Op-ed: Mountain Bikers Under Assault

No secret, out of state corporate entities have influenced West Virginia politics. The Wilderness Society of Durango, Colorado is no exception. Their stance regarding bicycles and their political deals have created a skeptical attitude here about additional Wilderness. To prevent more trail closures some mountain bikers might support a bill like HR 1349, which opens all designated Wilderness areas to bicycles.

What is the process of finding “common ground” between Wilderness advocates and mountain bikers? We already found “common ground” here in WV! But not in DC or Colorado… That is the story of WV’s Dolly Sods Wilderness expansion not presented in the “Wilderness Under Assault” article in the April BRO.

In our 2003 meeting, the West Virginia Mountain Bike Association, IMBA and the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy agreed to support any possibility of “Wilderness with Bicycles” in the Wild Monongahela Wilderness bill.

We considered scientific evidence that bicycles cause no more trail damage than hikers, and less wildlife disturbance. Mountain bike groups had established trail maintenance and events in Dolly Sods North, Spruce Knob and North Fork Mountain. Everyone present was in agreement to pursue the objective of “Wilderness with Bicycles”.

We did not seek to open pre-existing Wilderness to bicycles. But we were extremely excited to possibly be the first case of a “Wilderness with Bicycles”, a win-win, “common ground” situation for environmentalists and cyclists!

At our 2004 meeting we were presented a proposal by the WV Wilderness Coalition represented only by Dave Saville and Mike Costello, paid employees of The Wilderness Society. We were shocked to find that there was no mention of “Wilderness with Bicycles” in their proposal. When asked about the omission, Saville said that their boss, Michael Carroll, would not agree to it.

Then they asked us to endorse their plan which would have closed over 250 miles of epic backcountry singletrack to bicycles. As a “compromise” two other popular mountain bike areas, Canaan and Gauley Mountain, had been left out of their proposal. They told us their proposal was final.

As representatives of IMBA and the WV mountain bike community, there was no way we could endorse the wholesale closure of our best backcountry trail systems, with absolutely no gains for mountain bikers. We already knew that Canaan and Gauley Mountain would never actually be written into the bill. We told them no deal.

Characterizing this Wilderness issue as a partisan one, instead of a local versus federal one, is disingenuous. WV has long been known for its King Coal government. Congressman Nick Rahall (Democrat-WV), who introduced the Wild Monongahela Wilderness bill, was in Congress from 1977-2015.

Rahall presided over the southern district of WV during a period of well known, unprecedented devastating mountain top removal there. He opposed legislation designed to end mountaintop removal mining.

Rahall was considering a run for President and was in dire need of some green credits. The Wilderness Society was happy to give Rahall the Ansel Adams Award as a “fervent conservationist” in 2004.

In return, when Rahall became Chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee in 2007, they got influence written into Wilderness bills. The Wilderness Society garnered support in WV by dealing with other players in the negotiations.

The 2009 Public Law 111-11, Wild Monongahela Wilderness, Section 1001(c) allows an exception for a 200-person competitive footrace through two Wilderness Areas. This event is in opposition with numerous nationwide Wilderness regulations.

In Section 1004, a deal was made to secure funding to do extensive trail maintenance in non-Wilderness areas.  Coincidentally one rebuild occurred near a mountain bike business whose owner gave testimony before Congress supporting the Wilderness proposal.

The April article didn’t mention the out of state money and political influence of The Wilderness Society. These deals made exclusively in DC ignored all of the affected WV citizens, County Commissions and CVB’s that were supporting keeping trails open to mountain bikers.

The April article does mention the negative unintended consequences of the Dolly Sods Wilderness expansion. The prohibition of much-needed extensive trail maintenance and the cancellation of organized events is tragic. The forest fires, lost injured hikers, overcrowding and overuse issues are impacting the USFS, local EMS and volunteer fire units.

The good news is that we didn’t lose access to Spruce Knob or North Fork Mountain. When they came back again several years later to try to close North Fork Mountain, they failed. Due to our awesome advocacy efforts we actually kept the vast majority of the threatened trail mileage open to bicycles.

I am sure mountain bikers are open to negotiations, but with who? Not those taking orders from Colorado or DC. What I do know is we are looking forward to riding in “Wilderness with Bicycles”!

Ride On!

Matt Marcus was a founding member of WVMBA and IMBA Representative for WV 2003-2009.   






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