Bikers and Conservationists
at Odds Over Land Proposal
Washingtonpost.comSUNLAND, Calif. Mike
Melton would love to support the latest campaign to save wilderness across
California. Preserving open space, he says, is a priority. But so is his
And like thousands of other riders in the
state, he has a tough new choice to make: Either give up some of his favorite
back-country trails for nature's sake, or fight a plan that would ban his
pastime on vast stretches of wild land from the Oregon border to San Diego.
"I'm all for having pristine wilderness,"
Melton, a 35-year-old electrician, said as he set off riding along a narrow,
rocky trail here in the Angeles National Forest one recent Sunday morning. "But
why take a poke at mountain biking? We're just like anyone else who loves
nature; we just choose to pedal in it. What's wrong with that?"
Such torment is a sign of a growing conflict
across the country, and especially the West, over the rules of recreation on
ever more crowded public land. It is pitting conservationists against each
other, splintering outdoor groups into feuding factions, and causing so much
tension in some places that professional mediators are being called and summits
convened to broker compromises on trail use.
Environmentalists who say wilderness is
under siege from a population boom across much of the West are demanding strict
new protections for land, even at the expense of popular recreational pursuits.
And recreation groups already clamoring for more elbow room on trails are
balking at many of those proposals, even though they also want wilderness kept
Both sides in the disputes are backed by
legions of fervent, well-organized supporters. The International Mountain
Bicycling Association, once a small volunteer band of devout riders, has in the
last decade become a national organization with 450 clubs and an annual budget
approaching $2 million.
And here in California, where a few bike
tinkerers in Marin County popularized the sport in the 1970s, the group is
tangled in the fight of its life.
State political leaders and conservationists
want to designate roughly 2.5 million acres of public land as federally
protected wilderness, a step that would prohibit new logging and mining and any
The proposal, introduced by Sen. Barbara
Boxer (D-Calif.) earlier this year, would allow some forms of recreation to
continue in the wilderness, such as hiking and backpacking but not
Federal regulations prohibit "mechanized"
activity in protected wilderness areas, and the pedals and chains of a bicycle
fit that definition. Similar debates over wilderness and mountain biking also
are emerging in Colorado, Idaho and Oregon.
Conservation groups that support Boxer's
legislation say it is necessary because California, already the nation's most
populous state, is bracing for millions more new residents over the next few
decades and new strains on wilderness.
In the past two decades, conservationists
say, more than a half-million acres of wilderness in the state have lost their
pure character because of logging, encroaching development and the growing
popularity of rugged recreational sports.
"When you've got 34 million people and
counting, there's compelling reason to keep protecting more open space," said
Jay Watson, a regional director of the Wilderness Society in California. "We've
tried very hard to accommodate mountain biking in some places, but we have to
go forward on this."
Boxer's staff spent months in meticulous
negotiations with mountain bikers over which trails would be included in the
plan. Some favored routes have been spared. Aides to Boxer insist the campaign
is not a crackdown on mountain biking, even though some conservationists
contend the fat tires of the bikes and the aggressive style of many young
riders are trampling wild lands.
"We're not targeting any group," said David
Sandretti, Boxer's press secretary. "This is only about protecting important
land for generations to come."
Some mountain bikers say they are prepared
to make the sacrifice. A group of about 125 riders from across the state has
organized to support the new wilderness protections.
"This is worth preserving, even if it means
we lose trails," said Don Massie, a software company employee who is leading
the rebel group.
Other mountain bikers are calling them
political puppets and say Boxer's plan plainly persecutes their pastime. They
say she and conservationists could have proposed other protections for
wilderness, but chose the only one that bans bikes.
These are trying times for riders who roam
the forests and parks of the West. In some places, land managers have become
referees of recurring squabbles between mountain bikers, hikers and other
groups over trail etiquette. Some disputes have forced officials to prohibit
hikers and bikers from using trails on the same days.
The Bureau of Land Management recently
issued its first new guidelines in a decade to help its local managers cope
with the surge in mountain biking. More than 13 million mountain bikers now
ride regularly on public lands, far more than a decade ago.
The plan defends the rights of riders to use
the land but urges more vigilance in protecting trails even if that
means segregating bikers to certain areas. It also warns that advances in bike
technology, such as stronger suspensions, are allowing riders to push deeper
into the wilderness.
Meanwhile, veterans of some mountain biking
clubs have been pleading with young riders who like to go to sporting extremes
to stay on established trails, to tread lightly in nature and, ironically, to
join campaigns to protect or enhance wilderness. Now, they also are busy
rallying riders against Boxer's plan.
"This puts us in a strange and difficult
position," said Jim Hasenauer, a college professor in Los Angeles who helped
found the International Mountain Bicycling Association. "We're definitely
pro-conservation, and we support some of the bill, but other parts would have
an enormous impact on us. We would lose trails that really capture the spirit
of mountain biking."
Becky Bell, a marketing consultant who leads
a mountain biking group with 1,500 members near Lake Tahoe, said she is worried
the sport is getting a bad rap.
"Most of us are good stewards of the land,"
she said. "We have some bad apples, but so does every group. Look at Enron
executives. Or Catholic priests. Just the other day I was out riding and
someone told me, 'I know you guys are trying to be nicer, but I still just hate
seeing you on the trails.' That's what we're up against."
"The problem," said Gary Sprung, a director
of the national mountain biking group, "is that some people think we're
motorcycles without engines, but the truth is that we're like hikers on
Here in the Angeles National Forest, Mike
Melton has strapped a clanging bell to his bike so when he rides he doesn't
startle hikers using the same trails. He also just wrote his first letter ever
to a member of Congress, protesting the proposed wilderness designation.
If it is approved without any more
compromises, he said, riding routes that connect ridges and canyons around the
forest will be ruined. That will force mountain bikers to crowd other trails,
he said. And that will create even more trouble with other recreation groups.
"I know a bike can come around a bend at a
good clip and scare some people," Melton said. "But I can be out here enjoying
my own peace and quiet and someone on horseback can come up and scare me, too.
But no one's talking about banning horses. Our culture is just misunderstood."