Local preservationists speak out against bikes in wilderness proposal
July 29, 2016
In mid-July, Utah senators Mike Lee and Orrin Hatch introduced the Human-Powered Travel in Wilderness Act, which would mark a significant change in the way the United States stewards its wilderness areas. It would give local land managers the discretion to allow mountain bikes into previously restricted areas, as well as the use of motorized trail-cutting equipment like chainsaws.
"Our National Wilderness Preservation System was created so that the American people could enjoy the solitude and recreational opportunities of this continent's priceless natural areas," Lee said in the announcement. "This bill would enrich Americans enjoyment of the outdoors by making it easier for them to mountain in wilderness areas."
Hatch was equally enthusiastic.
"Utah is blessed with an abundance of beautiful wilderness, and Americans should be free to enjoy it," Hatch said. "This bill presents a reasonable approach to allowing the use of mountain bikes on trails and grant federal land managers the ability to do necessary maintenance."
After the bill was made public, several prominent figures made their opposition known, and among them was Peter Metcalf. A Park City resident for 25 years, Metcalf has been intimately involved with the outdoor retail industry. He got his start with Patagonia in the 1980s before founding his own business, Black Diamond. He also played a vital role in securing Salt Lake City as the home of the Outdoor Retailer trade group.
"I think it's a very bad, negative, and detrimental proposal," he said. "The Wilderness Act was thoughtfully architected over 60 years ago to protect the wild places that were left in America, which there weren't very many. And the idea that there should be no mechanized vehicles back there was done deliberately so that these landscapes could be protected and preserved in the most natural state."
Metcalf said Lee and Hatch are not considered friends to the wilderness and lands management community, so when they introduced a plan Metcalf said his guard was up. After reading the proposal, he said he doesn't think it has anything to do with giving mountain bikers more access.
"I think this is a bit of a Trojan horse to get involved with this issue, because they see it as one way to begin a somewhat obtuse attack on public lands and wilderness," he said. "And by allowing bicycles as well as mechanized equipment in there for trail cutting, it puts you on a slippery slope. Because then next is, what is the issue with electric bikes? Are those allowed, too? Do we broaden it to other mechanized equipment? It's a very slippery slope."
Put bluntly, Metcalf said he believes Lee and Hatch want to chip away at the Wilderness Act however they can, even if it means the destruction of endangered and fragile ecosystems.
"I am an enthusiastic mountain biker. It's not about being anti-mountain bike," he said. "It's about recognizing that mountain biking is different than trail running and hiking. And also recognizing that part of the idea behind the Wilderness Act was to preserve large, intact ecosystems to preserve their flora and fauna."
Mountain bikes move faster and would take people deeper into wilderness areas, he said, causing more damage than is acceptable. He also added that the way things work now is already ideal, in that mountain bikers have their trail systems and hikers who want to avoid bikes can turn to wilderness areas for peace and quiet.
"Look at Park City. I love mountain biking here but I don't hike here," he said. "There are places here where trying to go hiking would be stupid. You'll get run over. There are too many conflicts. So you go over to Little Cottonwood or Big Cottonwood, and just imagine having mountain bikes there. The conflicts are potentially huge. Mountain bike trails need to be discrete mountain bike trails."
Southern Utah shares concern
Scott Groene, executive director of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, was also quick to voice disapproval of the Human-Powered Travel in Wilderness Act. Southern Utah boasts several Bureau of Land Management-protected areas — including White Canyon, Cedar Mesa, the Book Cliffs and the San Rafael Swell — and he said he worries that those areas would be next to have their protections eroded.
"It's an attack on the Wilderness Act," he said. "Opponents of wilderness have long tried to chip away at the Wilderness Act of 1964 by creating exceptions that would be the camel's nose under the tent. And this is one more effort at that."
Groene said those who think mountain bikers are clamoring for wilderness area access should think again.
"[This bill] is being pushed by two of the worst senators on the environment, and at a time when the number of mountain bike trails have grown and improved dramatically,” Gorene said. “There is no need for this legislation."
Groene said Moab is a great example of his point. What 25 years ago was little more than "slick rock and a bunch of Jeep trails" is now completely transformed.
"A lot of hard work by a lot of people, and now we have hundreds of miles of great single track."
Groene said he agreed with Metcalf that allowing mountain bikes into wilderness areas would only upset the balance outdoor enthusiasts currently enjoy.
"Many of us here in Utah, we enjoy riding bikes, and we enjoy hiking in wilderness, and we have access to both," he said. "And that's a great place to be. Right now, less than 1 percent of the state of Utah is wilderness, so it doesn't really make sense why you would try to push your way in there at the risk of undermining the Wilderness Act."
Wasatch, Uinta would be greatly affected
The Wasatch and Uinta mountain ranges are home to several wilderness areas of their own, including Lone Peak — Utah's first designated wilderness area, made official in 1978 — Twin Peaks, Mount Olympus and the High Uintas. Carl Fisher, executive director of Save Our Canyons, did not mince words when discussing Lee's and Hatch's proposal.
"I think it's one of the biggest threats to the Wilderness Act we've seen in a long time," he said. "It's intention is to try to undo a tried and true conservation strategy and management strategy that's really been focused on the land, not on use. So this is taking away from the intrinsic value of the land, and focusing solely on use. And wilderness is bigger than that."
Fisher said he thinks Lee and Hatch are hoping to pit preservationists and bikers against each other. He added, though, that he doesn't think it will work.
"Overwhelmingly what we've seen is that people see the value of wilderness and are afraid it might be jeopardized," he said. "As divisive as this proposal is — with the pitting of people against each other who I think it's safe to say share similar values — I think cooler heads will prevail.
"I think everyone understands there is something more important at stake here than our own personal uses."