Mountain bikes and wilderness don’t mix

To loosen wildland restrictions now starts us down a slippery slope.


My first wolverine sighting in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem happened on a warm July afternoon in 2012. On a pass above northwest Wyoming’s West DuNoir Creek, I watched as the elusive animal scaled a rock face and then ambled away. Under prehistoric conditions, wolverine populations were thinly spread across big landscapes; in 21st century America, wolverines veer toward the endangered species list.

Wolverines need wilderness to survive. That’s one reason that conservationists for four decades have promoted wilderness designation for the DuNoir, which is contiguous with the designated Teton and Washakie wilderness areas.

The roadless DuNoir landscape is stunning; its wooded basins and sprawling tundra provide rich wildlife habitat for many species native to Greater Yellowstone. Unfortunately, it also appeals to a growing cadre of mountain bikers, who sometimes speak louder than wildland defenders. The Shoshone National Forest is on record as opposing wilderness designation for the DuNoir, as the Forest Service plans a bike route through the heart of the area.

Turn back the clock 50 years to when Congress passed the Wilderness Act, our foremost land protection law. Its authors had the foresight to forbid “mechanized” and not just “motorized” travel in wilderness. Under this carefully worded law, wilderness areas must remain “untrammeled” and their “wilderness character” maintained. Designated wilderness is primeval nature, a landscape of human restraint, where natural conditions and self-sufficiency prevail. Sure, there are other land protection options such as national monuments or recreation areas, but nothing equals wilderness for protecting a vestige of America as it was for eons before the spread of civilization.

When mechanized mountain bikers demand access to proposed and designated wilderness, they fail to understand that if they succeed, owners of unimagined future contraptions will certainly demand equal treatment. So will modern-day snow machine and all-terrain vehicle owners. To loosen wildland restrictions now starts us down that slippery slope.

In addition, mountain bikers are not traditional users, such as hikers or horse-packers. Mountain bikes were not commercially produced for off-road use until the early 1980s. By allowing them to proliferate in roadless areas, the Forest Service nourishes yet another anti-wilderness constituency. A cynic might suggest that’s no accident.

Let’s be frank: Backcountry biking damages the land. Bikers often veer off trail just to keep from crashing. Last year, I sent the district ranger photos of mountain-bike damage to vegetation at Kissinger Lakes in the DuNoir, but the problem persists. Because mountain bikers ride fast, they startle wildlife more than hikers or horseback-riders do. They also make formerly remote areas more accessible, thereby reducing solitude and increasing the disturbance of wilderness-dependent species such as lynx and wolverine. Like trail runners with ear pods, mountain bikers inadvertently “troll for grizzlies,” as demonstrated by the 2004 mauling of a DuNoir mountain biker. Speeding mountain bikers also endanger horse-packers and hikers on steep trails. Let’s face it: Mountain bikers need all that protective gear because they’re not always in control.

Generally speaking, the place for mountain bikes is on roads, not in relatively pristine backcountry. At this point in our history, I believe that public land management should be about preserving wildness and doing what’s best for the land and wildlife. Recreation can adapt. Though some  -- certainly not all -- mountain bikers apparently view our public lands as outdoor gyms, that is not their function. Nor is a wild place a metaphorical pie to be divvied up among “user groups” or local “stakeholders,” to use federal bureaucratese. The authors of the Wilderness Act would be appalled at the Forest Service’s eagerness to mollify every recreation group that decides its particular form of recreation trumps all else.

As a backpack trip outfitter, I’ve guided hikers throughout the West, including the DuNoir, since the 1970s. When these Lycra-clad speedsters zip past our groups, ripping up vegetation and spooking critters, it diminishes our clients’ hard-earned wilderness experience.

But that’s not why I believe that the DuNoir -- and other qualifying wildlands -- should be designated wilderness. It’s because wilderness designation is best for the land. Wilderness is about humility, the acceptance that we humans don’t know it all and never will. More than any other landscape, wilderness takes us beyond “self”; in it, we are part of something greater. It is a shame that the Forest Service, many politicians and some recreationists are so wrongheaded -- stuck in a self-indulgent and myopic worldview regarding the DuNoir and so many other fragile endangered wildlands. Wilderness is timeless, transcending short-term concerns. Above all, wilderness celebrates the intrinsic value of wild nature. We need to let it be.

Howie Wolke is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of NewTowncarShare News. He co-owns Big Wild Adventures in Montana with his wife, Marilyn Olsen, and has been guiding and outfitting backpack trips in the Greater Yellowstone and elsewhere in the West since the 1970’s.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of NewTowncarShare News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].

NewTowncarShare News Classifieds
  • in Southwest Colorado. $60K plus costs.
  • with six+ years of experience, broad knowledge of home and facilities maintenance. 207-805-4157,
  • Seeking full-time experienced farmer on 52-acre organic farm Union, OR. [email protected]
  • Western Resource Advocates (WRA) is seeking a Government Affairs Manager that is passionate about Western communities and the protection of the natural environment to support...
  • Metal roofing & siding, thru-fastened & seam profiles. Stronger, more attractive and longer lasting than any other panel on the market. 970-275-4070.
  • The Central Colorado Conservancy, a nationally accredited and state certified land trust, is seeking an innovative and dynamic Executive Director to guide the Conservancy into...
  • National conservation organization seeks a regular, full-time, Lake Tahoe West Senior Project Lead. Position is responsible for working with the National Forest Foundation (NFF) to...
  • Forever Our Rivers Foundation seeks a driven and creative individual to lead this national movement for river health. Deadline 6/14/19.
  • We are looking for an experienced campaigner to lead our work challenging the oil and fracked gas industry, specifically focused on fighting fossil fuel expansion...
  • 7/12-7/14/19 in Taos, NM. With over 21 workshops and keynote speaker, poet Arthur Sze.
  • Badlands Conservation Alliance is seeking an Executive Director. For job description visit
  • NewTowncarShare News seeks a development assistant to help with fundraising campaigns. Strong candidates will have experience administering development programs, communicating with donors, and working...
  • Everland Mountain Retreat includes 318 mountaintop acres with a 3,200 square foot lodge and two smaller homes. Endless vistas of the Appalachian mountains, open skies,...
  • Spectacular views of snowcapped Sierras. 15 miles from Kings Canyon/Sequoia Parks. 47 acres with 2 homes/75' pool/gym/patios/gardens. 1670 sq.ft. main home has 3 bdrm/1 bath....
  • Beautiful off-the-grid passive solar near the CDT. 9.4 acres, north of Silver City. Sam, 575.388.1921
  • at RCAC. See the full description at Apply at [email protected]
  • Newly refurbished and tuned. Older model, great condition. Gasoline engine. Chains on tires. Heavy duty for mountain snow. Call cellphone and leave message or email.
  • Camping, hiking, backpacking, R2R2R, Tarahumara Easter, Mushroom Festival,
  • Clean off, cool off & drink. Multiple spray patterns. Better than you imagine. Try it.
  • Actively introduce students to Experiential Education, Outdoor Recreation, and Sustainability while engaging and challenging them to learn and participate in these diverse opportunities. Room, board,...