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Mountain Biker/Attorney Argues For Making Wilderness Safer


Was the author of a New York Times op-ed piece on the dangers of unsigned wilderness areas really worried about signage, or was he really forwarding an argument to lessen the rules for managing wilderness areas?

And if it's the latter, was he doing so because he wants to be able ride his mountain bike in officially designated wilderness? To explore that question, you need some background. But first let's look at the current furor.

The piece by Ted Stroll caught some fire on the Internet, both for his views on how wilderness areas can be made safer -- Signage, please! -- and for his unidentified ties to mountain biking.

Here's what Steve Casimiro had to say on The Adventure Life blog under the headline, NYTimes Opinion is Wrong on Wilderness:

“The Forest Service has become increasingly strict in its enforcement of the Wilderness Act,” writes attorney Ted Stroll on the opinion page of today’s New York Times. On the face of it, that sounds like a pretty darn good trend. But not to Stroll. Here’s the whole sentence: “Despite the millions of people who have visited the country’s national parks, forests and wildernesses this summer, the Forest Service has become increasingly strict in its enforcement of the Wilderness Act.” And how exactly is that bad?

Almost everything about Stroll’s opinion is wrong. His core argument is that wilderness should be made more accessible and user friendly, as if wilderness is a city park that needs handrails for the elderly. As example, he cites signs that were put into place along the Kekekabic Trail in Minnesota after a skier became lost and died in 1970. The years went by and the signs faded, but the Forest Service refused to replace them, saying that they weren’t appropriate in wilderness.

Can I hear an “amen”? The Forest Service got it right. To Stroll, it’s a travesty that 38 years later two more backcountry users got lost on the Kekekabic Trail and nearly ran out of food. There should have been signs! And maybe a Taco Bell!

And on Best of the Blogs, they had this to say:

What the NYT doesn't tell you is that Stroll is an active, even activist, member of the International Mountain Biking Association. But, if you Google, you'll find other articles like this.

One question that arises from this is whether the Ted Stroll who wrote the op-ed piece is the same Ted Stroll who back in 2004 wrote a 26-page examination of Congress's Intent in Banning Mechanical Transport in the Wilderness Act of 1964 for the Penn State Environmental Law Review (attached), a treatise that the International Mountain Bicycling Association carries on its website under its "Land Access and Protection" section. If so, it would add some strong foundation to understand where he's going with his op-ed piece.

In that 2004 writing, Mr. Stroll argued that the growing amount of officially designated wilderness in the country had "added to the tension over the scope of the activities that may be pursued in Wilderness areas. The combination of technological advances in recreation and continued expansion of Wilderness areas makes resolving the mechanical transport question crucial."


While Mr. Stroll in that review ticked off a number of mechanical objects that already are carried into wilderness areas -- fishing reels, oarlocks on rowboats, and even anti-shock hiking poles -- he stressed that, "(T)he most pressing issue involves the mountain bike. Federal agency prohibitions of bicycle use in Wilderness have created a standoff between many mountain bikers and proponents of expanding Wilderness. Mountain bikers worry that every proposal to enlarge the nation's Wilderness inventory means the loss of trails they have traditionally ridden. This has made it more difficult to pass legislation creating additional Wilderness areas. In addition, many mountain bikers are perturbed that other forms of mechanical transport (arguably less in keeping with the Wilderness ethic) are permitted in Wilderness while mountain bikes are excluded."

He also wrote in that article that "(B)ecause exploring rugged Wilderness terrain by bicycle is physically taxing, it is safe to conclude that only intrepid mountain bikers will be attracted to the venture. Thus, the character of Wilderness is likely to be observed and respected. Mountain bikers capable of navigating Wilderness are among 'those rugged few who seek the solitude of these areas.'"

So which is it? How much "tension" can be created over wilderness uses, and how "pressing" can this issue be, if there are only a "rugged few (mountain bikers) who seek the solitude of these areas"?

Now, in his latest argument for more wilderness access, Mr. Stroll doesn't so overtly jump on his mountain bike. Rather, he suggests that not only are wilderness areas too dangerous because federal agencies don't properly sign the backcountry, but that federal land managers, due to the Wilderness Act's limitations, "have made these supposedly open recreational areas inaccessible" and "in opposition to healthy and environmentally sound human-powered activities..."

Despite the millions of people who have visited the country’s national parks, forests and wildernesses this summer, the Forest Service has become increasingly strict in its enforcement of the Wilderness Act. The result may be more pristine lands, but the agency’s zealous enforcement has also heightened safety risks and limited access to America’s wilderness areas.

Again, I have to ask, "Really?"

Mr. Stroll argues that the authors of the Wilderness Act never envisioned today's recreational toys: the modern mountain bike and kite-skiing are two he mentions. That might be so. But they also didn't envision ATVs, Segways, or personal watercraft. Does that mean that the act, which was intended to preserve natural vestiges of the country, should be malleable throughout the future, bending and changing to each generation's toys?

Let's remember some of the key definitions of wilderness as contained within the Wilderness Act:

(c) A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain. An area of wilderness is further defined to mean in this Act an area of undeveloped Federal land retaining its primeval character and influence, without permanent improvements or human habitation, which is protected and managed so as to preserve its natural conditions and which (1) generally appears to have been affected primarily by the forces of nature, with the imprint of man's work substantially unnoticeable; (2) has outstanding opportunities for solitude or a primitive and unconfined type of recreation; (3) has at least five thousand acres of land or is of sufficient size as to make practicable its preservation and use in an unimpaired condition; and (4) may also contain ecological, geological, or other features of scientific, educational, scenic, or historical value.

And let's put a little perspective on how much wilderness there really is. While Mr. Stroll worries about the growing amount of officially designated wilderness in the country, since 1964, when the act was passed, the amount of that wilderness has grown to encompass just 109,494,508 acres in 44 states. And, more than half that total -- 56 million acres -- is in Alaska.

According to the folks at

Overall ... only about 5 percent of the entire United States—an area slightly larger than the state of California—is protected as wilderness. Because Alaska contains just over half of America's wilderness, only about 2.7 percent of the contiguous United States—an area about the size of Minnesota—is protected as wilderness.

Mr. Stroll tries to raise an interesting argument. Not the one about signage. The one about mechanical devices in wilderness areas. But in doing so he seems to take a liberty or two with the wording of the Wilderness Act. In his 2004 article he wrote that "(T)he Act's prohibition, moreover, is not limited to the mechanical transport of humans. It forbids the mechanical transport of anything, and so devices like fishing reels, wheelbarrows, and game carts also may fall within the Act's ambit."

However, how much of a stretch is it to connect a fishing reel to the mechanical transport of anything, unless he's suggesting it's transporting fishing line? Beyond that, the act's language is quite clear that the prohibition is against mechanical transport of humans: there shall be no temporary road, no use of motor vehicles, motorized equipment or motorboats, no landing of aircraft, no other form of mechanical transport, and no structure or installation within any such area.

Why so much debate over retaining 2.7 percent of the Lower 48's land mass as wilderness as pure and pristine as possible? Shouldn't that be a gift not just to ourselves, but to future generations? What's the need, in light of all the other landscapes open to mountain bikes, to have wilderness areas thrown open to mountain bikes so their riders can travel farther, faster, and with a heavier footprint on the landscape than my two booted feet?

In his 2004 article, Mr. Stroll claims, in a footnote, that "(N)ot only does (a mountain bike) not dominate the landscape, but it also does not cause changes in the natural condition of land beyond those temporary surface marks left by a tire and, like shoeprints or hoofprints, washed away in the next rain or soon erased by wind."

If that were only true. On the dual-use trails that I've hiked or run on the majority of bikers certainly dominate hikers by failing to yield and where their bikes create ever-widening bends where cyclists take wider and wider turns, their tires scraping off more and more layers of soil, and along some straightaways there are deep V-shaped grooves from tires. While International Mountain Bicycling Association officials maintain these trail problems can be addressed with proper trail construction, how would they propose to "properly construct" all the miles of backcountry wilderness that mountain bikes might reach?

Somewhat curiously, in his response to Mr. Stroll, Mr. Casimiro argues that "(T)he political problem with wilderness is its absolute nature."

But is that "absolute nature" a problem -- or rather a wonderful sanctum -- in today's increasingly developed world? To soften that absolute nature, Mr. Casimiro suggests that "we can and should define degrees of wilderness."

Haven't we already done that? There are hundreds of millions of acres, overall, managed by the U.S. Forest Service, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, and the National Park Service, and within that vast landscape there are countless areas open to mountain bikes and even more mechanized toys. That number grows when you consider state and local parks and recreation areas. Only the most pristine acres ever earn official wilderness designation.

And there are more than a few long-distance trails for mountain bikers to enjoy: The 142-mile Kokopelli's Trail; the 100-mile-long White Rim in Canyonlands National Park; the 500+-mile-long Colorado Trail; the 300-mile-long John Wayne Pioneer Trail; the 280-mile Kettle Valley Rail Trail. And that's a good thing.

But we also should leave some landscapes to our two feet or our paddles. These places and their components are hallowed ground -- the deep forests, high alpine areas, raging rivers, seemingly featureless deserts -- in no small measure because of the overall lack of these protected areas.

The current ban against mountain bikes does not deprive bikers of that wilderness experience nor that environment. It just requires them to walk with the rest of us.

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I would tend to agree with Kurt on the issue regarding bikes, but I do think Stroll raises an interesting question regarding signage. I recently read a book called Lost in the Wild by Cary Griffith. It tells two survival stories both in the Boundary Waters Area (the other one takes place partly across the border in Canada). Anyway, there's a trail up there called the Pow Wow Trail, and a hiker, somewhat foolishly, decided to go on a hike of the trail in October, by himself. Long story short, he took a wrong turn onto an old part of the trail and got lost. The correct part of the trail was overgrown, along with the rock cairn that might have helped the guy, named Jason Rasmussen. Rasmussen was found after an exhaustive search (by that time they had ordered cadaver dogs), nearly dead, after having written a goodbye letter to his parents and taking one more photo on his disposable camera waving goodbye. So I have some sympathy for this signage issue, and it sounds like the people Stroll mentions were not so lucky.

Along the North Country Trail, I've seen some times where they say that blazes are not allowed in wilderness areas, but this doesn't seem to always be the case. We have a wilderness trail in northern WI that is marked by blazes, so this seems inconsistent to me.

The bottom line for me is that if we are going to establish trails and encourage recreation on these trails, even in wilderness, it doesn't seem to me to be too much to ask that we try to make sure people know where they're going. I don't think a little paint here and there or a wood post really intrudes on wilderness any more than the trail itself does. Frankly, I wonder if it's easier for the cash-strapped USFS to throw up their hands not because it's wilderness, but maybe because it's easier and cheaper to not maintain and put up signs (even sparingly) on the trails in remote wilderness.

My two cents

It's not just the Forest Service that seems opposed to Wilderness signage, for example:

For years, Olympic and other Northwest parks have been removing the 3" square red metal tags on trees that marked trail routes frequently covered by lingering summer snow. Also gone are the numerous signs that gave the names of streams and other landmarks along trails and many of the mileages at trail

In my experience, perhaps the most common question from hikers encountering NPS staff on trails is some variation on 'Where are we/How far is...?' The Olympic trail crew used to joke that the park could save money by having just two standard signs at junctions, 'Road' and 'Further'.

This sign policy seems a bit inconsistent to me, since the Wilderness Act prohibition against permanent structures in Wilderness is widely ignored in many National Parks. These backcountry ranger stations do provide benefits such as safety and resource protection, but are also popular destinations for management desk-jockeys unwilling or unable to carry a full overnight pack.

Really, again?
Kurt out hammering the mountain bikers for trying to gain access to the "Hallowed" ground.
It's dirt Kurt and the wagon trains rolled over it long ago. No one is asking for a Taco Bell to be given access to sell veggie burrito's.
Mountain Bikers hmmm, what about a 5 year old on a push bike? Would you have them strung up for rolling along a wilderness trail as they pass you fumbling with your iPhone/GPS/Ipod thingamajig trying to get a picture for a citizens arrest?
It's a path in the woods just like it was 200 years ago, albeit more groomed.

How's that GPS working for ya, or your camera for that matter?

" I don't think a little paint here and there or a wood post really intrudes on wilderness any more than the trail itself does."
Exactly - If it's wilderness then there should be no trail or funding used to maintain it.

Go walk in the wilderness, and leave all of your mechanical items at home.

Another great article from the NPT whereby the author gets to increase prejudice against another user group.

dont go.its wilderness,lets keep it the way it place for a bicycle.lots of other places to bike.

In his posting, Jim Davis argues for mountain biking.
1. Davis states, “It's dirt Kurt and the wagon trains rolled over it long ago.” Yes, wagon trains rolled a long time ago and before the wilderness act. Davis wants mountain bikes to have access now, not "long ago". Something that happened before the wilderness act is irrelevant to what is allowed and prohibited under the wilderness act.
2. Davis states, “your iPhone/GPS/Ipod thingamajig”. They are mechanical, but not transport. The law prohibits “mechanical transport”. This difference is not a technicality. The law prohibits mechanical transport, not all things mechanical.

Ted Stroll is not honest enough to admit that he is a mountain biker promoting mountain biking (he euphemistically called it "trail cycling"). Nor the fact that mountain bikers are capable of walking, just like everyone else -- just too lazy to DO it.

Bicycles should not be allowed in any natural area. They are inanimate objects and have no rights. There is also no right to mountain bike. That was settled in federal court in 1994: . It's dishonest of mountain bikers to say that they don't have access to trails closed to bikes.
They have EXACTLY the same access as everyone else -- ON FOOT! Why isn't that good enough for mountain bikers? They are all capable of walking....

A favorite myth of mountain bikers is that mountain biking is no more harmful to wildlife, people, and the environment than hiking, and that science supports that view. Of course, it's not true. To settle the matter once and for all, I read all of the research they cited, and wrote a review of the research on mountain biking impacts (see ). I found that of the seven studies they cited, (1) all were written by mountain bikers, and (2) in every case, the authors misinterpreted their own data, in order to come to the conclusion that they favored. They also studiously avoided mentioning another scientific study (Wisdom et al) which did not favor mountain biking, and came to the opposite conclusions.

Those were all experimental studies. Two other studies (by White et al and by Jeff Marion) used a survey design, which is inherently incapable of answering that question (comparing hiking with mountain biking). I only mention them because mountain bikers often cite them, but scientifically, they are worthless.

Mountain biking accelerates erosion, creates V-shaped ruts, kills small animals and plants on and next to the trail, drives wildlife and other trail users out of the area, and (worst of all) teaches kids that the rough treatment of nature is okay (it's NOT!). What's good about THAT?

For more information: .

Isn't the Wilderness Act a "Living Document?" I mean, if it's good enough for what used to be "the Constitution" ........

A Yosemite ranger told me a story about a wilderness mgmt training course he attended. A question was posed during the course: If a hiker is severely injured in a designated wilderness area is it appropriate for a helicopter to be used to save him? The dilemma posed was that the hiker might die if the helicopter wasn't used.

The park ranger was stunned when several NPS employees said,"No."

"Wilderness" is an abstract ideal. One worthy of obtaining. To a certain extent. A helicopter landing on a small patch of ground, causing 30 minutes of unnatural noise in the wilderness vs a human life. I'll choose the human life, every time.

If a small sign will prevent fatalities, if a small sign will prevent the necessity of a helicopter rescue in the wilderness, then a small sign is a reasonable compromise. In fact the sign may do more to protect the wilderness than not having the sign does to protect a strict ideal.

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