Wilderness is key part of the American way — so let’s protect it

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By Mack and Connie Long

Congress is currently considering legislation that would undermine a bedrock law that protects Montana’s iconic landscapes, our outdoor way of life, and the wild landscapes that we’ve safeguarded for generations. This shortsighted proposal should be defeated.

H.R. 1349, introduced by Rep. Tom McClintock (R-CA), would re-write the Wilderness Act of 1964 to permit mountain bikes in America’s wilderness areas, where they have been prohibited for more than a half-century. That would mean mountain bikes in the Bob Marshall, the Scapegoat, the Absaroka-Beartooth, and in Montana’s 13 other wilderness areas.

The National Wilderness Preservation System ensures that some of our remaining wild country remains as it has been for hundreds of years. By law, wilderness areas do not allow road building and other forms of development, and prohibit motorized and mechanized vehicles, including mountain bikes.

America’s public lands provide for a variety of recreation, including mountain biking, hiking, hunting, fishing, and horseback riding. As outdoorsmen and women, Montanans treasure the quiet outdoors experience that wilderness areas offer. These lands are vital to our traditional way of life. They are the places where we hike, hunt, fish, and ride horses.

Wilderness provides a place to unplug, escape crowds and enjoy the freedom and physical tests that generations before us have enjoyed. Wilderness also prevents the fragmentation of essential fish and wildlife habitat that keeps wildlife populations healthy and diverse. Increased mountain biking can have negative effects on big game species and would forever change the wild experience that thousands of Montanans seek out each year.

The balance that currently exists on public lands, with some lands dedicated to backcountry experiences and others open to bikes and motorized vehicles allows everyone to enjoy public lands in their own way while limiting conflicts. H.R. 1349 will destroy this balance by opening the last wilderness to mountain bikes, forever changing the primitive experience of these areas.

Of course, there is a place for mountain biking on public lands, but we don’t believe bikes belong everywhere. Across Montana, sportsmen, wilderness advocates and mountain bicyclists have collaborated effectively to preserve access to key mountain bike trails and at the same time protect the adjacent wilderness areas. The Blackfoot Clearwater Stewardship Act is a prime example of this kind of collaboration. Ranchers, timber mill workers, business owners, outfitters, snowmobilers, mountain bikers and conservationists in Seeley Lake, Ovando and Missoula hammered out this legislation that adds 80,000 acres to the Bob Marshal, Scapegoat and Mission Mountain Wilderness Areas and adds new mountain biking and snowmobiling opportunities.

This made-in-Montana proposal offers a good model for building partnerships between diverse stakeholders and land managers. We believe that type of collaboration is the best way to achieve success.

There is much overlap among proponents of wilderness and mountain biking. Most mountain bikers share a strong conservation ethic, and the bottom line is we should continue to work together.

We support protecting America’s wilderness and oppose attempts to rewrite the Wilderness Act to allow mountain bikes in wilderness. We urge Congressman Gianforte to support protecting our last remaining wild places by rejecting H.R. 1349.

Mack and Connie Long are residents of Charlo.

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