There was a time, within the last decade, when Outside Magazine was the bastion of quality in outdoor writing and journalism. They published a wide range of writers, on a wide range of subjects, notably giving Steven Rinella his start well before hunting was anything close to mainstream, and publishing Sebastian Junger well before “perfect storm” became a well embedded cliche. They were always fairly yuppie, GQ with sweat being a not unfair description, but every issue always had at least a few pieces good enough you’d forgive them a bit of aspirational pandering. They reminded sport-specific zines that there was more to life than beginner instructionals, especially after Alpinist cratered and was resurrected in an ever more vanilla incarnation.
It’s been sad to watch the digital “revolution” take its toll on Outside. 10 years ago Outside had a robust web presence, but the notion that attention spans and the zeitgeist generally would move so far that Outside and Gear Junkie would become direct competitors is still so absurd I find it hard to write out loud. At outsidemag.com articles have become shorter and more numerous, titles have become strewn with odd numbers and adverbs, and rigor has had its heart torn out on the alter of relevance.
One of the silent causalities of all this it would seem fact checking. A recent example which moved me beyond quiet resignation is this Christopher Solomon piece on “5 lies about mountain bikes in Wilderness”. It’s a sad thing because the main point is a good one, which is thoroughly lost behind factual errors and poorly phrased opinion. Namely, that the Sustainable Trails Coalition was insane enough to get a conservative congressman from California to sponsor a bill which blatantly seeks to amend the Wilderness Act, “…by adding at the end the following: “Nothing in this section shall prohibit the use of motorized wheelchairs, non-motorized wheelchairs, non-motorized bicycles, strollers, wheelbarrows, survey wheels, measuring wheels, or game carts within any wilderness area.”.”
I’ve gotten into this on plenty of occasions here, and while I don’t think the “mechanical transport” clause of the Wilderness Act is a clear prohibition of wheels, I’d like to see that discussion unfold in all its ambiguous glory. No blind bike hatred, and no amendments to the original text. Let us decide just what degree of technological assistance will be, in a century of over 7 billion people, appropriate in the places we want to be truly wild. I have no quarrel with saying that a bike is too much, while skis are fine, but I will not accept anything short of the acknowledgment that there is no categorical difference between the two. Solomon looses the starkness of what the STC is doing, and the extent to which they seem to be doing it in bad faith.
There is a productive comparison to be made between the bikes in Wilderness discussion and the squall, currently in remission, between packrafters and Yellowstone National Park. Both pit “recreationists” against older guard environmentalists, and both efforts were sponsored by Republican lawmakers from western states. I supported the Yellowstone packraft effort because it was crafted to not strip land managers of their discretion, and only sought to redress a systemic piece of negligence or laziness in management. As far as collaborating with representatives that have a conservation voting record in the single digits, I think it is possible to be both vigilant about the integrity of public lands in the Trump/Bundy era, and also try to get things done. If there is only one person left who will talk with, that is who you talk with. Compromise doesn’t happen otherwise.
Mr. Solomon is correct, the STC bill is related to the public lands in public hands debate, but he is wrong to impute conspiratorial motives. He could well be correct if he called them reckless, but he did not do that. His credibility, and that of his fact checker (there are publications who still use them), comes very much into question when he asserts that mountain bikers have not been loosing access lately. In Montana alone the Gallatin Crest, big chunks of the Bitterroot, and parts of the Rocky Mountain Front have all been closed to biking in the last decade. Most of this has not been through Wilderness designation, but rather through rule changes. I’ve seen numerous non-Wilderness trails along the perimeter of the Bob posted no bikes since 2010. In many cases the prohibition is understandable due to high summer traffic, examples being Upper Holland Lake and the north side of Gibson Reservoir. However, there are many times of the year when these and others are very empty, and it’s unfortunate to see them closed with no discretion put forward or public process. I hope not too many mountain bikers would protest the idea that bike trails and access to them has to respond to increased use, but pretending that bikers don’t have reason to mourn and be angry is farcical in the extreme.
Even more ridiculous is the charge that mountain bikes did not used to be legal in Wilderness areas. There is extensive documentation that in the hazy days when “mountain biking” was barely a category, a small number of dedicated users regularly biked the Rattlesnake near Missoula, as well as the Selway in Idaho. Other examples would I assume be easy enough to unearth if one found the right people. Qualifying bikes as mechanical transport does not emanate unambiguously from the Wilderness Act, as mentioned above. Which is why legislation forcing the Forest Service and BLM to justify this rule more extensively would I think be the more productive direction to take. Even if it proved futile.
The real question ought to be how to balance making Wilderness relevant to an increasingly urban population with maintaining its long term integrity. On the one hand there is the problem of exposing new folks to the wild in the first place. On the other is the problem of making sure they can readily see the appeal. Crowded parks and trailheads, combined with long mandatory walks through potentially “boring” forest is I would argue a poor way to do both. As of today there is little reason to suppose that one mountain biker impacts wildlife more than one hikers, but there are many reasons to suppose that people in any form can have problematic effects. I’ve long been in favor of opening up opportunity and variety of access, while at the same time making wild areas bigger. Mountain biking along the South Fork of the Flathead in the Bob Marshall could be ok, for instance, but only in exchange for permanently closing the Benchmark road, as well as the roads along and south of Hungry Horse Reservoir, to all motor vehicles.
It is too easy to think of the Wilderness question as a zero sum affair, and it is too simply satisfying to sling mud for the sake of hype. What is truly important is to emphasize that of all the many people who quickly get fired up and ready to sling mud, almost none of them do not care about Wilderness, based on powerful personal experience. And that is where things need to start, and finish.