Frank Vitale: Bikes don’t belong in wilderness areas

NFPA member Frank Vitale’s op-ed in the Flathead Beacon has some pointed comments about mountain bikes in wilderness areas . . .

Mountain bikes should never be permitted in wilderness. Consider this potential scenario: A packstring is slowly making its way down through Gateway Gorge, coming off the bench from Sabido Cabin deep in the heart of the Bob Marshall Wilderness. The trail is steep, rocky and narrow and it’s a long way down to the creek bottom.

The wreck took place about half way through the gorge. Half the packstring went off the edge. Two mules went down in the bottom, floundering and flopping around with broken legs; packs and gear strewn all over; pack boxes smashed to bits. The packer luckily stayed on his mount and tried to keep the rest of the string together. It started almost instantly, with no time for the packer to even know what was happening as two mountain bikers came down from the top, hell-bent for leather, and came up from behind the packstring.

Could this really happen? You bet. This could have been a U.S. Forest Service packer, an outfitter, or a group of family and friends out on a week-long pack trip in the wilderness. Somebody could have been killed.

These types of mountain bikers only know one speed (fast) unlike backpackers who travel slowly. Backpackers and stock users share many of the same trails, and there is usually no problem because the stock typically has time to digest what they’re seeing.

I have a string of seasoned and experienced mules, but running into a mountain bike on a wilderness trail would be one of my worst nightmares. Most wilderness trails were designed and built for pack and saddle stock and foot travel, not for bicycles. Because of the speed mountain bikers travel and the nature of the trails, the potential for surprise encounters and wrecks is greatly increased. Most packers and stock users I know are not willing to put themselves or their stock at risk.

Now, the Sustainable Trails Coalition, a national mountain bike organization, is trying to rewrite the Wilderness Act. They feel they have a right to ride their bikes in wilderness. They have stated that they will not support any new wilderness designation if they cannot access and use the trails.

In 1964, the year the Wilderness Act was passed by Congress, mountain bikes didn’t even exist. The framers of the Wilderness Act created the language to prevent the onslaught of this very type of technology into the wildest country left in North America.

I hope the Forest Service and the public have the will to stand up against this small number of “thrill seekers.”

Frank Vitale
Columbia Falls