Endorsing hiking-only trails

When Wilderness advocates oppose bicycling in Wilderness we hear a litany of allegations about bikes,  but the idea they express most often involves their hiking experience. They want to hike and not see bicycles on the trail.

For some elderly people, it's a fear for their safety. Others have philosophical reasons. And, we cycling advocates must admit that occassionally some bicyclists act downright rude.

The safety fear is real: people feel it. But it's also not warranted, because collisions in the backcountry are essentially non-existent. These people ought to worry far more on urban bike paths, where bike speeds are much higher and the mix of mothers with baby strollers, four-abreast walkers, skate-boarders, and cycling commuters presents real safety issues. Still, I don't want people to feel scared. I want those old folks to have a good time.

For other hikers, there are feelings about seeing what they consider a non-Wilderness compatible mode of transport. They may disrespect the recreation goals of bicyclists ("Bicyclists don't appreciate Nature"). Or perhaps they simply just don't want to step off the trail when they meet cyclists.

A hiker's encounter with a rude, obnoxious, or confrontational bicyclist is likely to engender bad feelings toward all bicyclists.

Regardless of our agreements or disagreements about Wilderness philosophy or trail ettiquette, I endorse some degree of hiking-only, or hiking + horse-only trails. America's backcountry is big and we can afford some separation of uses.

Sociologists call this topic "user conflict." Because people can speak, user conflict is scientifically measurable. Science has indeed measured it and we know that a fair number of hikers don't like sharing trails with bicyclists. We also know of many places -- usually less crowded areas -- where cyclists and hikers get along fine on the trail, with no conflicts. Attitude going in has a lot to do with the feelings.

Does user-conflict mean that land managers must ban bicycling from 105 million acres of Wilderness and 70 million acres of national parks? Are these places set aside strictly for the experience of hikers?

The answer is clearly "no," because the primary purpose is -- or ought to be -- the preservation of nature. We have to introduce the moral "ought" because it seems that for some Wilderness proponents, preservation is actually secondary. Their primary goal is "hikers' heaven." Should land management agencies set aside more than a hundred million acres for a purpose which fundamentally promotes exclusivity, perhaps even elitism?

User-conflict divides us. Preservation can unite us. Mountain bikers, hikers, and equestrians care equally about protecting nature. We need to separate the user-conflict issue from the preservation goals.How about having plenty of hiking-only trails in non-Wilderness, and plenty of bicycling trails in Wilderness?

There is competition for the limited resource of wildland recreation opportunities. It is a political competition that presents decision-makers with a choice between equally good, but conflicting goals. The best answer is for people to share the trails, but again, some degree of separation is appropriate. The proper balance will shift with time and place and cultural changes.

Preservation is different. It's more absolute. When the road gets built, when the mine pollutes the waters, when the trees are gone, all wildland recreationists lose. When nature is diminished, the human race suffers the consequences.

Do leaders of the preservation/conservation movement want to expand the constituency of people who seek to protect nature? Would they like to see more "Yes" votes on the next ballot measure for an open-space tax? Would they like to have more allies in the next effort to stop a national forest logging project? Would they like a bigger coalition of people working to protect wildlands? If the answers to these questions are essentially, "no, we want hiking-only Wilderness, and bikes don't belong" then shame on them for wanting to kick us out us of the tent. Those who would discard and alienate the support of this big group of nature-loving, muscle-powered, non-polluting, silent, outdoor recreationists are not true preservation activists. If Wilderness means mainly that land is set aside for the experience of the few, rather than the wildland resource of the many, then we are truly a decadent culture.

The Wilderness Ideal is embodied in the Wilderness Act of 1964, which mixes ideas of preservation and recreation. "Untrammeled" Wilderness is a resource set aside "for the use and enjoyment of the American people in such manner as will leave them unimpaired for future use and enjoyment... " Wilderness, according to the Act, "has outstanding opportunities for solitude or a primitive and unconfined type of recreation." Today, this raises questions like, "Can bicyclists experience solitude?" and "Do people who use technologically advanced gear really experience 'primitive and unconfined' recreation?"

Even if the authors of the Wilderness Act had biocentric viewpoints, with the preservation of nature paramount over desires for wildland recreation, justifications based on human experience were necessary to achieve passage of the law. Political support remains no less important today. Outdoor recreation provides the political basis for preservation. Sure, let's compete, but at the same time let's include. Wilderness needs a big tent, not a private one.