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View from the Summit
by Catherine Cunningham : Editor, Terrain.org

The Future for the Present

My intent in buying a “mountain bike” was not to become a mountain biker—for goodness sake, there were no “mountains” in a 200-mile radius of my home! Furthermore, it was well-known that fads and trends had a time delay of two to five years from the moment they hit Los Angeles or New York to the time they reached the Midwest. Therefore, the mountain-biking craze would not reach South Dakota for another several months, maybe years.

No, this purchase was more a rebellion against the fragile tires and frame of a conventional touring cycle. I didn’t want some sissy bike to fall apart just because I jumped it off a curb. My new bike was no pretty sight when compared to the sleek flourished shape of the fleet 10-speed. This black Fuji was designed in the spirit of hard architecture. It had wide, angular handle bars; edgy, rubber hand grips; and fat tires with treads! It was reminiscent of an awkward teenager… with a mouth full of braces. Ironically, teenagers—many with braces—laughed out loud when they saw me pedal past on my way to work or school.

The history of mountain bikes varies widely from source to source. According to the Mountain Bike Hall of Fame in beautiful Crested Butte, Colorado, the use of mountain bikes may have begun with the Buffalo Soldiers “who customized bicycles to carry gear over rough terrain in the late 1800s. [In] 1896, the riders, black enlisted men and a white lieutenant, rode from Missoula, Montana, to Yellowstone and back, an arduous 800 miles. Their mission: to test the bicycle for military use in mountainous terrain.”

Or it may have been the “Velo Cross Club Parisien (VCCP) of France, comprised of about 20 young bicyclists from the outskirts of Paris, who between 1951 and 1956 developed a sport that was remarkably akin to present-day mountain biking? These riders juiced up their French 650-B bikes with an extraordinary degree of technical sophistication.”

Or “Maybe it was John Finley Scott who was probably the first mountain bike enthusiast in the United States. In 1953 he built what he called a ‘Woodsie Bike,’ using a Schwinn World diamond frame, balloon tires, flat handlebars, derailleur gears, and cantilever brakes. John was more than twenty years ahead of his time.”

The Mountain Bike Hall of Fame found agreement with many sources that the recent history of the mountain bike is most evident in Northern California. According to BicycleSource, “The first successful high quality fat-tire bicycle was built in Marin County, California by Joe Breeze, who with others rode down the rocky trails of nearby My Tamalpais. They used balloon-tire one-speed clunkers from the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s to descend these trails with coaster brakes. In that pursuit, one of these trails got the name "Repack" because one descent was enough to vaporize the bike's grease, requiring the hub to be re-packed.

BicyleSource also tells us, “Joe Breeze, Otis Guy, and Gary Fisher, all still in the bike business today, were top category USCF riders. Many of the Tamalpais riders were members of road club Velo Club Tamalpais, wearing a blue and gold jersey with the mountain logo. In October of 1977, Joe built a fat-tire bike of lightweight tubing that was previously found only on better road bikes. It had all new, high-quality parts and 26" x 2 1/8" Uniroyal "Knobby" tires on Schwinn S2 rims and Phil Wood hubs. Joe built ten of these first Breezers by June 1978. Breezer #1 has been on display at various places, including the Oakland Museum, where it has been on permanent display since 1985.”

Thankfully, when it came to my decision on whether to simply drive into those sassy punks with my nearly indestructible steel mountain bike frame, I opted against it. I knew that someday those kids would adjust their young sensibilities into thinking of this contraption as cool. Eventually, those kids would gnash their teeth with embarrassment for having mocked this cutting-edge, mountain bike trend and the young woman taking part in it.

It was about this time—in 1987—that the first mountain bike world championships were held. Mountain biking made its Olympic debut in the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. Since then, those teenagers—now in their late 20s and early 30s—almost certainly own mountain bikes. The introduction of bicycles to our recreation paradigm has begun a new revolution. Few in those early days would have guessed the massive numbers of mountain bikers today.

Forest plans and resource management plans, the planning documents for the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) across the nation, are being updated to deal with the staggering increases in mountain bike use on federal land. In addition, other recreational uses have exploded. The mountain biking craze coincided with a general rush to recreation.

According to surveys conducted by the American Recreation Coalition for the Recreation Roundtable, 78% of American adults in 2001 participated in an outdoor recreation activity at least monthly, and 34% did so several times each week. While this is down slightly from the 2000 numbers, it shows a steady increase from the 1994 survey, which reported that just half of American adults participated monthly. Recreation activities covered in these surveys include hiking, biking (on- and off-road), horseback riding, hunting, snowmobiling, motorcycling, golfing, and skiing. Of the 2001 surveyed recreationists, half reported visits to a federal recreation site.

The total area of the 50 states is some 2.3 billion acres. Federal civil and defense agencies administer about 563 million acres, or about 24.7 percent of the total area today. Of that, BLM has jurisdiction over nearly 264 million acres. The U.S. Forest Service manages 191 million acres. There are 747 million acres of forest in the United States.

When I moved to Colorado I finally did become a real mountain biker. And hiker. And skier. Over time I became a full-fledged forest user and explored… well, just a fraction of those federal and forested acres.

Recreation has placed far more demand on our nation’s forests than our preceding generations imagined. The good news is that people are using and enjoying their public lands. People who recreate are known to live happier, healthier lives. The bad news is that demand is high and supply is limited. Therefore, land use conflicts will become more prevalent. Social factors, such as affluence and population growth, add further demand and strain on recreation opportunities.

Thus, jeep, snowmobile, motorcycle, and all-terrain vehicle operators want accessible, scenic trails to recreate their way. Mountain bikers want accessible, scenic trails to recreate their way, and not be “harassed” by the motorized vehicles. The backpackers and bird watchers want accessible, scenic trails to recreate their way—but not be interrupted by the mountain biker or the motorized vehicles. Some trails accommodate two levels of users: hikers with mountain bikers or mountain bikers with motorized vehicle operators. But rarely do we see all three in the same place.

Each activity type causes impacts and devalues that recreation resource. For instance, part of what makes four-wheeling, motorcycling, and snowmobiling fun is the adrenaline rush that comes with negotiating a gnarly obstacle, splashing through a mud puddle, or raising a cloud of dust by whipping “rosies” or “donuts.” Eventually, these trails become so deteriorated that they are avoided, especially by less experienced operators. Around them additional trails are created. Yet because of the high rate of speed at which motorized vehicles operate, these enthusiasts want and need many miles.

The same goes for the mountain bikers. After my second year mountain biking, I went with a friend who taught me to peddle slowly and steadily through the middle of mud puddle so as not to displace a great deal of water and never go around the puddle as eventually, the trail would widen irreparably. Because of the moderate rate of speed, the bicyclist also wants and needs many miles of trails.

And finally, even the low-impact backpackers and bird watchers have impacts. While trails don’t experience nearly the surface abuse of wheeled and tracked transport, walking trails are prone to wanderers who stray from the trail.

Of the federal lands, not all are equally accessible to public uses. In 1964, Congress established the National Wilderness Preservation System, under the Wilderness Act of 1964. The legislation set aside certain large (generally 5,000 or more acres) areas of federal lands as wilderness areas. These areas are intended as wild lands largely in their natural state, where “no temporary road, no use of motor vehicles, motorized equipment or motorboats, no landing of aircraft, no other form of mechanical transport, and no structure or installation within any such area” are, with few (emergency and administrative) exceptions, permitted. Current estimates indicate wilderness areas cover 105,677,250 acres. Generally, wilderness areas contain sensitive resources.

It really is great news that people from all strata are using, appreciating, and gaining value and vitality from our forested lands. Multiple uses for recreation and renewable resources will likely only become more complicated in the coming decades. No one knows what the next trend will be. Above all, natural resource management is a difficult balancing act. Mother Nature manages for the whole system—animals, plants, and rocks—and has been doing it for quite a while.

Almost every part within that system, capable of thinking, considers only of itself. A fish, having a brain roughly the size of a TicTac, thinks only of those things to sustain itself—it’s need to eat and to reproduce. Same goes for all the creatures, no matter where they fall on the food chain—including humans. The tricky part is that humans have diversified those needs of sustenance and reproduction to a highly consumptive level. As thinking beings, we humans should be able to see the big picture—the forest for the trees—the future for the present.


Catherine Cunningham is an environmental specialist with the U.S. Department of Energy's Western Area Power Administration, a federal agency responsible for marketing hydroelectricity produced at large dams throughout the West. She is also a planning commissioner for her mountain town.
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