So why talk even more about about Aldo Leopold? He was one of the founding members of the Wilderness Society. Sand County Almanac along with several more of his essays are seminal works in the development of the environmental community. Finally, in justifying their opposition to bikes in wilderness the Wilderness Society quotes him, "Recreation is valuable in proportion to the intensity of its experiences, and to the degree to which it differs from and contrasts with workaday life. By these criteria, mechanized outings are at best a milk-and- water affair."
What does he mean by a mechanized outing. Maybe some other quotes will give us context.
"The day is almost upon us when canoe travel will consist in paddling up the noisy wake of a motor launch and foraging through the backyard of a summer cottage.when that day comes canoe travel will be dead, and dead too will be a part of our Americanism...The day is almost upon us when a pack train must wind its way up a gravel highway and turn out its bell mare in the pasture of a summer hotel. When that day comes the pack train will be dead..."
"One of these is canoe travel, and the other is travel by pack-train. Both are shrinking rapidly. Your Hudson Bay Indian has a put-put, and your mountaineer a Ford... But we who seek wilderness travel for sport are foiled when we are forced to compete with mechanized substitutes. It is footless to execute a portage to the tune of motor launches.."
"The retreat of the wilderness under the barrage of motorized tourists is no local thing..."
"He is the motorized ant who swarms to continent before learning to see his own backyard."
"Everywhere is the unspecialized motorist whose recreation is mileage..."
"Take a look first at any duck marsh. A cordon of parked cars surrounds it."
"Bureaus build roads into new hinterlands, then buy more hinterlands to absorb the exodus accelerated by the roads."
Looking at these quotes, it becomes clear what a mechanized outing consist of: motors, cars ,and roads.
Now, let's take a little closer look at that first quote, first at the first sentence, "Recreation is valuable in proportion to the intensity of its experiences, and to the degree to which it differs from and contrasts with workaday life." Few people will argue that mountain bike a narrow technical backcountry trail is an intense experience, and for nearly everyone short of a professional athlete contrasts significantly from cubicle life. It could be argued that some people bike commute to work or go for afterwork rides or do soul cycle, so riding a ,mountain bike in the wild is that different from their usual day. If that was true does that mean that people who run on treadmills, run marathons, or live within walking distance from work, wouldn't experience backpacking as a marked contrast from daily life. Someone who had never left the city, never spent a night in the woods is going to have a more intense experience that someone living in rural Montana that spends every free moment outside.
When it comes to the role of recreation in wilderness, he also had some thoughts.
"Public wilderness areas are, first of all, a means of perpetuating, in sport form, the more virile and primitive skills in pioneering travel and subsistence."
"when we speak of roads, campgrounds, trails, and toilets as 'development' of recreational resources we speak falsely... On the contrary they are merely water poured into the already thin soup."
"Recreational development is a job not of building roads into lovely country, but of building receptivity into the still unlovely human mind."
So now to the next questions. Is mountain biking perpetuating virile pioneering travel? Can mountain biking build receptivity in our minds. What about trails?
Ignoring the male bias implicit in virility, it is hard to question that mountain biking requires fitness, specialized skills, physical exertion, route finding, and self sufficiency. Map reading, fire starting, emergency first aid apply equally whether on bike or foot. Fixing a broken chain or a flat tire are skills are the bike maintenance equivalent of field repairs of saddlery.
As far as receptivity, I'll quote Greg Leister, president of the Pisgah Area Southern Off-Road Bicycle Association who was discussing the Forest Plan near Brevard, NC, "As far as connecting with nature, I cannot think of a better way to experience the forest than on a mountain bike," Someone, somewhere a PhD thesis is probably being written on this right now, so I don't see a need to belabor the point. All I'm going to say is that from my personal experience, and each time I try a different approach I discover something new about places I thought I knew. Learn to kayak and rivers look different. Learn to climb and you will never approach a canyon in the same way. Fly fishing, birding, skiing all add to your appreciation. Try mountain biking, same thing.
What about trails? While find it hard to believe that all trails are anathema and I doubt anyone advocating for removing trails from wilderness would get much support, the concern about over development raises the question of what we are looking for when riding in wilderness. It needs to be different from resorts or accessible trail systems. No machine built trails, no progressive jump lines. The trails need to be narrow, primitive and as natural as possible. Signs need to be minimal. The spirit should be one of adventure, not just gravity.
In case you missed the earlier posts on the philosophy of wilderness
Aldo Leopold Part One
The Problem of the Wilderness - Robert Marshall
Wilderness and Bikes