Since 1984, mountain bikes have been banned from all Wilderness areas. That, however, might change soon. The Human-Powered Wildlands Travel Management Act of 2015, a potential piece of legislation seeking to reverse that prohibition, has begun its journey on Capitol Hill, and, although the draft has yet to gain an official sponsor, it’s already sparking controversy over who should and shouldn’t be allowed in America’s most pristine places.
Mountain biking was in its infancy, back in 1984, when the Forest Service revised its regulations, banning not only motorized transportation in Wilderness areas, but also “mechanical transport,” a move that has since made mountain bikers persona non grata on nearly 110 million acres of Wilderness. Opponents of the ban point out that no studies of mountain biking’s environmental impact were conducted at the time and that several independent studies since then have shown that mountain bikers have about the same impact on trails as hikers and less than equestrians—a group that enjoys largely unfettered access to Wilderness.
Those objections, however, have largely fallen on deaf ears. Groups such as the Wilderness Society and the Sierra Club continue to oppose mountain biking in Wilderness areas, often arguing that mountain biking is simply inconsistent with Wilderness ideals. Moreover, mountain biking’s lead advocacy group, the International Mountain Bicycling Association (IMBA), chooses not to oppose the ban, opting instead to work around it by advocating for boundary changes and alternative “companion” designations, such as National Monument status, that protect the environment while still allowing for mountain biking.
A growing number of critics, however, contend that IMBA’s tactics are too conciliatory, particularly given recent moves by the Forest Service to not only ban bikes in Wilderness areas, but to also preemptively close some Wilderness Study and Recommended Wilderness areas (locations under consideration for an the official Wilderness designation) to bikes. “The vice is tightening,” says Ted Stroll, the author of the Wildlands bill. Stroll is a mountain biker and lawyer who was inspired to draft the bill after a fruitless, five-year campaign to reopen the Pacific Crest Trail to mountain bikes. “I’ve come to realize that the Forest Service is an agency that can’t be budged,” he says. “It is not going to reconsider its blanket bans on bikes in Wilderness or the Pacific Crest Trail and, as those closures in Wilderness Study Areas shows, their attitude towards bikes on singletrack is only hardening.”
Five months ago, Stroll shared a draft of the Wildlands bill with members of Access4Bikes, a group of mountain-bike advocates in Marin County. That exchange birthed an organization, the Sustainable Trails Coalition (STC), which has since raised $70,000 and hired Wheelhouse Partners, a lobbying outfit in D.C. to shepherd their proposed bill through Congress. The draft legislation is currently being revised by congressional staff.
“I can’t say whom we’re working with just yet, but I will say that we’ve spoken with Republicans and Democrats in both the House and the Senate, and people in both parties are interested in it," says Stroll.
Broadly speaking, STC’s proposed legislation doesn’t kick down the door that's blocked mountain biking so much as wedge mountain biking’s foot in the door. Under the Act, motorized recreational transport—everything from trucks to e-bikes—would still be off limits in Wilderness area. Human-powered transport, including mountain bikes, however, would no longer be universally banned. In its current form, the proposed Act requires that local managers from the Forest Service, BLM, National Park Service, and Fish and Wildlife Service consider human-powered transport in the Wilderness areas they manage. Those managers could still opt to exclude bikes from these wild places. They would, however, need to actually weigh the case for and against mountain biking, a genuine shift in public policy. For example, under this draft, the Pacific Crest Trail would reopen to bikes, though the Appalachian Trail would remain bike-free.
But not everyone is a fan of the fledgling bill. Including IMBA. “We’ve read it and we think that there are some really good intentions in there,” says IMBA spokesman Mark Eller. “But we fundamentally think an attempt to amend the Wilderness Act is not a good idea. It opens up risks that are unacceptable.”
“A lot of people are going to see it [STC’s bill] as an invitation for everybody to change the Wilderness Act into something they want. Mountain bikers aren’t going to be the only ones talking about changing things to suit their needs.”
IMBA’s concern is one that’s often broached whenever the topic of amending the Wilderness Act arises: Won’t amending the Wilderness Act open up the floodgates to political interests only too eager to add an oil derrick or a coal mine to the untrammeled places the Wilderness Act seeks to protect?
Stroll doesn't buy it. “We keep hearing that we’d be weakening the Wilderness Act and paving the way for things like mining and motorcycles in Wilderness,” he says. “No congressional office we’ve talked with wants to do anything more than we want to—allow cyclists back onto some trails in some Wilderness areas and the PCT. Second, this domino-theory argument is regularly trotted out by people who oppose any kind of societal change...If organizations such as the Wilderness Society and the Sierra Club, are so worried about this bill being used as some kind of Trojan horse, there is another alternative here. They could work with us and the federal agencies on revising the regulations. We could avoid going the legislative route entirely.”
For years, organizations, even ones like IMBA that advocate for mountain bikers, have been unwilling to fight the ban on mountain biking in Wilderness areas, Stroll says. It’s time that changed.
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