Is Mountain Biking the Biggest Threat to New Wilderness Designations?

DATE: Dec. 16, 2016

AUTHOR: George Wuerthner

SOURCE: Counterpunch


George Weurthner is an environmental extremist and a VP of the Western Watersheds Project. The WWP describes its mission as environmental protection: "Through vigorous litigation under the Endangered Species Act, Clean Water Act and Federal Land Policy Management Act..."

Best I can tell, Weurthner never saw a backroad that should not be closed or an acre of public land that should not be designated as wilderness. According to him, even bicyclists are threatening the creation of new wilderness areas.

In my opinion, the fundamental principles driving Weurthner and the other followers of the "Deep Ecology" religion are wrong. However, I will give him credit for acting as an iconoclast for the mountain bicyclists.

[begin Weuthner's article]

Several years ago, I published a book called Thrillcraft on motorized recreation and its impacts on public lands. In doing the research for that book, one of the statistics that I found interesting is the demographic profile of the “average” motorized ORV user. They tended to be male, between the ages of 20 and 40, and had incomes at or slightly above the national average (It takes a lot of money to buy pick-ups, snowmobiles and dirt bikes).

Another interesting statistic is that most motorized users had an “outlaw” attitude and regularly violated trail closures and felt like they were entitled to go anyplace their machines could carry them. They were adrenaline junkies and like spoiled children who groused at being told they were banned from some landscapes. .

Mountain bikers are, as a demographic group, fit the profile of off-road vehicle users. They are predominately male, between 20-40, and tend to have above average incomes and often have the same outlaw attitude and sense of entitlement.

We see this sense of entitlement in the continual commandeering of trails and/or illegal construction of new trails on public lands by mountain bikers. When the Forest Service or BLM seeks to close some of these trails (very infrequently done) mountain bikers squeal like a poked pig, claiming they being “discriminated against.”

A good example is the reaction of mountain bikers in Wyoming to closure of the Dunior Special Management Area near Dubois Wyoming. The Dunior has been a candidate for wilderness for years. But without seeking any permission, mountain bikers began to ride in the area and upgrade trails. The Shoshone National Forest finally closed the trails, and the mountain bikers screamed about their “loss” of access. Access that was garnered illegally.

A similar situation exists in the Palisades Wilderness Study Area on the border of Idaho and Wyoming. Mountain bikers have commandeered trails in the area and are fighting to oppose wilderness designation for the area. This conflict would not have occurred if the Bridger Teton National Forest had simply unambiguously closed the trails to mountain bikers. After a Wilderness Study Area is supposed to be managed for its wilderness qualities until Congress determines its fate and mechanical access is not permitted.

A comparable conflict is being precipitated on the Lewis and Clark National Forest in Montana where mountain bikers are regularly riding in a wilderness study areas like the Big Snowy Mountains. Similarly, mountain bikers regularly ride in the Gallatin Range, another Wilderness Study Area on the Gallatin/Custer National Forest.

When the Forest Service limits mountain bike use, the mountain bikers scream that they are being denied access to public lands. On the contrary, most trails currently used by mountain bikers are available to anyone to walk. The only thing that is being closed is access to their machines (bikes). Most of these users are in better than average physical condition.

While there are local and regional mountain biking advocacy groups as well the International Mountain Biking Association (IMBA) all promoting more mountain bike access and trail construction, there is virtually no push back from conservation groups. I am not aware of a single employee of any conservation group whose sole responsibility is to monitor mountain bike use in proposed wilderness areas and to provide push back and support to public lands managers who might want to limit mountain biking in these areas.

I believe if mountain biking isn’t controlled and contained just as motorized ORV use has been limited, we will find it nearly impossible to designate any new wilderness areas.

Indeed, some of the more aggressive mountain bikers are even seeking to scuttle the prohibition on mountain biking in designated wilderness, which will open the door to a host of other interests to argue they too should be given access to the these lands. In a sense mountain biking, to use a cliché, is the camel’s nose under the tent.

Mountain biking is part of the outdoor recreation industry that is more about physical exercise, challenging one’s prowess on a machine and use of our public lands as outdoor gymnasiums than about appreciation of natural systems and/or protecting the ecological integrity of the landscape. It’s about speed and domination.

Challenging oneself isn’t necessarily bad. We all, I think, enjoy challenges. And mountain biking is great fun. I ride my bike regularly on trails specifically designed for mountain bike use.

However, we must recognize that unlimited access to public lands whether by extractive industry like logging, mining or livestock grazing or recreational users, can threaten the wildlife and ecological whole of the land.

We have so few landscapes specifically set aside to preserve ecological integrity that we must make protection of natural function a primary function. This is an idea that seems foreign to many mountain bikers, just as it seems incomprehensible to many motorized recreationists or a smaller sub-set of bird watchers, hikers and backpacker.

In the end, we must accept limits. One of the lessons one teaches young children as a parent is the need for restrictions on behavior. You can’t always get what you want, but you can get what you need. Far too many mountain bikers remind me of spoiled children who put on a tantrum when they are told that no they can’t do something.

I may be optimistic, but I am hoping to see a maturing of the mountain biking culture. After all you don’t need to bike in roadless lands to get an adrenaline high. You do need to consider one’s impacts on other people and critters.

We need wild places for a host of reason, including protecting sensitive wildlife, ecological processes, and scenic beauty. But perhaps one of the most important reasons for creating wilderness areas is that it teaches us humility and self-limits. These are lessons the mountain biking community could use.
Join the debate on Facebook

George Wuerthner has published 36 books including Wildfire: A Century of Failed Forest Policy. He serves on the board of the Western Watersheds Project.


Expedition Leader
I need to read more but I will say that the most recent and biggest HS team sport growth in the last three yrs has been Mt bike version of crosscountry running. I would bet this Eco preservation approach is simply targeting what they see as the largest future user of large tracts of land.

But Science would suggest the lowest impact use is where human presence in any one spot is low and ground desturbance is low MT biking is going to sit right at the top of having the lowest impact when done on properly designed trails.

But think this guy is targeting what will be the largest population of land users in the future.
.....ground desturbance is low MT biking is going to sit right at the top of having the lowest impact when done on properly designed trails.
My personal observation is that many if not the majority of mountain bikers seem to have the goal of high speed on downhill sections. This results in slides through corners with soil and gravel being sprayed into the air. The trail corners are excavated by this activity resulting in a 'V' notch. Then natural erosion sets in. What I describe is not a low impact situation.

Mtn bikers have adopted the words "shred" and "carve" this sort of trail damage. That tells me a lot.


Expedition Leader
My personal observation is that many if not the majority of mountain bikers seem to have the goal of high speed on downhill sections. This results in slides through corners with soil and gravel being sprayed into the air. The trail corners are excavated by this activity resulting in a 'V' notch. Then natural erosion sets in. What I describe is not a low impact situation.

Mtn bikers have adopted the words "shred" and "carve" this sort of trail damage. That tells me a lot.
Acutally its easy to think that if your not a mountian biker. Not everyone is a gopro Redbull rider. Thats like saying all 4x4 owners are desert racing throttle jockies.
My personal observation is that many if not the majority of mountain bikers seem to have the goal of high speed on downhill sections. This results in slides through corners with soil and gravel being sprayed into the air. The trail corners are excavated by this activity resulting in a 'V' notch. Then natural erosion sets in. What I describe is not a low impact situation.

Mtn bikers have adopted the words "shred" and "carve" this sort of trail damage. That tells me a lot.
Fortunately what you describe is not the majority, and not even the "many" of mountain bikers' interactions with trails. What you're describing is the overly dramatic, extreme-ified mountain biking of videos from the '90's and '00's that are all too often pointed to as the way the entire community rides. It simply isn't the case. Do mountain bikers like to go fast. Absolutely. Do mountain bikers sometimes do damage beyond simply rolling over. Sure, as do hikers and horse in some cases.

Shred and carve are used to describe feelings, not results. The same way a car carves a corner on a road or a surfer shreds a wave. It's a term that invokes a feeling of mastery, of engagement, of control. These terms are also a little dated, and match the '90's and '00's mtn bike video genre far better than current community lingo and vibe. Well, shred anyway. Carve is still used a fair amount to talk about control and precision when going along a line on a trail. Not about actually "carving" a line in the trail.

Just wanted to clarify that...


Expedition Leader
Mid week trail use is highest by local Mt biking families than any other user. Its very easy to take the kids "away from traffic on a hour long 5 mile ride after dinner during the summer than a 5 mile 2hr hike.

Were not shredding were enjoying a ride away from traffic and crowds. Stopping to check out Bannana slugs. Name plants and see some natives.

That is the typical Mt biker only a very small percent are extreme down hill types.

Christophe Noel

Expedition Leader
Man, what a bunch of baseless drivel. Where to begin?

- A huge portion of mountain bikers, myself included, are avid riders with over 100,000 miles of riding under our tires, and wholly support keeping mountain bikes OUT of designated wilderness areas. We may support very select easements to allow for access - through - some wilderness areas, but only if it doesn't upset the original application of that wilderness designation.

- It's also worth pointing out that this tiresome misrepresentation that mountain bikers are predominantly 20-40 year old hell-raising dudes is just bull****. Women and teens make up a massive section of the growing demographic. I forget how many thousands of high school riders, of both genders, ride and race on scholastic teams in the US.

- The notion that mountain bikers are not advocates of multi-use trails is also - crap-o-la. I have donated thousands of dollars of my own money to multi-use trails for mountain bikers, AND, hikers and even equestrians who do terrible things to some trail systems. I also formed an entity that raised tens of thousands of dollars for multi-use trails, as a mountain bike organization.

- The assertion that mountain bikers are dangerous to other users is folly, as the number of reported incidents of run-ins with other users is so low, in many regions, the actual run-ins (few) are less than the number of false claims made to make mountain bikers out to be the bad guys. There were 4 proven false reports of rider/hiker crashes in 2015 alone in just AZ. No actual such accidents occurred.

- There is also proven evidence that wheels are often better for some trail systems than feet. Much of this depends on the trail surface, the proper build of the trail itself, and other variables, but scientifically, there is nothing to suggest that wheels are more damaging than feet overall. Lately there have been a few studies (regionalized) which stated that feet are actually worse.

- Good riders also practice the same tread lightly methods as you probably do in your truck. Skidding is no more ideal than riding wet terrain. We avoid things that cause unnecessary trail damage, because many of us built those trails legally using NEPA approved methods and sanctioned by the appropriate land managers.

Those are my knee jerk defenses of my fellow users.

Here are some other things to consider:

In 2014 the low estimates for mountain bikers volunteering trail building and maintenance hours within NF and BLM land tipped more than 1.2 million man hours. I know for a fact that number is low. In 2011 I was a trail crew leader and oversaw more than 4,200 volunteer hours on just 4 miles of our 16 miles of new trails built/maintained that year. Trails built mostly by mountain bikers AND hikers side by side.

These ramblings by the anti-mountain bike people are getting fewer and easier to discount because the mountain bike community is - smart. We know how to advocate, police our own, and generally get what ever we want, because we have common sense. We know we don't need access to everything. It's not an all or nothing war.

Most of all, overall, we absolutely respect our fellow trail users however they use the trails. Maybe not the horsey people. LOL :)
Last edited:

Christophe Noel

Expedition Leader
BTW, here's how these anti-mountain biker people work. In 2008 a local equestrian club started a campaign to smear mountain bikers. One of their members staged a phony bike/horse accident which later nearly ended in an arrest of the person falsifying the incident report.

That same summer, that equestrian group started smearing me personally, saying I was out on the trails drunk and going dangerously fast on my "high-speed mountain bike." They circulated a photo of me holding a semi-crushed beer can they lifted off my Facebook page. That beer can...was litter I picked up and put in my backpack. Never mind I would have happily slammed the damn thing if it was full and cold. :)

Like I said, the mountain bikers win because we're logical, respectful, and....REASONABLE.
Last edited:


Expedition Leader
Hey Chris
I would very much like to talk with you. I'm transitioning from salt mine slave to ideally advocate for local trail development. I'm currently working on a relationship with a land conservation org that supports Access, but is a very small organisation that is collecting some impressive former family cattle ranches with a view of retaining some of their working ranch aspects working on enviornmental improvements watershed repair primarily due to cattle grazing damage and public access.

Our area is surrounded by 1000's of acres of open space working cattle grazing and publicly held watershed lands which today only have buldozed fire cuts and former stock access trails that are labled as trails. Horrifically bad as trails with heavy hill side degredation during rains and only accessable to rare trail riding horse types and the occasional very curious and determined hiker. As such we have very low use of these areas by law abiding users and high number of illegal dumping and illegal grow problems.

Our area has not seen new trail development since John Muir him self named the existing trails which leads to very crowded trails on weekends and excessive human impact on those few areas. Parking is insane!! I'm a firm believer we need more real hiking and biking trail development to spread the load and lower the distances people drive to hike or ride such trails.

Very curious about your experience and what orgs you like regarding how they approach the politics side?

Full disclosure I grew up with horses and grew up Mt biking. The horse people today near major metro areas are a different breed of horse people than those that still run live stock and run horses etc. The city slicker horse owner is one of the worst kinds of rider and animal a hiker or biker can cross paths with on the trail.

My last ride with my 7yr old in Point Reyes National Sea Shore. We had a trail horse pacing us up as 3.5 mile grind. My daughter had the horse 3 ft from her the whole grind. It was no different for that trail horse had we been on a horse or bike.

There are real trail horse people and there are scared untrained riders and stallqueens. Only one group makes a stink about hikers and cyclists ;-)


Expedition Leader
Welcome to the real world!

What is said about the bike community now, is the same thing said about the motorized vehicles starting in the 1970's. They have taken and used the law in their favor to attack the bike community. They take our photos, videos and your words to use them against you. You are your own worst enemy. You like to show off in videos, posting them on U tube. You take that "cool" (old dated word) look and have magazines with photos they do not care if it is your private property or public land. They take an show it as evidence of the type of person that they want the rest of the world to believe all of you are. They have become good at using lies, misrepresentation and your own words against you.

Just because you ride a motorcycle, it dose note make you a member of the 1% group (Hell's Angels). If the public see this enough, then they will start to believe it. After these words are from a group who thinks that they know more about the environment then you do. They are here to protect the land and not just going for control and power over it and you.

The battles of the motorized community for the last 40+ years is your battle now! Take this as a warning of what will happen to the use of your public lands, for your recreation. Maybe you should start or join a group and get involved in Public Land Use. "Warning it is political and you will not like it!" You will not like the outcome even more if you do nothing.

Discussing this on a form is a good way to get the word spread, but if it goes no further then this it is a real waist of time. Get involved!

Even these little guys show off our best sides; :roost::REOutCampFire03::REOutShootinghunter:campfire::ar15::truck:

Your turn now, I did mine!

Christophe Noel

Expedition Leader

One thing about trail advocacy is it's highly regionalized, even when dealing with the same land management system, in our case the National Forest service. Regardless of the land manager, the process is roughly the same. You have to learn what the protocols are for those managers, how they actually manage their land and make alterations to those plans. Then you have to amass the resources to effect those changes. Like I said, every district is slightly different. Could be how dug in the land managers are. It could be how limited the resources are to compel those managers to make a change within their own guidelines.
The only Wilderness areas used by hikers here, are those that can be easily accessed by car. I actually mostly see hikers using ORV trails instead of using hiker only trails and the stupid bastards even yell out that were riding illegally when they're the ones who don't read the signs!
We here in WA, (MTB, Dirtbike, 4X4) do police our own on the existing trails very closely. If damage to trails by weather, illegal offtrail use like mudding, the word is sent out thru e-media channels to find the perpetrators.