Op Ed. “Mr. President, Let’s Ride”

Rocky Mountain News, April 21, 2007

Mountain biking might just save this presidency

In the spring, an embattled president’s fancy turns to thoughts of mountain biking.

Soon enough, President Bush will be back on his bike, rolling across his Crawford ranch with a Secret Service detail in tow. And as sure as the snow will melt on the trails crisscrossing the West’s high peaks, he will be accused of mountain biking while Baghdad burns.

His critics will insist that he should be using his time more constructively – to make the Iraq problem go away, or solve our health-care, Social Security or immigration crises.

It is, suddenly, quite fashionable to ridicule our public servants for wanting to get outside. It was Thomas Jefferson, however, who wrote “not less than two hours a day should be devoted to exercise, and the weather should be little regarded” – because, he explained, “If the body be feeble, the mind will not be strong.”

Bush has defended his own fitness doctrine in slightly less elegant terms: “People think more clearly if you’re fit,” he once said.

But the nation’s opinion columnists disagree. They would prefer that our President spend 15 minutes on the Stairmaster and then get back to the important business of running the country into the ground.

While our country might be in better shape had Bush followed their advice, I submit that things might actually be better shape if Bush rode his mountain bike more often. There are certainly worse things he could do – like squander a budget surplus or offend the entire global community or stretch our armed forces to the breaking point.

I think the problem is not that our president rides a mountain bike, but where he does it – on his private ranch in Crawford and at secure locations in Camp David, Quantico and Beltsville, Md.

Bush has told reporters that mountain biking offers “a chance for me to feel like I’m outside the bubble.” But his mountain biking habits are as insular as his administration – he rarely leaves familiar territory, and insubordinate actions, such as passing the commander-in-chief, are strictly forbidden.

Bush should get out more. Specifically, he should explore the public lands he is charged with protecting for future generations.

Some of the early heroes of the conservation movement were hunters and anglers who, in the 1850s, spoke up for the stewardship of the forests they used. Many of our current environmental leaders are hikers, skiers and, yes, mountain bikers who were first exposed to the glory of our nation’s natural heritage on government-owned trails.

Recreation on public lands makes conservationists of us all. Few would deny the redemptive value of our nation’s last wild places, which is why programs that expose troubled youth to the wonders of nature, affectionately dubbed “hoods in the woods,” enjoy almost universal support.

If Bush has his way, however, there will be fewer woods for all of us. Once again this year, the administration has proposed that the Forest Service sell off up to $800 million of National Forest lands in order to fund schools and roads in rural communities. In Colorado, more than 21,000 acres and a number of popular mountain biking trails are on the chopping block.

The original scheme died in the Republican-led Congress, and this year’s resuscitated proposal is even less likely to pass under Democratic leadership. But the sheer fact that the Bush administration finds it to be a good idea suggests that our current administration lacks sufficient appreciation of the value of our public lands.

So I have a proposal – call it a hoods-in-the-woods program for the leader of the free world. I invite President Bush to join me for a mountain bike ride on one of our state’s magnificent trails, which travel through a patchwork of public lands and across the breathtaking collection of ecosystems that span the Rockies.

I recognize there may be some stumbling blocks – federal regulations probably preclude the use of armored sag-wagons on non-motorized trails. And if there’s another big hurricane or attack on the homeland, Mr. President, perhaps we should schedule a rain date.

But if the President could spend more time riding our nation’s trails on his mountain bike, he might just learn something about the enduring importance of public lands.

And instead of waging war on paper tigers, he could inflict his wrath on the shortsighted ideologues in his administration seeking to diminish the legacy of the natural places we leave for the future.

Hannah Nordhaus is the Rocky’s outdoor recreation columnist.