The continuing, curious case of bicycles and wilderness

By Jayson Jacoby October 15, 2010 10:55 am

Dan Ermovick, the main recreation man for the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest, posed an interesting question to me recently about mountain bikes and wilderness.

Actually that’s redundant.

Pretty much any question that involves bicycles and wilderness piques my curiosity.

That bicycles came to be banned from America’s federal wilderness areas has always seemed to me a peculiar aspect of this country’s admirable campaign to shelter our beautiful places from the more obnoxious trappings of modern civilization.

(Hummers, for instance.)


Peculiar, and a little troubling.

Anyway, Dan asked me what I thought about building a trail along the crest of the northern Elkhorns. This hypothetical route, unlike the current Elkhorn Crest National Recreation Trail, would stay outside the North Fork John Day Wilderness, and thus be open to bicycles.

I need to emphasize here that Dan’s query was utterly informal. The Wallowa-Whitman has neither proposed such a trail, nor do forest officials intend to.

It’s just the topic had come up, and Dan, who knows I have an affinity for the Elkhorns and that I own a mountain bike, was curious about what I thought.

I told him the idea was intriguing, but I’m not sure it’s practical.

To avoid the wilderness, which runs from the top of the ridge downslope to the west, you’d have to build the trail on the east side of the crest. That’s an awfully granity place. You couldn’t hack a way through there without a goodly supply of explosives.

It occurred to me, while talking with Dan, that Congress could have gotten around the bicycle conundrum in this case by making the Crest Trail, rather than the ridgeline, the wilderness boundary.

As it is, the trail flirts with that boundary from Angell Pass south to Cracker Saddle, rarely straying more than a few hundred feet from the line. For most of that seven-mile stretch the trail lies inside the wilderness, but occasionally, when the path switches to the east side of the ridge to bypass an especially imposing escarpment, it’s outside.

Cartographic issues aside, I’ve long believed that bicycles ought to be allowed on the whole of the Crest Trail.

Were that the case the trail, so far as I can tell, would rank as unique in Oregon. I don’t know of any other route that combines the Crest Trail’s length (24 miles), its consistently alpine setting (the trail never dips below 7,000 feet elevation, and except for the northerly two miles it’s above 7,500), and its relatively gentle grades.

It is, then, an ideal path for mountain bikes.

And bicycles are, in fact, allowed on more than half of the Crest Trail — the 14 non-wilderness miles between Cracker Saddle and the southern trailhead at Marble Creek Pass.

But then motorcyclists can ride that part of the trail, too.

Which means, basically, that the Wallowa-Whitman manages the southern part of the trail rather like a logging road, while the northern is pure wilderness, where even the comparatively slight whir of a bicycle chain running round a sprocket is deemed inappropriate.

This is no scandal, certainly.

It is, I suppose, a sort of compromise between those who prefer to listen to their internal voice, accompanied only by the twitter of Clark’s nutcrackers and the wind sighing through the whitebark pines, and those who relish the mechanical putter of the internal combustion engine.

Still and all, this dual nature of the Crest Trail seems to me a curious, and perhaps even a trifle silly, way to deal with a trail that, in reality, traverses the same sort of terrain throughout its length.

It’s not as if the character of the Elkhorns suddenly changes at Cracker Saddle, switching from raucous to sublime.

If anything the northern section, the ostensibly wilder section, is a bit more tame — it’s closer to the Anthony Lakes Highway, the only paved access to the Crest Trail, so you’re more apt to see other hikers there.

What I’m getting at is that the bicycle is a device which, unlike a Jeep or a chainsaw, seems to me ill-suited as the measuring stick for whether a trail, or a place, is truly wild.

Indeed, the original wilderness legislation, passed by Congress in 1964, is silent on the issue of bicycles.

The Wilderness Act does mention “untrammeled” land. And it specifically forbids the trammeling of such land by “motor vehicles, motorized equipment or motorboats, no landing of aircraft, no other form of mechanical transport...”

The latter, obviously, comes closest to the heart of the thing.

Bicycles clearly are not motorized.

Nor, ideally, can they be considered aircraft.

They are, though, machines. And machines designed for transport.

In 1965 the U.S. Forest Service addressed the matter with a bit more specificity. Yet the agency’s wilderness rules imply that bicycles are not among the conveyances that lawmakers wanted to keep out of wild country. The Forest Service defined “mechanical transport” as a cart, sled or other wheeled vehicle “powered by a non-living power source.”

Say what you will about the habits of mountain bikers, but none can be fairly described as a “non-living power source.”

Most critics, I suspect, would say bicyclists, if anything, are too alive for their own good.

It’s hardly shocking, of course, that neither Congress nor the Forest Service, during the infancy of the wilderness system, thought to bring bicycles into the conversation.

There were lots of bicycles around then, sure. But no manufacturer was yet building the multi-geared, fat-tired models designed to traverse the very sorts of trails typical in wilderness areas.

By the early 1980s, though, mountain bikes were becoming popular.

I doubt it was a coincidence, then, that in 1984 the Forest Service approved a new rule — one still in effect — which specifically forbids bicycles from entering wilderness areas.

(That same year Congress designated several new wilderness areas in Oregon, including the North Fork John Day.)

I don’t contend that the prohibition on bicycles is an egregious restriction on our rights.

But I do think it’s misguided.

Forest Service officials, it seems to me, focused on the bicycle’s ubiquitous role in society rather than on the actual effect its presence in wilderness areas might have on the qualities that distinguish such places.

And by that measure, their decision to single out bikes for exclusion fails to convince.

If I believed that allowing bicycles would transform every wilderness into the equivalent of a suburban cul-de-sac, with caterwauling kids darting about on their Huffys, I’d applaud the Forest Service for its foresight.

Except that the agency continues to outlaw bicycles while tacitly endorsing the intrusion on wilderness of such things as radios, luxurious canvas wall tents and smart phones.

Any of which is capable of polluting the “feel” of wilderness — an especially subjective concept, I’ll concede — at least as distinctly as a couple of bicycles can.

To be clear, I’m not advocating that any of those accouterments be excluded from wilderness areas.

To the contrary, I think each is appropriate.

It’s just that there’s nothing inherently more civilized, or more anti-wilderness, about a bicycle as compared to a cell phone or an iPod.

I’d wager, in fact, that a wilderness backpacker is more likely to have a trip marred by one of the latter.

A bicycle, after all, just sits there when nobody’s pedaling it.

But an iPod can be connected to stereo speakers.

And it has plenty of room for an entire library of disco.

Just imagine how primeval your wilderness campsite would feel when it’s bombarded for half the night by the Village People and K.C. and the Sunshine Band.

Jayson Jacoby is editor of the Baker City Herald.