When the legendary conservationist Aldo Leopold imagined the idea of legally designated wilderness, he thought it should be a place that gave him enough space to take off on a horse-packing trip. It was a noble idea. Legal “Wilderness” is something unique in our history, a movement that says we as human beings have evolved enough that we can protect and enjoy the natural life and ecosystems of this planet without having to use or change them. I think that is a value all in itself.
In a world in which I can barely put my iPhone down while having a conversation with my friends, in which every spot in a café is filled up by someone in front of a laptop, in which even after the most enlightening yoga class, we get back in our cars and curse at traffic, we need unaltered nature. Once wilderness is gone, it never comes back.
But I am also a fervent mountain biker. And when it comes to capital W, legal wilderness, that is a big conflict. Bikes—like chainsaws, four-wheelers, bolt drills and wave runners—are not allowed in Wilderness. That’s probably a good thing, since fast-moving folks in lycra may not do permanent damage to wild lands, but they do somehow cheapen the sanctity of the experience (and I know you hard-core bikers just groaned at that, since you see your pedal-powered experience as sacrosanct). But that’s a philosophical argument I don’t want to have.
The real problem is that a lot of our public lands are not protected and conservationists who worry that oil and gas, timber, mining and other big extractive industries will gobble up these spots have no other surefire way to save them except by having them made legal wilderness. But do that and thousands of miles of singletrack will go away.
And as much as I get poetic about Wilderness, I love mountain biking. It’s another form of easing my work-weary mind and it’s a beautiful, healthy way to experience the undulations of land and trail, to breathe. And when it comes to Wilderness, mountain biking didn’t exist when Leopold was packing his horses so it is very difficult to truly argue that it is not a legitimate, clean, conscious way to enjoy wild lands. So please don’t take my singletrack away, either by tearing it up to build a mine or by gating it off for foot traffic only.
The answer? We need a new vision like Leopold’s. We need legally protected public lands that incorporate this new emerging ethic and way of experiencing the land—on the saddle of a bike. And there’s hope. The International Mountain Biking Association (IMBA) is in the process of working with conservationists and government officials and lawmakers to create new land management designations that will keep roads out and bikes in. The plan is called the Public Lands Initiative and IMBA, along with 38 companies in the bike industry, has promised to keep bike trails open, preserve wild lands and build coalitions with other conservation groups.
So join IMBA, help protect more land without closing it off to bikes and most of all spend some time experiencing the land itself. As that poet of the West Roy Rogers said, “God ain’t making any more of it.”