Senator introduces human-powered wilderness travel bill

Could lead to more trail access for mountain bikers, but not all encouraged

Bikes...yes. Photo by Dan Barham

Bikes…yes. Photo by Dan Barham

In a move that’s being trumpeted by some as a measure that could lead to better trail access for mountain bikers, Senator Mike Lee (R-Utah) has introduced the Human-Powered Travel in Wilderness Areas Act. Co-sponsored by Senator Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), Senator Lee introduced bill S.3205, on July 13.

“Our National Wilderness Preservation System was created so that the American people could enjoy the solitude and recreational opportunities of this continent’s priceless natural areas,” stated Senator Lee. “This bill would enrich Americans’ enjoyment of the outdoors by making it easier for them to mountain bike in wilderness areas.”

Currently mountain bikes are not allowed on any land designated as Wilderness (with a capital “W”). There are currently 109 million acres of Federally designated Wilderness in the United States.

Full text of the bill has not yet been published, but a summary on reads in part that it’s a,”Bill to allow local Federal officials to determine the manner in which nonmotorized uses may be permitted in wilderness areas, and for other purposes.”

“Utah is blessed with an abundance of beautiful wilderness, and Americans should be free to enjoy it,” added Senator Hatch. “This bill presents a reasonable approach to allowing the use of mountain bikes on trails and grant federal land managers the ability to do necessary maintenance.”

The act was applauded by the Sustain Trails Coalition, which released a statement saying in part, “In 1984, the Forest Service overturned a longstanding regulation allowing locally based federal employees to decide where bicycles could be ridden in Wilderness areas, replacing it with a nationwide blanket ban. Other agencies followed, the last in 2000. This ruling also prohibits agency field staffs from using many small-scale, hand-held maintenance tools in those areas. Both policies run counter to the intent of Congress when the Wilderness Act of 1964 was passed.”

The result of these mistakes is an American public increasingly disconnected from wild places, the opposite of Congress’s intent in passing the Wilderness Act in 1964. Many Wilderness trails have disappeared or have deteriorated to the point that few try to use them. On the trails that remain, human-powered travelers are limited to certain types of walking. The agencies have even banned forms of walking, including for example parents with baby strollers,” continued the STC statement.

“Senator Lee’s bill will modify outdated blanket bans on human-powered travel and relieve a worsening situation,” says STC board member Ted Stroll. “The Forest Service in particular continues to impose bans on mountain biking. These bans drive cyclists away even as the Forest Service admits it cannot maintain trails and needs volunteers to do the maintenance it no longer performs.”

The Sustainable Trails coalition notes that Federally designated Wilderness areas are now 10 times the size they were when the Wilderness Act was signed into law in 1964, an area roughly the size of California and Maryland combined. The groups thousands of members contend that a blanket ban not based upon scientific or environmental reasons is a regulatory mistake requiring reversal. Bill S3205 provides on-scene federal land managers the authority to decide on human-powered travel on local Wilderness trails, as was the case as recently as the year 2000 in some Wilderness areas.

The STC is a newer trail advocacy group that has not always been in agreement with the methods of the more established International Mountain Bicycling Association (IMBA). We’re awaiting IMBA’s take on this latest development. In the meantime, former IMBA board president and Utah resident Ashley Korenblat (who does not speak on behalf of IMBA, but is well versed in these matters) was quick to reach out to Mtbr with a statement of her own, decrying the Act as a false promise that could eventually lead to more trail closures.

“As expected, the STC bill sponsor is no friend of public lands,” wrote Korenblat. “Senator Mike Lee supports the state take over of public lands and votes consistently not to fund public lands. Lee’s support of the STC bill is part of his larger agenda to undermine the environmental community, undermine the public land agencies, and give states control of federal lands.”

“Mr. Lee is primarily known for his work to balance the federal budget. Did you know that most states are required to balance their budgets, so when hard times come, they have to sell assets to cover the shortfall? If Mike Lee’s vision of our public lands prevail, bike trails on federal lands could be taken over by states and then sold for development when the states need cash. Mr. Lee’s bill is a symbolic gesture that will not pass, and therefore will not open any trails. STC has been duped by a false promise.”

To learn more about the Human-Powered Travel in Wilderness Areas Act, please visit Senator Lee’s official website.

About the author: Jason Sumner

An avid cyclist, Jason Sumner has been writing about two-wheeled pursuits of all kinds since 1999. He’s covered the Olympics, Tour de France, MTB world champs, and dozens of other international cycling events. He also likes to throw himself into the fray, penning first-person accounts of cycling adventures all over the globe. Sumner has also done extensive gear testing and is the author of the cycling guide book "75 Classic Rides: Colorado." When not writing or riding, the native Coloradoan can be found enjoying life with his wife Lisa and kids Cora and Tommy in and around their home in the MTB Mecca of Crested Butte.

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  • preston says:

    “Mr. Lee’s bill is a symbolic gesture that will not pass, and therefore will not open any trails.”

    So we shouldn’t make the effort ? Screw that – we should push in any and all directions at all times until we get traction. That’s what lobbyists do. If we fail this time we go back for more next time. We’re never going to gain access to W by being supine. That’s been proven, as its likely we’ve lost more trail to W than gained miles of self built low land flow trail. I will support STC whole heartedly.

    As has been discussed, that doesn’t mean I have to NOT support IMBA.

    • AC says:

      Yeah, first they said the bill wouldn’t get anywhere so don’t bother to try. Now a bill is introduced, but ignore it, it’s just symbolic.

      And yes, I’m sure we’ve lost more to W than has been gained by building, plus we stand to lose so much more to W, and the trail gained doesn’t come close to replacing alpine singletrack.

    • Lee Baldwin says:

      You have access to Wilderness, Preston. ~ you simply can not access wilderness on wheels, or snowmobile or anything that contains a motor or engine. we stand opposed to development in wilderness so wilderness doesn’t turn into a ‘for profit’ with mountain bike tours, or snowmobile tours or ? -ANY for profit entities must bring support for the industry and will next want roads, lodging, restrooms, dining facilities etc. Wilderness would suffer.

      • Craig Hicks says:

        What twisted language you use to deny access to bicycles while pretending you don’t. You don’t mention banning bicycles until you include the words “for profit tour”, as if a bicycle can only only be ridden on a for profit tour. Usually going bikepacking one would want to go with a group for safety. Sometimes it would be even safer to go with a paid expert. This company “wildland trekking” offer for profit hiking tours in Parks and Wilderness areas.
        Your completely illogical misinformation is an indicator that you are operating on personal bias, which has nothing to do with logical information, just irrational hatred for those you judge to be outside your clique. Which is a shame because we share a ll share a passion for wilderness.

  • G.W.H. says:

    IMBA is right on this one. As a Utah resident, I’ve seen a lot of rhetoric from Mike Lee, Jason Chaefetz, and Orrin Hatch on this one. They absolutely want give the state more control of wild lands, which in the case of Utah, will mean more oil and gas exploration and drilling, and more access for ranchers and ATVs. STC is being quite myopic on this one.

    • AC says:

      STC’s position and this bill have nothing to do with state control of federal lands on other issues.

    • GuyOnMTB says:

      Please explain how you view the STC’s role as lacking imagination, foresight, or intellectual insight?

    • Craig Hicks says:

      The myopic ones are those equating bicycles with chainsaws. Those people need to get off their high horses yesterday.

  • Chris says:

    Too bad IMBA made its statements before the bill language, at the link above, was read. Sure, the bill language can change, but at the moment there is no mechanism for anyone other than Federal land managers to do anything different, so the IMBA comments about States taking over Federal land are meaningless. It will be great to keep an eye on this bill, and in its current form, support it!

    • Tom says:

      Chris, I feel your pain, but PLEASE realize that Ms. Korenblat is a FORMER IMBA officer. She does not speak officially for IMBA at this time, though the article was maybe a tiny bit vague on this point.

  • Tom says:

    Lee and Hatch introduced the bill. They didn’t write the thing.

    IMBA and STC are playing nicely now, working for more access for mtbs. We’ve lost a lot recently in places like MT, ID and CO, so I support both groups.

    We need to quit rolling over and playing dead.

  • dmar says:

    Wow, why even include Korenblat’s statement?… ill-founded and misleading.

    Regardless of Lee’s stance on other public lands issues, the Human-Powered Travel in Wilderness Areas Act has nothing to do with state take over and selling of public lands. Read the bill. Remove the blanket ban on (human powered)bikes in wilderness, and give back OUR trails.

  • ET says:

    If we are trying to protect these areas shouldn’t we close them off to all people and forms of travel? That is the only true way to save the Wilderness. If your going to open it up hikers and bikers both have the same minimal environmental impact on the land.

  • GuyOnMTB says:

    Pushing is needed, but it is never enough. I don’t remember what politician said it, but it goes like this…

    “Rights are usually never afforded out of compassion or the feeling of equality by the opposition, rights are most always fought for in one way or another. In order to get the rights of a people observed, the fight to subjugate those rights has to become very inconvenient.”

    Don’t be mistaken, this is a rights issue, which it has made it a political topic.

    • freeski1057 says:

      Thanks for the link 303JL. A well written response from IMBA regarding introduction of this legislation. As both a hiker/backpacker and mountain biker (as well as backcountry skier) I am conflicted about opening up trails in Wilderness areas to bikes. I don’t think of Wilderness as being set aside for humans as the primary user but rather as a way of setting aside large expanses of unspoiled landscape that can support habitat and ecosystems in many cases. When I enter a Wilderness I can usually feel I’m in a special place. While Wilderness has grown substantially there is still a vast amount of non Wilderness as part of the NFS, BLM etc and I feel like there is a tremendous untapped reservoir in those places to allow for mtn bike trails to be developed before turning to Wilderness. The two politicians sponsoring this bill almost certainly have ulterior motives; they have a long history of being anti public lands. I would not want to be putting my trust in these two that the bill as written will not be amended to be something else entirely.

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