Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Loss in the Boulder-White Clouds

It is a tragic time for the Boulder-White Clouds.

Yesterday, the Wilderness bill which will close Castle Divide, Ants Basin and other mountain bike trails passed the Senate. Having already passed the House, once President Obama signs the bill into law, riders will lose access to prime trails forever.

It is tragic because we had a better option. I support existing and future Wilderness designations, with the ban on bikes. The experience of a place really does change once bikes are allowed, and I for one appreciate places like the Sawtooths where we cannot ride. The integrity of our bedrock environmental laws, like the Wilderness Act, needs to be vigorously defended. But this Wilderness bill is not the best option for this place. The National Monument was superior for so many reasons – for the amount of land protected, for the fish habitat in the East Fork Salmon, for the flexibility and continuity of land management, and for continued mountain bike access. The Boulder-White Clouds was the perfect place to showcase new ways to protect both the landscape and our access. Instead, this Wilderness bill is not about what’s best for the place and all those that love it; it’s about politics and creating bike-free areas where they have never existed.

It is tragic because it is a step backwards in the evolution of public land management. Much of the support that got the Wilderness bill passed is more accurately called opposition to the Monument. The final Wilderness boundaries were contorted beyond all recognition in order to keep all existing motorized access open. We had a historic agreement worked out with Wilderness advocates to support the Monument and bike access together. Then in the end, mountain bikers were marginalized. Now we are left with the realization that our support for the Monument actually paved the way for the Wilderness. And we are left wondering whether our support was used with Wilderness as the ultimate goal. Future land management decisions and worthy Wilderness designations across the nation will require bigger coalitions and strong, new constituencies for conservation. This process was not a step in that direction.

Most of all, it is tragic because we will never be able to ride these trails again. My heart breaks for current and future mountain bikers that will never get the chance to ride Castle Divide, or to have their breath taken away when they pedal to the ridge overlooking Ants Basin. These rides have a near-mythical status for Idaho mountain bikers, inspiring us to explore and care for big, wild landscapes. We mourn their loss.

Despite the fact that we had a better option and despite the missed opportunities, now we have to respect the designation, learn from the process, and work harder towards permanent protection coupled with maintained access for everywhere else that we care about.


  1. Beautifully articulated Tom. Never thought there would be a day when a wilderness designation would leave me feeling empty until now. Wish things had turned out differently and that the collaborative path had been honored. I am thankful for the memories we share, riding bikes on the best trails I have ever ridden. A bittersweet day.

  2. Go ride, apologize if necessary!

  3. Why can't we fight to be grandfathered in? There are air strips and jet boats all over the Frank Church.

    From wikipedia: "The Wilderness Act allows certain uses (e.g.; resource extraction, grazing, etc.) which existed before the land became wilderness to be grandfathered in, permitting them to continue to take place although the area that was designated as wilderness typically would not concede such uses. Specifically, mining, grazing, water uses, or any other uses that don’t significantly impact the majority of the area, can remain in some degree."

    Is mountain biking not 'extractive' enough?