Preservation Beyond Wilderness

America, born into a great, new frontier, retains considerable wildness despite five centuries of efforts to tame and develop this continent. Upon this wild foundation, Nature has a chance to regain much of the magnificence and splendor that awaited the first explorers. Many of us in the preservation movement dream of a rebirth of the grandeur that was early America.

This leads us to support protection of as much of the original natural, unsullied landscape as possible. A long, rich history informs our advocacy. In "Wilderness and the American Mind," historian Roderick Nash traced our concern for natural preservation back to the 18th and early 19th centuries, to romantic ideas about nature and concerns for the welfare of domestic animals. People like Audubon and Muir expanded our ideas to celebrate our natural heritage and find in it spiritual inspiration. Muir spurred a political movement to set aside big landscapes. In the 1930s, the movement coalesced around an idea of Wilderness and pushed for that vision until Congress enacted the 1964 Wilderness Act. Since then the preservation movement has focussed primarily on the Wilderness law to get more lands protected.

We revere this noble history. We want to be part of it. We want to see all the remaining wild lands protected from development. We are card-carrying  environmentalists and belong to local, regional and national land protection and preservation organizations.

We also want to personally enjoy these protected landscapes. We want re-creation in places where nature and natural forces predominate.  We seek spirituality through encounters with the natural world. We gain health from moving on our own power through natural beauty.

Mountain bikers usually go through a progression.  If we’re open, the more we visit wild places the more our appreciation and commitment grows. Of course this is equally true for hikers, for equestrians, for anglers, for hunters – for all of us who get our sustenance from being in the wild.

So we bemoan that many people view our favorite muscle-powered, non-polluting mode of travel as antithetical to preservation. It need not be so.

The idea of Preservation comes out of the national parks and wilderness movement. That movement has managed to protect much, perhaps most, of the core, wild places. But Preservation is much more than national parks and wilderness. Preservation is about protecting the whole fabric of life, not just the special places. It's about the low, wetlands, so often in private hands. It's often about the maintenance and restoration of wildlife habitat on the big expanses of agricultural lands. So many endangered species issues occur in lands that could never qualify for designation as national parks and wilderness.

Biological sciences  have somewhat recently taught us what it takes to maintain full, intact ecosystems.  We need connectivity: Protected place must not be islands.  Wild systems require interaction, animals must be able to move, pollen and seeds must travel. We must protect the entire natural fabric, not just its highlights.

There is a great simile with trail advocates here.  Trails and greenways are the linear parks that also provide those natural connections. The acquisition and protection of lands for trails, spurred by public pursuit of recreation in nature, builds links. Outdoor recreation, or "re-creation," leads people to vote yes on tax increases for land protection. It leads them to support politicians who support Preservation.  It builds the constituency for conservation. John Muir was an ardent outdoor recreation advocate.

Land qualities that make for satisfying trail recreation are exactly the qualities that sustain biological health.

The people of the conservation and recreation commnities need to unite around our common goal of protecting the wild and natural places that we treasure. We have to find a way to transcend our differences. Surely, we can find ways to co-exist on trails.

Mountain bicyclists are a natural conservation constituency. Environmentalists should embrace us and see cyclists as prime candidates for environmental education and advocacy. To get there, they must give up a prejudice. We all must not believe or assert that one form of muscle-powered recreation is right, or holy, and another wrong. How different is the thrill of bicycling from the joy of intense hiking? Don't trail runners get just as much spiritual connection as equestrians? Kayakers may be fast and anglers quiet and still, but both love the river.

If the Wilderness movement can broaden its thinking to include within its community the millions of mountain bikers, the preservation movement will grow much stronger. Perhaps together we can achieve that grand vision of a restored Wild Earth, at least in North America.