By Newkirk Johnson
During the terrible years of Nazi rule in Germany, Adolf Hitler and his loyal propagandist Joseph Goebbels were notorious for utilizing the era's mass communications as part of a strategy of lying on a grand scale. "If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it," was Goebbels' philosophy.
Today this propaganda technique is commonly known as the "Big Lie," used by Fox News and a variety of other irresponsible media outlets and demagogue politicians on a daily, even hourly, basis to gaslight a willing public and viewing audience on a scale unimaginable to Hitler and Goebbels and the considerable 20th century mass media apparatus at their disposal.
Similarly, in recent years, a retired attorney and mountain bike advocate named Ted Stroll has promoted a "Big Lie" via an organization with the seemingly benign name of the Sustainable Trails Coalition (STC). The coalition's singular mission is to radically alter the Wilderness Act of 1964 in order to allow mountain biking in all of the nation's designated Wilderness areas protected as part of the National Wilderness Preservation Act. While that may sound considerable, designated Wilderness areas make up only three percent of the overall inventory of federal public lands in the U.S.
Nevertheless, the Big Lie that Mr. Stroll and the Sustainable Trails Coalition promote is that the framers of the 1964 Wilderness Act, and the law itself, intended to allow mountain bikes in Wilderness areas. Despite the frequent repetition of this lie, there isn't the smallest kernel of validity to Mr. Stroll's claim.
Coupled with it is the insistent text on the STC website that "too many Americans" are "blocked" access from Wilderness. That in itself is an astonishing fabrication, and another Big Lie indeed. Wilderness areas are set aside for habitat preservation and conservation, but thousands of miles of trails crisscross our nation's wilderness areas. They are available to all able-bodied individuals on foot, and are neither designed nor graded for bicycles or motorized travel.
Like the growing community of motorized ORV users, the STC echoes the desire of a loud, entitled minority of mountain bikers that want immediate access to wherever they feel like riding, at any time. Mr. Stroll, for one, has vowed to ride his mountain bike along the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), through dozens of designated wilderness areas, "before he dies."
This rogue group of mountain bikers, backed by a no-longer quiet, well-heeled cabal of mountain bike recreational interests, appear to believe their ends justify the means, and will say whatever they believe is necessary to gain entitled access everywhere, despite the ecological impacts and criteria clearly set out by the Wilderness Act in the management of Wilderness lands – and despite the overwhelming abundance of available public land throughout the U.S. that has long been accessible and available to mountain bikes and shared use.
Ed Zahniser, son of the 1964 Wilderness Act author Howard Zahniser, was quoted in an article in the Los Angeles Times in 2018, asking "How could they possibly say the original [Wilderness] act allows this? They are just making it up." Bicycles are clearly an example of the "mechanized transportation" barred by the Wilderness Act when President Johnson signed the policy into law on Sept. 3rd, 1964.
The quotes included here from Howard Zahniser leave no room to conclude that he and other framers of the Wilderness Act intended to allow bicycles in Wilderness areas. The 1964 law, in clear terms, codified a humility-based determination to put boundaries on humanity's impact on our nation's remaining primitive areas and wilderness, where humans are "only a visitor."
If you acquire only two books on conservation to read and refer to over the course of your lifetime, consider Aldo Leopold's 1949 classic A Sand County Almanac, and The Wilderness Writings of Howard Zanhiser.
And finally, please take a moment to take action with Wilderness Watch to keep mountain bikes out of our nation's designated wilderness areas.
Newkirk Johnson serves as the executive director of Friends of Allegheny Wilderness. He lives in Warren, Pennsylvania.
Photo © 2008 Felix Wong
A former San Diego broadcaster and media personality, Tommy Hough is a wilderness and conservation advocate, communications professional, California Democratic Party delegate, and the co-founder and former president of San Diego County Democrats for Environmental Action. He ran as the endorsed Democratic candidate for San Diego City Council in District 6 in 2018.