The topic of bikes in Wilderness had a significant development on January 22, when former IMBA board chairman John Bliss accepted an invitation to serve on the board of the Sustainable Trails Coalition (STC). Bliss previously served as president of IMBA’s board of directors in 2009 and 2010, and equally significant, Bliss has extensive experience in Washington, D.C., including roles as chief counsel to U.S. Senator Hank Brown (R-Colo.), and the executive director of an international trade association where he facilitated passage of more than 20 state laws and two pieces of federal legislation. Bliss is also a devoted mountain biker and endurance athlete with a passion for the outdoors.
Opinions on the tactics being implemented by the STC differ greatly. To learn more here’s and argument against and one for the new advocacy organization.
The STC is hard at work on introducing the Human-Powered Wildlands Travel Management Act of 2016 (HP-WTMA), legislation that will reform the blanket ban on bicycles in Wilderness, allowing local land management agencies to make a case-by-case basis decision on allowing bikes in Wilderness. HP-WTMA also seeks to allow reasonable use of modern equipment including chainsaws and wheelbarrows to help local land management agencies maintain trails in Wilderness so they do not disappear through lack of use or maintenance.
Mtbr spoke with Bliss about the issue of bikes in Wilderness, his thoughts on why IMBA has not yet publicly supported STC’s efforts, and why he chose to join the STC board.
Mtbr: What does the entire push for human-powered access to Wilderness boils down to?
John Bliss: I think all of this gets back to an emotional connection with cycling, and the Wilderness issue is an emotional response. For me, cycling is about freedom, and reasonable Wilderness access is about fairness to that enjoyment of freedom. When you keep down a user group based on elitism, it fires people up. I think what’s happened here is the Wilderness debate is a proxy for this; those that support reasonable access to Wilderness are seen as having the back of mountain bikers, and those that aren’t elevate other interest groups above the interest of the mountain biker.
Mtbr: Where does IMBA fit into all of this?
JB: IMBA has been brought kicking and screaming into the debate, driven primarily around this basic fairness emotion. Keep in mind, the STC is not even seeking a blanket overturn of the ban, it’s strictly case-by-case based on the land manager. After talking with a lot of folks about the Wilderness issue, I hear the same sentiments; mountain bikers are tired of being the outcasts of the non-motorized recreation community. There is no grounding in law or logic to continue this selective user group elitism. Our access shouldn’t be subject to equestrians and hikers. It adds to the element of unfairness, and it is our taxpayer dollars that continue this, yet IMBA still has not taken a clear stance on the topic.
This isn’t just about user access, the STC is also about making sure that existing trails in Wilderness don’t disappear due to disuse and disrepair. If we don’t allow reasonable access to Wilderness, nobody is going to use it. Wilderness was never meant to be a museum piece. It was originally created to encourage Americans to get outside under their own power and recreate in these protected lands.
In the mountain bike community, the Wilderness topic has become a wedge issue; are you for us or against us? Many people are wondering why IMBA can’t get behind this modest and fair proposal. It makes me wonder what’s really at play here. It’s such a modest proposal, and it’s mystifying that up to now IMBA can’t get behind it. IMBA has alluded to the fact that STC doesn’t have a chance. But how do we know for sure if we don’t at least try? I’m a guy who’s been behind several startup businesses. Failure is a certainty if you don’t try.