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 Wilderness.net:
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.