side note, if you are actually a libertarian (capital L?) wouldn’t you advocate private, for profit ownership of all land?

Sign up for email updates and get STOKED!

A FREE manifesto for subscribers.