To walk or ride?

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After my grandparents proved up on the homestead here in Montezuma County, they rented it out to a neighbor so they could go visit family in Texas. They were travelling by covered wagon and going by way of Wolf Creek Pass, a literal wilderness then, which was mostly a one-lane wagon road with turn-outs when meeting traffic. My mother and her sister had to walk up in front far enough to warn if a car was coming so they could warn it to pull into a turnout for passing and not to scare the horses pulling the wagons. Those old cars were kinda noisy. Transportation the people used then was walking, horseback, horse and wagon and cars. Isn’t it amazing that they all shared the same narrow muddy and rocky trails and roads and respected the others’ right of use, even helped them if necessary as they worked together to open up the massive wilderness? My, how things have changed!

A number of years ago, I was fortunate to have a friend take me horseback up to Navajo Lake in the Lizard Head Wilderness. That last mile up the open face is pretty steep with switchbacks and you need a good horse, as a fall would cause rolling for a looong way down. On our way back down, right near the upper part of the open face, we saw what looked like some strange alien creatures wobbling up the trail making funny noises. We thought maybe they were from Roswell, N.M.? Our horses didn’t know what to make of them and commenced to get skittish. We were able to get their attention and have them climb up off the trail (it was too narrow to pass on) and to stand very still. It turned out they were hikers working on their bucket list of 14ers, with their large backpack of tents, etc. plus snowboards sticking up high waving around on the backpacks. Snowboards? They said they take the boards up with them and ride down where they can. I figured they had been oxygen-starved at birth. They were very cooperative and we got passed with no mishap. That is simply common courtesy of people using the same trail or road on any of our public lands — wilderness or otherwise, it is all the same.


This historic photo depicts early “wilderness” travel, sharing the roads and trails with all others. It was taken in early June of 1923 going up the south side of Wolf Creek Pass, heading north, stopped at a “pull-out” for passing cars and other wagons. Dexter Gill’s mother was 8 years old, and walked ahead to warn other means of transportation. That was the sharing of the means of transportation routes through the “wilderness” in the early days.

Today, some people don’t want others to use the same public lands, roads and trails they want to use. There is a lot of consternation over a recent proposal to allow mountain bikes to use some trails in designated wilderness areas. Wait, aren’t these “public” lands? Aren’t mountain-bikers also “public”? Let’s look back at how this problem began.

Back in 1964 a group decided to designate some public lands with a new definition called “wilderness” with the idea that it would be managed to look kinda like man had not been there, even though many have been. Congress passed the “Wilderness Act,” Public Law 88-577, on Sept. 3, 1964. I remember it well. To allay any concerns, they state in Sec. 4(a) regarding “Use of Wilderness Areas” (1)”Nothing in this Act shall be deemed to be in interference with the purpose for which national forests are established as set forth in the Act of June 4 1897, and the Multiple- Use Sustained-Yield Act of June 12, 1960.” Which was so far, so good, everything would continue as usual, with just a little extra care in management activities. However, in the same section they inserted a paragraph titled “Prohibition of Certain Uses” where it stated “there shall be no use of motor vehicles, motorized equipment or motorboats, no landing of aircraft, no other form of mechanical transport…within any such area.” Whoops, they lied; there is a big change after all!

So what is the problem with a mountain bike on the trail? Nothing, except it is considered “mechanical.” They are no noisier than many hikers and they cause no more erosion possibilities than hikers, and less than horses and wildlife. So why not have mountain bikes on some of the trails? Why was the prohibition paragraph in the Act anyway?

I would hypothesize that the drafters of the Act were selfish romanticists that wanted lands set aside specifically for their own dreams of experiencing the past time of the explorers, trappers and Natives without the realistic hardships and certainly with no responsibility. There was apparently no concern of future users’ interests, or for the future health of the area that would be designated “wilderness.”

The San Juan National Forest comprises 1.8+ million acres and of that, about 700+ thousand acres or a full 40% of the forest is designated wilderness where only hikers and equestrians are permitted in. No mountain bikes, no ATVs, no snowmobiles, no drones, nothing mechanical or motorized, regardless if it makes sense or not!

Today, mountain-biking is a popular sport that also contributes to the physical and mental health of those participating, just like it does for the hikers for their choice of “transportation.” In addition, it is very much of an economic benefit to the local area. There is no reason for a conflict over trail use between bikers, hikers and equestrians in wilderness areas, or elsewhere. Recreationists just need to respect and appreciate each other’s common right to use the public byways and lands, just like the early settlers did. The continued exclusion of one person’s use over another’s for no valid reason, but a difference in ideology, only divides the populace. It is time to revisit the ill-conceived wilderness regulations that have eliminated the care, protection and use of the public lands of the state.

Dexter Gill is a retired forest manager who worked for private industry, three Western state forestry agencies, and the Navajo Nation forestry department. He writes from Lewis, Colo.

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From Dexter Gill.