"It has not dawned on him that outdoor recreations are essentially primitive, atavistic; that their value is a contrast value; that excessive mechanization destroys contrasts by moving the factory to the woods or to the marsh."
Wait? What? I thought you were pro mountain bike? I thought you were planning to demonstrate why bikes belong? How could you start with that quote and give ammunitions to the anti-bike crowd? Well, for several reasons. First, I don't want to be accused of selectively quoting Aldo Leopold. So I might as well just address it from the start. Second, the issue of mountain bike access is not clear cut, and many of the early wilderness advocates had ambivalent and nuanced opinions on the value of technology. Opinions worth reflecting on. And finally, just to get your attention.
Opinions valuable enough that I'm going to split my thoughts on Aldo Leopold into two parts. Today I'm going to address his essay Wildlife In American Culture. While it is primarily deals with hunting., I think it has insights into "mechanization" as he calls it, or using today's terminology: technology.
"He has draped the American Outdoorsman with an infinity of contraptions, all offered as aids to self reliance ... Each item of outdoor gear grows lighter and often better, but the aggregate poundage becomes tonnage."
"As an end-case consider the duck-hunter, sitting in a steel boat behind composition decoys. A put-put motor has brought him to the blind without exercise. Canned heat stands by to warm him in case of chilling wind. He talks to the passing flocks on a factory caller... He opens up at 70 yards, for his polychoke is set for infinity... the next blind opens up at 75 yards; how else is a fellow to get some shooting?"
Don't we all feel this way sometimes? Once you upgraded to the 29er, you are told you need a 650. Once you have that, it's out of style. Now it's a 29 plus. 3 x 9; 2 x 10, 1 x 11. Endless gadgets that seem so necessary: dropper posts, tubeless tires, headlights, gels, bars, gloves, helmets, knee pads, elbow pads, Go Pros.
Of course, once you realize that for Leopold mechanization does not connote wheels, but rather technology, the same issues come to the forefront whatever mode of outdoor recreation you prefer. Skis getting fatter and lighter; now with carbon fiber. Ski bindings are technological marvels. Going backpacking? Don't forget your GPS, bluetooth speakers, tent with built in lights, solar charger, jet boil, thermarest, and nano-coated down sleeping bag. Just going for a hike? You'll need the hydration pack, gore-tex lined boots and adjustable cork and carbon fiber hiking poles with carbide tips.
"The answer is not a simple one. Roosevelt did not disdain the modern rifle; White used freely the aluminum pot, the silk tent, dehydrated foods. Somehow they used mechanical aids, in moderation, without being used by them. I do not pretend to know what is moderation, or where the line is between legitimate and illegitimate gadgets."
The issue continues to be where that line is, and some groups being certain they know where that line is. I'm not arrogant enough to advocate for a clear bright line. I'm going to moseya little bit out onto the heretical edge here and suggest that when mountain bikes first started venturing onto trails it was reasonable to be cautious and concerned about what their impact might be. It was reasonable to be concerned that bikes might bring too much of the factory to the forest. What was not reasonable was the Sierra Club and Wilderness Society believing that they knew where the line was back 1984 and pushing for an absolute ban without the need for study or engagement. Now thirty years later, the issue has been studied and the consensus is as far as the physical and ecological impact we are comparable to hiking. Consider the White Clouds and contrast them with the Sawtooth Wilderness across the Valley. Or compare the Blue Joint WSA to the adjacent Selway Wilderness. In both cases we have been riding these areas for 30 years with such negligible impact that the White Clouds were designated a Wilderness this year, and the Forest Service admits that there is no evidence that the wilderness character of Blue Joint has been damaged.
"Among non-gunpowder sports, the impact of mechanization has had diverse effects. The modern field glass, camera, and aluminum bird-band have certainly not deteriorated the cultural value of ornithology. Fishing, but for outboard motors and aluminum canoes, seems less severely mechanized than hunting. On the other hand motorized transport has nearly destroyed the sport of wilderness travel by leaving only fly-specks of wilderness to travel in."
" Fox hunting with hounds, backwoods style,presents a dramatic and instance of partial and perhaps harmless mechanized invasion. This is one of the purest of sports... But now we follow the chase in Fords."
Are mountain bikes impacting the cultural values of wilderness travel? When riding we are earning our adventure with sweat stained shirts, exhausted legs, and layers of caked on dirt; carrying only the necessities on our backs.. We ride the same thin ribbon of trail. We don't want more roads. We don't want more infrastructure. Route finding, self sufficiency, all the elements of wilderness travel are as valid on a bike as they are by foot, horse or canoe. If chasing foxes by car can be considered a harmless mechanized invasion then so can bikes.