Op-Ed: 5 Lies Being Used to Get Mountain Bikes in Wilderness

A new bill would open up wilderness areas to bikes—but the arguments in favor of it don't hold water

mountain biking

A mountain biker rides past barbed wire on the historic Black Canyon Trail in Arizona.    Photo: Leslie Kehmeier/Bureau of Land Management

Earlier this month, in a triumph of hope over horse sense, some mountain bikers cajoled their congressmen to introduce H.R. 1349, a bill in the U.S. House of Representatives that would amend the Wilderness Act. This bill would allow biking throughout the 109 million acres of the national wilderness preservation system. A different bill with the same goal was introduced last year in the U.S. Senate.

It’s tempting to laugh off this latest assault as a fizzy bottle rocket launched against the stalwart walls of one of the nation’s founding environmental laws—tempting, except that today we are all citizens of Trumpland, a land where alterna-facts grow on trees that are soon to be salvage logged and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, the new overseer of our nation’s wilderness, once mailed out a Christmas card featuring himself as Santa in a sleigh laden with oil derricks, mining axes, and dead wolves for all the good girls and boys. In Trumpland, there’s a war raging over the future of your public lands, and everything’s up for grabs. If it’s sacred to you, chances are someone is coming for it.

In this case, that “someone” is mountain bikers.

The bill swaddles its goal in populism: to “amend the Wilderness Act to ensure that the use of bicycles, wheelchairs, strollers, and game carts is not prohibited in Wilderness Areas, and for other purposes.” I guess elk hunters can’t always find suitable daycare.

In Trumpland, however, where even the ludicrous is in play, even laughably bad ideas like this now must be jousted. So let’s demolish some shibboleths quickly, shall we? Here are five lies advocates are using to justify bikes’ admission into wilderness areas.

1. This Has Nothing to Do with the Public Lands Debate

If you’re paying attention at all, you know there’s a war being waged by the GOP-controlled Congress against federal public lands—an all-out effort to drill it, scrape it, sell it, or hand it over to the states to manage. This bill may be only about access to a few, but its implications are larger.

“This is yet another piece of legislation in a broader agenda to roll back protections on federal public lands and the environment,” Michael Carroll, senior director of the People Outdoors Program for the Wilderness Society, told me. “There’s no other way to look at it.”

That talk isn’t the conspiracy stuff of wee-hours talk radio. The congressman who introduced the bill is Rep. Tom McClintock, who has a 4 percent lifetime rating from the League of Conservation Voters. McClintock is vice chair of the House Natural Resources Committee and is working with Utah Rep. Rob Bishop to unwind federal hold on and management of public lands. So far this session, McClintock voted to make it easier for the feds to dispense with public lands and to weaken the Antiquities Act, which has been used throughout our nation’s history to such dastardly effect as creating the future Grand Canyon, Bryce, Arches, and Joshua Tree National Parks.

“As a mountain biker, I’m super angry at this bill,” says Carroll, who races mountain bikes in Durango for a team. He views it “as a means to drive a wedge between the mountain biking community and the conservation community.” Play to people’s self-interests. Divide and conquer.

Last year, some 115 groups sent a letter to Congress opposing the Senate bill. Though the International Mountain Bicycling Association has previously said it doesn’t believe mountain bikes belong in the wilderness (which prompted the founding of the Sustainable Trails Coalition), the organization didn’t sign the letter to Congress and hasn’t come out against either of the bikes-in-wilderness bills. That’s gutless.

2. Mountain Bikers Are Losing Access

Those who push mountain biking in wilderness bellyache that their sport is under assault from trail closures around the West. “Unfair!” they scream. The answer is more wilderness elbow room, they say. There’s a small flaw in their argument: it’s not true.

There are no reliable statistics nationwide, or for the western United States, about the miles of mountain bike trails. Still, there’s no evidence that mountain bikers are losing places to ride. In a spring 2016 survey of IMBA members, 76 percent of respondents said that nearby trail access increased over the past decade, and another 18 percent said access stayed the same. That’s 94 percent saying that their access was either as good as before or better.

“Off the cuff, we know that the number of miles is going up because people are building more trails and inventorying them spatially,” a researcher at the Outdoor Alliance, which is working on compiling a more exact tally of trails, told me earlier this month.

Have some trails closed? Of course. The most contentious example may be the Boulder-White Clouds area outside Sun Valley, Idaho, where a messy conclusion to years of wrangling resulted in the loss of some high-alpine mountain bike routes in 2015—but also resulted in the creation of a 275,000-acre wilderness, which mountain bikers had fought in favor of other designations that might let them continue to ride.

Counter Argument
Actually, mountain bikes should be allowed in wilderness areas.
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A larger trend, though, is mountain bikers demanding access to Wilderness Study Areas. WSAs are federal lands that have been marked for possible future wilderness designation. A special law that established these study areas on Forest Service lands in Montana decades ago ordered that their “existing wilderness character” be preserved. In other states, federal law dictates that on Bureau of Land Management lands, for instance, WSAs can’t be impaired so much that they can’t be considered for wilderness designation in the future by Congress.

Yet in Montana and elsewhere, mountain bikers have been demanding that WSAs should not be declared wilderness anymore, because they have ridden there, sometimes for years. Mountain biking groups have become as much a user group as snowmobilers or ATVers, fighting for their piece of the pie instead of thinking first about conservation. When mountain bikers make demands, other groups follow suit.

3. Mountain Biking Used to Be Legal in Wilderness

The 1964 Wilderness Act is blunt: “[T]here shall be no temporary road, no use of motor vehicles, motorized equipment or motorboats, no landing of aircraft, no other form of mechanical transport, and no structure or installation within any such area.” (Emphasis added.)

The Sustainable Trails Coalition, the group pushing the bikes-in-wilderness idea, says that its “modest reform” only turns the clock back to a time when bikes indeed were permitted in wilderness.

“They have half of a point,” acknowledges Chris Barns, a retired wilderness specialist and BLM representative to the Arthur Carhart National Wilderness Training Center. In 1966, two years after the Wilderness Act was passed, the U.S. Forest Service wrote up its regulations to interpret and implement the act. At that time, the Forest Service was the only agency to have wilderness in its care. Its regulations defined “mechanical transport” as no different than a “motor vehicle.” That seemed to leave wiggle room for bikes. But that was an oversight, Barns says. After all, the act itself uses two different terms. The oversight was soon noticed. “They changed that soon after,” says Barns.

Significantly, none of the other three agencies that would later oversee wilderness made the same mistake when they wrote their regulations. What’s more, Congress has had ample time to clarify the language of the act to allow bikes if it had meant to allow them, as it did to clarify the ability to graze, Barns says. And Congress hasn’t done that.

4. Local Managers Should Make the Call

On its first attempt, one year ago, to pry open wilderness to bikes, the STC pushed a bill that would have tried to give local land managers some discretion about where bikes could go. “[W]e are not in favor of a blanket permit” to allow bikes in wilderness, the group says on its site.

Unfortunately, the latest bill is just that—a blanket permit: Section 4(c) of the Wilderness Act (16 U.S.C. 1133(c)) is amended by adding at the end the following: “Nothing in this section shall prohibit the use of motorized wheelchairs, non-motorized wheelchairs, non-motorized bicycles, strollers, wheelbarrows, survey wheels, measuring wheels, or game carts within any wilderness area.” (Emphasis added.)

The STC’s Ted Stroll told me this bill would still give land managers discretion to decide where bikes could go. “The bill does nothing to interfere with the numerous land-use regulations in the Code of Federal Regulations and federal agency policy manuals and handbooks by which the Forest Service, National Park Service, and Bureau of Land Management regulate when, where, and under what circumstances people can visit federal land,” Stroll wrote in an email, citing regulations that, for instance, rule out camping right next to lakes in wilderness areas.

Four different experts on the Wilderness Act told me that Stroll is wrong—that the bill opens the wilderness gates to bikes, everywhere, without qualification.

Then there’s this: wheelchairs have been allowed in wilderness since soon after the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act. The authors of this bill know this. Yet they added “wheelchairs” to hide their motives behind seeming to help the handicapped. Greasy? You could oil your chain.

5. Wilderness Won’t Be Negatively Impacted

Finally, can I just say a word or for wilderness?

In creating wilderness, our grasping country showed its most restraint. “Here, man doesn’t rule,” we said to one another. “Here, nature rules.”

Wilderness is not a recreation designation.

Wilderness is not for our entertainment.

Wilderness has other goals.

Wilderness is solitude. It is water quality. It is remaining grizzly habitat, as we squeeze down on bears and most other species.

Wilderness is not supposed to be easy. In wilderness, we abandon even the wheel, and we set out on foot. We come to wilderness to meet the earth as it is, as it was, as it yet might be—if we can hold the line.

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