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.”
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