Treading Lightly

The Biggest Environmental Impact of Mountain Biking May Be Inspiring More People to Care

Mountain biking in the French Alps at Col de la Seigne

Some believe mountain bikes are too environmentally destructive for off-road use. However, research has shown that the environmental impact of biking is similar to hiking. When cyclists to are permitted to use trails, more people are allowed the opportunity to develop meaningful relationships with wild places and to join in the effort to preserve them.

Andie Bridges

The 1964 Wilderness Act banned mechanical transportation in federally designated wilderness areas. The intention was to limit the use of the land to the least impactful forms of recreation. At the time, the sport of mountain biking didn’t exist, but in 1984, shortly after mountain bikes became commercially available, the U.S. Forest Service broadened its regulations and banned biking in wilderness areas.

Jim Hasenauer, one of the founders of the International Mountain Bicycling Association and of WildBike, says that the restriction on mountain bikes is not supported by research. At the time the ban was passed, “mountain bikes were a new kind of recreation, riders weren’t organized and the environmental impacts of mountain biking weren’t known.” He goes on, “Now that the facts are in, we deserve a fair hearing.”

Hasenauer, says the goal of WildBike is to prompt a reconsideration of the 1984 ban on bikes, which he says was largely born out of user conflict between the rapidly growing population of mountain bikers and the traditional trail users; hikers, and equestrians. When conflict arose, hikers and equestrians had numbers and political will on their side, and cyclists were sent packing.

Cyclists have long pointed out that allowing horses to utilize the wilderness trails while banning bikes seems at odds with the goal of preservation; studies have shown that horses have a much more profound impact on trails than either hikers or cyclists.

Santa Barbara mountain biker Erin Carroll says, “It makes absolutely no sense that stock animals are generally allowed in wilderness areas whereas mountain bikes are completely banned.” The animals “not only make trails sandy and chunky, but they poop out whatever they have eaten in the last few days, which often are seeds of nonnative invasive grasses and other plants, which will then grow and take over native flora.”

Longtime conservationist and southern Montana resident Howie Wolke says the ban on bikes helps provide important protection for vulnerable land and animals. He believes bikes in the backcountry “make formerly remote areas more accessible via their speed, thus reducing an area’s core wildness and adding a new layer of disturbance to wilderness-dependent species.”

Wolke and his wife own and operate an adventure company, and he has led more than 500 backpacking trips. During his time in the wilderness, Wolke has experienced the damage that some mountain bikers can cause, saying, “They frequently leave designated trails and tear up native vegetation.”

If bikes were allowed on all trails, Wolke argues, more habitat would be destroyed. “Because there are always ‘a few bad apples,’ mountain bikes are an invitation for those people to violate regulations designed to protect fragile areas.” He suggests that walking within these sensitive environments may provide the same level of enjoyment without the risk of damage.

Because of the ban on bikes, any newly designated Wilderness Area is viewed as a loss by mountain bikers, especially when the area includes trails that the cyclists have helped to maintain and have ridden for years. The ban pits ecological preservationists and cyclists against each other, despite their shared goal of saving and enjoying wild places.

Tony Biegen, chair of Outings for the Santa Barbara Sierra Club, says one way to solve this conflict is to shift boundaries so that existing mountain bike trails are not disrupted, but the land around them is protected. He says, “We are dedicated to working with other user groups when wilderness designation is considered to modify boundaries to allow for their concerns as to loss of bicycle access.”

Another proposed solution is creating a Wilderness-B designation. This could provide all of the protection of the traditional “wilderness” label but allow cyclists to continue to use the trails. Bikepacking champion Eszter Horanyi likes the idea. “It seems like a great compromise where the land still gets protected but doesn’t shut out an entire user group.”

Biegen says the Sierra Club will continue to support the ban on bikes in Wilderness-designated areas, but he believes other concessions may be appropriate. Collaboration and consideration are key. “If we can all agree that the most important issues are safety of all users, protection of our fragile environment, and mutual respect, we can work through any issues.”


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