Our lives are fast. From food to transit to communication, life is based around immediacy. We are governed by the flick of a traffic light, the red bubble of a notification. Stop, go, consume, react, repeat. We move from paycheck to paycheck, weekend to weekend. This flow, this ever-beating pattern of modern life rips past like a raging river. We swim along, hoping for a moment on a rock to break the speed, to relax. This place exists. Public lands remain the bastion of a slower time. Federally funded wild places are where we are able to escape the pace of the 21st century. They are places to stop and breath. At the core of these places is designated wilderness. It is the slowest and most remote of all. And it is constantly threatened.
Recently Utah Senators Orrin Hatch and Mike Lee released a bill entitled “The Human-Powered Travel in Wilderness Areas Act.” This confusing bill essentially grants mountain biking and other “small” mechanized tools in wilderness areas. If passed, local officials will be able to make the call on whether or not they want to allow these changes to their wilderness areas. In the bill the senators say that the changes should not take place if it will “likely change the wilderness character of the area.” So I ask, why create this bill at all? If biking or any mechanized means of transit is allowed it will, by default, change the wilderness qualities.
The answer, I believe, is to divide us. Hatch and Lee see recreation groups as vulnerable. We are constantly trying to balance between a simple life and funding expensive hobbies. We want to save and protect the land that we ultimately also use. They are playing off these contradictions and using an issue that has begun to divide environmentalists and recreation communities. They know we will fight over this issue. We cannot let this happen.
I understand why bikers want to ride in wilderness. This month I hiked into the Bridger Wilderness in the Wind River Range. My girlfriend and I, both avid mountain bikers, lamented at the fact that we couldn’t rip through the six miles of flat single track to Big Sandy Lake. It would have sliced many hours off our day. But after getting in the flow of the long stroll, I started to notice things: insects, bird calls, the wind. I was able to know every bend of the meandering stream we walked along. I noticed my physical body reacting to the trail. These are things that would have been lost on the bike. There were many other hikers, all moving at different slow paces, many laden with heavy packs. We were all in it together. If there had been another user group, like bikers, the experience would have been much different and for the worse.
There is a place for biking and off-highway vehicles. There are millions of acres of land and trails that have already been given to these fast human activities, and more being developed every year. Even here in the Wasatch Mountains new trails are being built, one can even find solitude on amazing cross-country tracks in the alpine. But these landscapes are close to civilization, close to our fast paced lives. Many of them have even been altered by resorts and parks. But there are pockets here and elsewhere that are further, that have been declared wilderness. And as the civilized world grows, that wildness must not be lost.
Riding is fun. It is a great way to explore and experience the world; I enjoy my time on the bike. But it does not belong in wilderness. Wilderness is not meant to be fun, it is not there for our human enjoyment. It is there to exist in a state beyond our existence. Yes we can go and connect with those places, but we must do so in a manner that follows the flow of the river, that follows the natural cycle of things. We must do it slowly. Wilderness asks us as people to literally feel the power of a place, this is can be arduous and at times painful. It forces us to be resourceful and to think about how we effect a place and it us.
In a time when so much is automated and streamlined for our convenience, wilderness is something that must be cherished. We can do that by working together. Let’s focus on maintaining access in places that have it, and keep wild places wild. Let’s not allow the GOP conservatives push a divisive agenda into our circle of passionate outdoor recreation and environmental stewardship. Write to IMBA in support of untrammeled wilderness. Tell your elected officials to shut down the bill. And most importantly respect the wild for what it is, a place that we do not dominate. It is a place that frees us from the speed of our busy lives and for that it should be protected forever.
International Mountain Bicycling Association: https://www.imba.com/contact
Senate bill 3205: https://www.congress.gov/bill/114th-congress/senate-bill/3205