Senate Considers Bill Ending Ban on Mountain Bikes in Wilderness Areas

In the latest bid to lift the ban on mountain bikes in federally designated wilderness areas, the U.S. Senate is considering a bill to amend the Wilderness Act of 1964 which created the legal definition of wilderness in the United States and currently protects 109.5 million acres of federal land.

Human-Powered Travel in Wilderness Areas Act

The Wilderness Act includes a ban on “mechanized transport,” a broad term that currently includes bicycles. The proposed bill, the Human-Powered Travel in Wilderness Areas Act (S-1695), would reverse the ban and give federal land managers the authority to regulate bicycle use on a case-by-case basis.

In a press release, the bill’s sponsor, Mike Lee (R-UT) argues, “the National Wilderness Preservation System was created so that the American people could enjoy our country’s priceless natural areas. This bill would enrich Americans’ enjoyment of the outdoors by expanding recreational opportunities in wilderness areas.”

Hiking Coalition Opposes Bill

While the Senator’s views are backed up by recent testimony from the Forest Service and Department of the Interior (DOI), a coalition of hiking associations, including the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC) and Pacific Crest Trail Association (PCTA), have come out in strong opposition to the legislation. In a letter to the Senate, the coalition contends that, “today’s mountain bikes, with their disc brakes, shock absorbers and climbing-gear-oriented drive trains are technical machines designed to take their riders further and faster than ever before. Where a backpacker or horseback rider might take an entire day to climb 10 miles into the wilderness, a mountain biker can do it in two hours.”

The letter goes on to make the argument that, “opening our nation’s treasured wilderness areas to mechanized uses, most notably bicycles, would irrefutably and irrevocably redefine wilderness – and the very intent of the Wilderness Act. This would profoundly and forever change the experiences provided on many of our nation’s national scenic and national historic trails, and not for the better. User conflicts will arise. High-speed bikes and slow-moving horse and hikers will clash with greater frequency, and the casualty will be everyone’s safety.”

International Mountain Bicycling Association Works for Cooperation

Toeing the line between outright opposition and outright support, the International Mountain Bicycling Association (IMBA) says on their website, “IMBA will continue to respect both the Wilderness Act and the federal land agencies’ regulations that bicycles are not allowed in existing Wilderness areas…When proposed Wilderness areas include mountain biking assets and opportunities, IMBA advocates for and vigorously negotiates using a variety of legislative tools, including boundary adjustments, trail corridors and alternative land designations that protect natural areas while preserving bicycle access. IMBA can support new Wilderness designations only where they don’t adversely impact singletrack trail access for mountain biking.”

Reversing Ban Does Not Amount to Open Permit

In support of the bill, the Sustainable Trails Coalition (STC), a pro-cycling non-profit whose existence is predicated solely on pushing for this and similar legislation, makes the argument that reversing the ban on mountain bikes does not amount to an open permit. In their own letter to the Senate, they argue that S-1695 “merely authorizes line officers who know the terrain to allow it if they think it is feasible.”

The STC hinges most of its argument in support of the bill on the loose definition of “mechanized transport,” which has gone back and forth over the years to include or exclude bicycles. In a press release in support of the Forest Service and DOI’s recent testimony, STC says, “Riding a bike is a healthy way for many to enjoy our public lands. Just as some people like to ride a horse, some prefer, or can only afford, to ride a bike. In this day and age of COVID-19, obesity, and the recognized importance of physical health, access and enjoyment of our public lands should be guided by inclusiveness, not exclusion.”

Controversy Heightened by Anti-Environment Reputations

Ted Stroll, the president and founder of STC, has long lobbied for an end to the ban on mountain bikes in wilderness areas. In fact, S-1695 is not the first attempt to amend the Wilderness Act that he and his organization has supported. Republican Senators Mike Lee and Orin Hatch of Utah brought similar legislation to the Senate floor in 2016. In the House, Republican Representative Tom McClintock introduced his own version of the bill in 2017. The controversy surrounding this legislation is certainly heightened by the anti-environment reputations of these members of congress. All three made the Center for Biological Diversity’s Top 15 ‘Public Lands Enemies’ list in 2017. When asked about the senators’ environmental records, Stroll is quoted saying, “we’ve had extensive talks, and I don’t perceive that they have ulterior motives.”

Featured image via.

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Comments 12

  • Mig : Dec 21st

    It’s about time, the wilderness belongs to everyone.

    • Mark : Dec 21st

      You’re being sarcastic, right? Public lands certainly belong to everyone (with the important caveat that those public lands were stolen from their original inhabitants), but that doesn’t mean that every use should be allowed on every piece of public land.

      Wilderness areas aren’t open to mechanized travel and for good reason. Please read up on the Wilderness Act and its intentions and do a bit of reflection on the topic. Letting bikes in wilderness areas is not a good idea for many reasons, particularly in regards to the impact to wildlife and other users.

      • John Fisch : Dec 21st

        You’re right. Not every bit of public land should be open for every use.

        You’re wrong about the rest.

        The Wilderness Act does prohibit “mechanized transport,” but the usage of “mechanized” at that time referred to artificially powered vehicles, not human powered ones. The Wilderness Act lays out what it means by mechanization (planes, boats, autos). The whole genesis of the Wilderness Act was to get people out of their cars enjoying their wild places under their own power (consistent with bike use) and to prevent the types of infrastructure development autos require (bikes need no such roads).

        As for impact on wildlife, the impact is similar to hiking. In fact, some species (especially game species) are more affected by people on foot than on bike (after all, that’s who carries guns). I have been hiking for decades longer than I’ve been biking, and I’ve seen every species from the saddle of my bike that I’ve seen from the soles of my boots, and they are no more or less concerned with my presence on the bike than they were with my presence on foot. Humans have impact, period. Where wildlife requires that level of protection, we need to exclude everyone, not just one equally low impact user group.

        This is further proven inasmuch as other mechanical transport is allowed in Wilderness (e.g. mechanical touring skis, boats with mechanical oarlocks, etc). Again this reinforces that human powered travel is part of the original intent.

        Finally cementing the deal is that in the one and only time Congress specifically mentioned mountain biking in Wilderness legislation, they listed it right alongside hiking and biking as a form of “primitive recreation” (one of the purposes stated in the original Act).

        • Carl Colonius : Dec 23rd

          I agree with most of your points, John, although it feels naive to overlook Senator Lee’s historic positions on public lands. He is not an advocate for recreation and although he aligns with STC’s position on clarification of “mechanized” he is not an historic ally, and I fully believe he has a long game in mind.

          And although I would love to pedal wherever I like, I understand that others do not appreciate my presence on some trails. Having wilderness areas as a no-go zone for mtn bikes has assisted in our efforts to open front country public lands for more robust trail development, creating a net gain for access.

        • isawtman : Jan 1st

          John Fisch is wrong when he says “Finally cementing the deal is that in the one and only time Congress specifically mentioned mountain biking in Wilderness legislation, they listed it right alongside hiking and biking as a form of “primitive recreation.” That Act was for a National Recreational Area and a Wilderness Area. Plus, that legislation was for adding another Wilderness Area to the System whereas the Wilderness Act defined the whole system. The Wilderness Act is the main document, not some lesser bill with some flowery language.

  • Pedro : Dec 22nd

    Horses do far more damage and shit everywhere

    • John : Dec 28th

      That is a LIE about horses doing far more damage. Where is your PROOF?

    • isawtman : Jan 1st

      Mountain Bikers are 10 times greater in number than Horseback Riders. And, you should be happy that they are allowed in Wilderness Areas then you won’t have to run over their crap.

  • Rick : Dec 24th

    The STC was founded when the group “Sharing the PCT” (which wanted bikes on the PCT) failed to achieve its goals. The board of that group is now the STC. Perhaps a slippery slope, but I wouldn’t advertise that group in any way. Warren/Lee aren’t senators to be trusted.

  • Jonathan Dunn : Dec 28th

    I am a mountain biker, but I must admit, the damage and erosion that mountain bikes to do the trails make them unsightly and even dangerous for hikers. I agree that horses do the same thing. I am ashamed of many of my fellow mountain bikers are not polite and fail to live up to rights of way protocols and not yield to hikers on the trail as they should. There are already plenty of areas for us to bike outside of designated wilderness areas. Keep it pristine.

  • isawtman : Jan 1st

    I’m surprised “The Trek” would even publish this article. The Bikes in the Wilderness Movement is over. It was over in 2018 when the Democrats took over the House. Here is a direct quote from Ted Stroll of STC “The way Congress works is if you have the Democrats controlling either house, then inevitable opponents of what we are doing could always find some Senator or member of Congress who will find a way to block the kind of Legislative change we’re seeking. With two Republican houses, that
    becomes much more difficult.” Ted made that quote in a Singletracks Podcast in December, 2015. Since then, STC had two years with the Senate, House and Administration in full control of the Republicans, and the bill still failed to pass. It’s not going to pass now with a Democrat House, Administration and perhaps even the Senate.

  • CH : Jan 2nd

    I’ve been mountain biking since 1996. I’ve been backpacking since 1986. I enjoy them both immensely. Opening up wilderness areas to mountain biking will destroy their peaceful character. Doubt that? Go hike on a multi-use trail in Colorado. As much as I enjoy mountain biking, mountain bikers… eh, sometimes not so much…


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