Mountain bikers are gearing up to stay on track in backcountry areas being proposed for federal wilderness designation in the Inland Northwest and throughout the nation.
Most people know that motors are prohibited in official wilderness, but federal wilderness rules also ban “mechanized equipment.” That term has been interpreted to include mountain bicycles, which had not yet been invented when Congress approved the Wilderness Act in 1964.
Modern recreation warrants an updated discussion in wilderness debates, biking advocates say.
In 43 years, the Wilderness Preservation System has grown from 9.1 million acres to 107.4 million acres of federal land, and more areas are being considered.
In December, 12 new wilderness areas were designated in Nevada. Washington has not had new wilderness areas designated since 1984, but a 100,000-acre Wild Sky Wilderness proposal on the West Side is likely to be approved this year.
More proposals are being developed by groups and federal officials who say the nation’s most restrictive land-use designation is the only sure way to protect the wildlife, water quality, fragile environments and pristine scenery of these choice backcountry living laboratories.
“Although wilderness is often seen as the gold standard in land protection, Congress can, and does, use other designations that preserve the land, allow bicycle access and may be more relevant to local uses and needs,” said Jenn Dice, International Mountain Biking Association government affairs director.
IMBA is not seeking changes to the Wilderness Act, or asking that bikes be allowed in wilderness, Dice said recently at the Outdoor Retailer trade show in Salt Lake City. Locally, however, some bikers want them changed.
Mountain bikers organized to make sure their desires were at least considered in wilderness bills written for Colorado, Georgia, Oregon and Virginia, Dice said.
“Because of the proactive approach IMBA and its affiliated clubs have taken, and our willingness to work with other groups, these bills represent a more inclusive approach to land protection legislation,” she said.
In Virginia, mountain bikers helped include nearly 12,000 acres for National Scenic Areas, while Oregon leaders were instrumental in negotiating for a National Recreation Area designation to protect their favorite trails while still supporting other wilderness proposals.
Mountain bikers also have joined Colville National Forest planning sessions that ultimately will result in wilderness proposals. Currently, the Colville Forest has nearly 490 miles of trails designated for non-motorized recreation. Mountain biking is currently allowed on all of those trails, with the exception of 79 non-motorized trail miles in the Colville’s portion of the Salmo-Priest Wilderness, said Debbie Wilkins, Forest Service travel planning specialist.
Cyclists could lose access to a significant amount of these choice single-track trails as wilderness proposals emerge in the current forest planning process. Up to a third of the roadless areas on the forest’s 1.1 million acres could be considered for wilderness designation.
“Unfortunately, we’re not very organized in our approach,” said George Heath, a mountain biker from Colville. “It’s a big dilemma, because we’re all pretty much environmentalists, but we take a big gulp when we look at giving up our favorite mountain biking areas, like the Kettle Crest Trail.”
The Kettle Crest, marked by a trail that runs 43 miles from the Colville Indian Reservation north across Sherman Pass to Boulder-Deer Creek Pass, has been the centerpiece of Colville National Forest wilderness proposals for four decades.
Tim Coleman, a wilderness advocate from Republic, has been working most of that period to negotiate wilderness issues with loggers, miners and livestock grazers in the Colville and Okanogan forests. Mountain bikers are an unforeseen stick in the spokes of wilderness advocacy, he said.
Currently with Conservation Northwest, Coleman applauds the Wilderness Act authors for great foresight in banning “mechanized” equipment to protect wilderness values from a growing human population that will always be inventing new ways to claw at natural areas for fun or profit.
“Faster access into the heart of wilderness in effect shrinks the wilderness just as our Interstate Highway System has shrunk the West,” he said. “I find it incredibly ironic that one of the most efficient mechanical devices ever engineered would be used to weaken and potentially destroy the very essence of our National Wilderness Preservation System.”
Speed is a particularly divisive issue when bikers, who can go very fast on downhills, meet hikers or horse riders.
“Part of that can be handled with trail work to develop better sight lines,” said Tim Banning, a Backcountry Bicycle Tails Club member from the Seattle area and member of the Colville Confederated Tribes. “Part of it is educating riders on trail etiquette and part of it is perception. If you’re not a mountain biker, they probably look reckless. But they actually have a lot more control than you think.”
Mountain bikers say they have an uphill grind just to be understood in public land management.
“We’re the red-headed stepchild and we’ve taken a lot of beatings,” Banning said. “We’ve generally taken a defensive position, trying to prevent trail closures. We haven’t had enough organization to stand up with the more powerful advocacy groups.”
After bicycles were banned from the Middle Fork Snoqualmie area in 1996, mountain bikers eventually negotiated with hiking groups, environmentalists and Forest Service officials to get back onto the trails, he said.
“It’s been reopened to bikes, but only on odd-numbered days, with seasonal closures, and we have to do trail work and promise that we wouldn’t get in the way of wilderness designation for the Pratt River area,” he said.
Elsewhere, he said his group wants to see areas protected from development, but by using a “national recreation area” title or some other land-use designation that’s less restrictive than wilderness.
“Wilderness isn’t always the best choice,” said Chelsea McMahon, a member of the Spokane-based Fat Tire Trail Riders and a mother of three who lives in Addy, Wash. “The Kettle Crest Trail is a good example.
“Cattle grazing is allowed on the Kettle Crest and the Forest Service said the grazing will continue even if the area is declared wilderness. I have a real hard time understanding why bikes would be banned and cows would stay. Cattle do way more damage to trails than mountain bikes.”
Considering the shrinking recreation budgets for federal agencies, McMahon said it doesn’t make sense to close some areas to the use of chainsaws, efficient trail-clearing tools that are prohibited in wilderness.
McMahon said she has gained insight by representing mountain bikers at Colville National Forest planning sessions over the past two years. “Just getting people to come to the table and listen to each other is good because you can see that we all share a common love for the forest,” she said.
“That said, we didn’t accomplish as much as I’d like to see. The solution seems to be a matter of putting up with some things and realizing that people have multiple interests.”
Wilderness advocates and bikers agree there’s a need to develop more mountain-biking trails.
Bill Way, a retired teacher who lives in Colville, is promoting a mountain bike trail system on old logging roads near Old Dominion Mountain, a 15-minute drive from Colville. The area is snow-free and open for riding far longer than the high country, he said.
By working in some technical trails, the lowland area could be an attraction for all types of riders, he said.
“I’ve ridden the Kettle Crest, but I’ve decided it’s a better place for me to hike,” he said. “You have a hard time looking around from a bike.”
“I’m a mountain biker and I love wilderness,” Coleman said. “Our greatest challenge is to realize there is too little wilderness and too few trails to satisfy non-wilderness recreation needs.”
George Heath agrees. “For as much forest as we have in the Colville, the mountain biking opportunities are amazingly limited,” he said. “A friend of mine who used to live in Chewelah said he had to move to Spokane to find good mountain biking trails.”
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