Lawmakers Seek to Unlock Wilderness Areas to Mountain Bikers

Bill seeks to amend Wilderness Act in name of restoring public access to mechanized use

By Tristan Scott
A mountain biker flies off a jump. Beacon File Photo

Advocates of designated wilderness with a capital “W” worry that a new congressional proposal could allow another w-word access to federally protected lands — wheels.

Specifically, mountain bikes, which are currently prohibited in congressionally designated wilderness areas, but also other wheeled devices. As the measure to allow them moves forward, however, it has pitted some user groups against one another while drawing wide opposition from environmental organizations.

A bill introduced to Congress last week by California Republican Rep. Tom McClintock would amend the 1964 Wilderness Act to allow the use of certain wheeled devices, including mountain bikes, in Wilderness areas — a use that has historically been prohibited on the nation’s 110 million acres of federally protected land.

While mountain bikers are widely considered exemplary public land stewards, numerous conservation groups believe allowing bikers access to wilderness areas is a step too far, and would undermine the foundation of the Wilderness Act and set a dangerous precedent.

To oppose the initiative, a broad coalition of 133 conservation and wilderness organizations from across the nation have asked Congress “to reject an unprecedented call to amend the Wilderness Act to allow for the use of mountain bikes in designated Wilderness.”

“For over a half century, the Wilderness Act has protected wilderness areas from mechanization and mechanical transport, even if no motors were involved with such activities. This has meant, as Congress intended, that Wildernesses have been kept free from bicycles and other types of mechanization and mechanical transport,” the 133 organizations wrote Congress.

Among the opponents is, perhaps most notably, the International Mountain Bicycling Association, the sport’s largest advocacy group, which has worked toward promoting alternative mountain bike-friendly land protections on public lands and recommended wilderness areas.

“Mountain bikers and the recreation community depend on public lands and thoughtful conservation. Public lands are being threatened at an unprecedented level right now, and it’s imperative that public land users come together to protect these cherished places and offer our voices in this critical dialogue,” said IMBA Executive Director Dave Wiens. “We know Wilderness hits some mountain bikers’ backyards, and we understand why those riders support this legislation. To continue elevating mountain biking nationally, IMBA must remain focused on its long-term strategy for the bigger picture of our sport.”

At issue is a line in the Wilderness Act of 1964 that reads “there shall be … 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.” The act also states Congress’ purpose in designating a place as federal wilderness is to protect it “from expanding settlement and growing mechanization.”

Federal land managers like the Forest Service and National Park Service have interpreted mechanical transport and mechanization as any transport with wheels, including bicycles, baby strollers and game carts.

U.S. House Resolution 1349 would allow non-motorized bicycles, strollers, wheelbarrows, game carts and non-motorized and motorized wheelchairs in federally designated wilderness areas. The bill narrowly passed the House Committee on Natural Resources on Dec. 12, sending the vote for a full House vote.

Among its supporters was Rep. Greg Gianforte, R-Montana, the state’s lone congressman, which drew the ire of local conservation and advocacy groups.

“This bill would open up congressionally designated wilderness areas to mechanized transport, so places like the Cabinets, the Bob Marshall, the Scapegoat, the Great Bear, and any of Montana’s 11 other wilderness areas would be open to wheels, which are currently excluded,” Montana Wilderness Association Conservation Director John Todd said. “So it fundamentally alters a bedrock environmental law that’s more than 50 years old.”

Among other Montana groups opposed to the legislation are: Friends of the Wild Swan, the North Fork Preservation Association, Alliance for the Wild Rockies, Wilderness Watch, Big Wild Adventures, Friends of the Bitterroot, Conservation Congress, and Swan View Coalition.

But some groups feel that blanket bans on mountain bikes and other wheeled devices don’t reflect the finer points of land management policies, and that preclusion of bikes should be considered on a case-by-case basis.

The Flathead Area Mountain Bikers, a local nonprofit that works to preserve and advance mountain bike activities in the Flathead Valley and maintains scores of trails, does not actively advocate for opening wilderness to bikes.

Still, FAMB doesn’t support blanket bans of non-motorized bikes in designated wilderness areas.

“We recognize that bikes aren’t appropriate on all trails, and we also recognize that many people simply want an experience without bikes. And we support that too; it’s a big forest, and we acknowledge that bikes don’t need to be allowed everywhere,” according to the group’s position statement. “But we don’t think there is a scientific or cultural basis for broad bans on bikes — any preclusion of bikes should be made on a case-by-case basis, and should not be intrinsically tied to the protection of the land.”

Joe Stone is an outdoor athlete who in 2010 crashed several hundred feet to the ground while speed flying in Missoula. The sport is a form of high-performance paragliding, and the accident left him with eight broken vertebrae in his neck and back and spinal cord damage at the C7 level. He was diagnosed as an incomplete C7 quadriplegic paralyzed from the chest down with limited use of his hands.

Today, Stone uses a hand-cycle and other adaptive technology and gear to tour the mountains, and believes such equipment should be allowed in wilderness areas.

“I absolutely think adaptive equipment like off-road hand cycles should be allowed,” Stone said. “If a person needs the equipment to access the environment because of a disability then they should be able to do so. Otherwise people with disabilities would be blocked from a lot of areas simply because they are disabled. The technology is there for people with disabilities to get away from the pavement. We just need the regulations to allow it.”

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