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.
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