The Angry Singlespeeder’s take on the Wilderness issue

The ASS chimes in, trying to explain why we should support the STC

This land is our land... or is it. Photo credit: James Adamson –

This land is our land… or is it? (click to enlarge) Photo by James Adamson –

There’s been a lot of heated discussion and emotions these past few months regarding federal Wilderness and mountain bikes. A friend recently asked if I could pen a piece that would condense all the drama, banter and long-windedness of this issue into something digestible for someone approaching it with no background understanding. This is a tough one, but here’s my take.

Congress passed the Wilderness Act in 1964, encouraging people to move around Wilderness under their own power. Worried about things like horse-drawn wagons, it included a ban on “mechanical transport.” Between 1981 and 1984, the Forest Service (USFS) interpreted the law as letting it evaluate case-by-case where bicycles could go in Wilderness. But in 1984, after a handful of public complaints, the USFS finally concluded the ban meant no bicycles anywhere, anytime. This blanket ban has remained in effect ever since. Public pressure brought about this regulation and it will take public pressure to modify it.

The International Mountain Bicycling Association (IMBA) was established in 1988 as a 501(c)(3) non-profit advocacy organization. Due to its tax status, IMBA can do only limited lobbying, which hampers its ability to obtain a political solution to this issue. IMBA takes a different approach, building relationships with federal agencies including the USFS, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the National Park Service (NPS), resulting in some big wins for mountain biking access.

However, on the topic of Wilderness, this approach has not worked. The agencies won’t budge on Wilderness and IMBA has no political leverage to prod them.

This year, a new organization, the Sustainable Trails Coalition (STC), was co-founded by a Marin County mountain biker and a respected attorney who’s done legal work for IMBA. The STC has hired seasoned lobbyists to obtain a political solution to the Wilderness dilemma. The STC does not seek to sue anyone, nor to alter the original meaning of the Wilderness Act of 1964, although Congress could insert some explanatory words in it to clarify what it intended all along: it’s OK to travel under your own power in Wilderness.

In fact, all the STC seeks to do is what the USFS itself was doing from 1981 to 1984: let local managers decide where bikes can go. Arguably, that is more restrictive than what Congress itself intended back in 1964. And despite alarmist claims, this update will not open the door to corporate greed and exploitation of Wilderness.

Whether you are for or against bike access in Wilderness, here is why you should support the removal of the blanket ban.

  • The blanket ban is creating an involuntary anti-conservationist movement within the most devoted segment of recreationists. Hikers, equestrians and mountain bikers share many commonalities, and by working together, create an incredibly strong conservationist voice. But by banning bikes from Wilderness, that voice is weakened. And considering the continued growth of mountain biking, especially with America’s youth thanks to high school mountain bike leagues, the voice may continue to weaken if the blanket ban is not removed, potentially opening the door for future exploitation of resources.
  • Mountain bikers have proven to be an invaluable asset to land managers and a crucial part of the conservation movement, working with agencies to build and maintain sustainable trails that promote health, recreation and connecting with nature. Further, science has proven beyond a doubt that mountain biking is an environmentally low-impact means of transport. It’s a human-powered activity that should have every bit as much right to public land that hikers and equestrians have.
  • Historical trails in Wilderness areas are disappearing because of a lack of use and maintenance. Due to the highly efficient nature of a bicycle, riders will be able to more easily access these areas and prevent historically significant trails from disappearing forever, providing a benefit for all human-powered users. Trails are a part of America’s heritage, and just like the aspirations of federal Wilderness, and they should be kept intact for future generations to enjoy.

So why now? The political climate in Washington, D.C. is more favorable than ever for change. Congress is not naturally opposed to human-powered access to public lands. In fact, the STC is discovering that members of Congress aren’t even aware that bikes are illegal in Wilderness, and don’t understand why. It would be hard to find anyone in Congress who doesn’t believe citizens have a right to low-impact recreation on public lands.

Opponents will say the blanket ban has no chance of being updated, so don’t even try. But the blanket ban has never been challenged with a political solution, so how can opponents claim it will never have a chance? Whether the STC succeeds or fails, they will at least be the first to exert public pressure for equal and rightful human-powered access to public lands, strengthening the collective voice of the conservationist movement.

If you like what you hear, you can donate here.

About the author: Kurt Gensheimer

Kurt Gensheimer thinks the bicycle is man’s most perfect invention. He firmly believes ‘singlespeed’ is a compound word. He sometimes wears a disco ball helmet. He is also known as Genshammer. He is a Gemini and sleeps outside in a hammock.

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  • Jeffrey Scanlan says:

    great explanation of the issue!

  • Steve says:

    I appreciate your summary. But, as a mountain bike of 33+ years, I feel it’s OK to have wilderness with disappearing Historical trails, that it’s OK to have no biking in Wilderness Study areas. It’s even OK to not defer these decisions to local land managers susceptible to more in-your-face pressue I know I’m in the minority here, but someone has to speak up for true wilderness. I’m happiest when I’m mountain biking, but almost equally happy going cross country (or on a trail) in a wilderness area with no horses, bikes or people in sight. More wilderness will serve our children better than more mountain bike trails.

  • Bob says:

    Aside from if we do/don’t get into existing Wilderness areas (which we should in appropriate areas), the problem is the insatiable appetite the pro-Wilderness crowd has for MORE Wilderness -w IMBA on board. These people would take every last inch of land if given the opportunity (and it seems like they’re trying). If you value your sweet riding areas, I’d support the STC because the Wilderness cabal is probably licking their chops as to how they can obtain it.

    Glad to see rally for change coming from the bottom up as the top down approach (IMBA) has FAILED miserably at backcountry singletrack preservation and acquisition for mountain bikers. We “lost” 80 miles of alpine trails but saved 5 miles of trail ugg. KEEP THE MOMENTUM GOING STC !!!!

    p.s I’ll support any bike industry (or other industry) company that supports STC

  • darko says:

    I would fear a slippery slope outcome on this. Not all bikes are equal. Now that we have motorized bikes, what is to stop mopeds, scooters, et al from claiming their use of such trails? We are already facing motorbike_ok vs motorbike_not_ok arguments on our regular, sanctioned and available trails.

    • Gerry says:

      Your reply is the slippery slope, bikes have nothing to do with motor bikes, any kind of a motor, electric or otherwise.

      • Lee Baldwin says:

        Just as Kurt is attempting to re-write the language in the Wilderness Act, the folks with e-bikes or motorized bicycles will try and re-write the language of their ban should bicycles of any kind be allowed in Wilderness Areas. The 1964 Wilderness Act must stand. One thing that could change that is trail license as in back-packing. Make cyclists get the trail permit. That would limit the number of cyclists on a particular trail just like back-packing permits do. I would support that type idea & folks trying to get a wilderness permit for an e-bike would be denied. The equestrians are the group here in California that stopped mtn.bikes on trails and that could be argued as well. Riding a horse is not human powered.

  • Joe Floren says:

    Thanks for your clear write-up Kurt. The Wilderness bike ban and growth of Wilderness and study areas is already turning our mountain biking friends against the folks who should be our natural allies in the conservation movement.

    While it is disappointing that IMBA has chosen neither to lead nor follow on this issue, the least they can do is stay out of the way. Go STC!

  • pkenney says:

    Let the wilderness be, walk it. There’s no reason with the myriad of trails to ride in the wilderness, that’s just selfish. Look around at the trails where there is access and the disintegration is inevitable. Be it from those looking for quickie trials on the trail edge, or the group jacked on testosterone ripping up the trails, the “I have a mtb and I can go anywhere” crowd, the Sunday rider, or anywhere in-between. The trails will degrade.

    Seriously, while riding who looks around at the scenery anyway, that’s a secondary bit. We ride for the ride not to gawk as we’re bombing down a hill. Walk the wilderness, you’ll appreciate it way more.

  • James says:

    Having ridden and raced mountain bikes for nearly thirty years now, I warned fellow riders and trail users from the beginning that the environmental movement was a wolf in sheep’s clothing. It accelerated in earnest under the Clinton Administration when upon executive order on his way out the door Bill declared millions upon millions of acres of wilderness lands a national “monument” and thus off limits to all forms of recreation. Why? As payback to all his enviro-nazi campaign supporters who worship mother earth above all else. So glad to see there is finally a growing organized pushback against the insanity. As an aside, where I have lived and shared multi-user trails (in Michigan and western NC) it has always been the mountain bike community who have done the most work in building and maintaining trails. I expect that to continue.

  • Sean says:

    Umm, horses are allowed in wilderness. And it is not just the USFS. There are refuges (USFWS) that do not allow bikes on some of THE ROADS. Not trails, but honest to goodness roads used for access by staff. In fact, they have even banned anything that rolls (wheelbarrows, strollers, etc.).

    I dont want to see wilderness ripped up by bikers shredding hillsides. But, if horses are allowed, and they can really destroy trails, then perhaps a new standard is needed.

  • Tom says:

    Kurt – I’ve given financial support to STC, and I know you have too. Please keep fighting the good fight in print, and thank you.

    Don’t forget that the last straw IMO was the relatively recent decision of the USFS to regulate Wilderness Study Areas as though they are already actual Wilderness. So, BIKES OUT! We just keep going backwards. Time to fight!

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