Bikes in Wilderness

A misguided proposal in Congress

This New York Times article notes that a bill (S. 3205) is pending in Congress to allow mountain bikes in federally-designated wilderness areas.  In short, the bill is a terrible idea.

First, on the merits, allowing mountain bikes into wilderness areas has the potential for significant impacts both on other humans using wilderness, and on the species and ecosystems in wilderness areas.  Many users of wilderness areas enjoy those areas precisely because they are refuges from the speed and noise of modern transportation technologies – including mountain bikes.  (I say this as someone who enjoys both hiking and mountain biking.)  And while it is true that all human users of wilderness have impacts on the species and ecosystems in wilderness areas – even hikers cause erosion and disturb animals – mountain bikes allow people to move faster and farther into wilderness areas, and mountain bikes produce significant erosion problems (especially if trail maintenance is not increased to keep up with the increased use).

Second, the changes proposed would apply by default to all trails in all wilderness areas, unless land managers explicitly decide to exclude bicycles.  The bill would make it a presumption that the use of mountain bikes in wilderness areas is consistent with wilderness character, and requires the accommodation of mountain bikes on all trails “to the maximum extent practicable.”  This is a thumb on the scale in favor of human use in wilderness areas that is inconsistent with the Wilderness Act as a whole – an Act that tends weigh against human development and the use of technology in wilderness areas.  Moreover, the grant of broad agency discretion as to whether to allow mountain bikes in wilderness areas is in sharp contrast with the Wilderness Act’s general restriction on agency discretion to facilitate development activity in those areas – indeed, a major motivator for the enactment of the Wilderness Act was congressional suspicion of whether land management agencies would protect wilderness areas in the future.  That is why, for instance, the Wilderness Act reserves to Congress the power to add or withdraw lands from the wilderness system.

Finally, as the NY Times article indicates, many advocates are suspicious that the bill is simply a Trojan Horse to facilitate future development in wilderness areas.  It is fair to say that of the sponsors of the bill (Senators Lee and Hatch from Utah), “neither . . . is known as an environmentalist.”  Utah politicians in particular have been on the front edge of a movement to transfer ownership of federal public lands to states to facilitate development.  Instead, the bill is perhaps best understood (as the quotes in the article indicate) as an effort to “drive a wedge” among supporters of protecting public lands, perhaps in advance of another push to open up public lands to development.

If the Senators were really interested in advancing more sustainable and more accessible recreation on public lands, there are far better ways to achieve that.  First, more funding to land management agencies to support maintenance and upkeep of trails would be nice – but the proposed bill includes no additional funding to address the increased maintenance costs that mountain bike use of wilderness trails might produce.  (Interestingly, the proposed bill creates another new exception from the Wilderness Act to allow the use of chain saws and similar mechanized equipment in wilderness areas – and not just for trail maintenance but also “to maintain the surroundings,” whatever that means.)  Second, there are creative ways to both protect lands from development while still allowing a wide range of recreational use.  The Forest Service’s Roadless Rule protects large areas of National Forests from road construction and commercial logging, while still allowing hiking, mountain biking, and off-road vehicle use on trails in those areas.  Congress has at times created specific exemptions from wilderness restrictions (such as allowing ORV use on specific trails in wilderness areas in the southern Sierra Nevada foothills).  And it is always open to Congress to designate new classifications of areas on federal lands that are open to both foot travel and bicycle travel but also protected from development – something that might be a good idea given the growing popularity of mountain biking.  (Here is a statement by the International Mountain Bicycling Association with some good ideas along these lines.)  Just keep our existing wilderness areas wilderness.

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Reader Comments

5 Replies to “Bikes in Wilderness”

  1. Completely spot on, Eric, from one who has to address this issue constantly in the Tahoe National Forest. And if they get this, all terrain vehicles will be next. And here’s another consideration: equestrians would rather have the latter than trail bikes, because at least ATV noise removes the risk of surprise. A few years ago an equestrian caught by trail-biker surprise on the Western States Trail suffered serious lifelong injury when her horse bolted.

    1. Tony Rossmann – The Wilderness Act will never allow for motorized vehicles and you likely know it. Your “slippery slope” statement is classic fear mongering. You do realize the Code of Federal Regulations (circa 1966) which govern the management of Wilderness areas defines “mechanical transport” as follows: “Mechanical transport, as herein used, shall include any contrivance which travels over ground, snow, or water on wheels, tracks, skids, or by floatation AND IS PROPELLED BY A NON-LIVING POWER SOURCE contained or carried on or within the device.” (emphasis added) The word “and” is critical here, for it means a device is not mechanical if its power source is alive. This rule remains in the Code of Federal Regulations at 36CFR Sec. 293.6(a).

      Secondly, your brief explanation of Ms. Costa’s unfortunate injury is so far from the truth and is simply more fear mongering. Please do not spread untruths to bolster your case against mountain biking. For anyone reading this, the injury took place not on the Western States Trail (singletrack), but on a gravel fire road at a gate, where Ms. Costa was apparently about to go up a signed course for a mt. bike race. A race participant came to a stop upon seeing Ms. Costa and her 2 friends. Ms. Costa told the racer to come around the gate. At less than 1mph, the cyclist’s front tire slipped into a rut and he embarrassingly fell over… which spooked the horse! The horse then lost an EZ-boot and freaked out even more, throwing Ms. Costa to the ground and injuring her severely. The mt. biker stayed with her for 3 hours waiting for emergency personnel to arrive. The whole entire story is tragic, including Ms. Costa’s victorious lawsuit against the mt. biker.

      P.S. You did a brilliant job making sure a prohibited activity continues to take place in Wilderness. You did it the same way this bill is making its way…. politically instead of suing.

      Let’s all work together to protect more lands instead of pretending one form of non-motorized recreation is better than others. (Let’s face it… WS100 folks and Tevis folks don’t exactly get along all that well either).

      P.P.S. As for Bieber’s opinion piece, it contains so many unfactual statements that I’d classify it as fiction.

  2. Regarding Utah Senators Hatch and Lee as sponsors, I would remind readers that Utah is the proud home of the Outdoor Industry Association which works to promote all forms of human powered recreation. That industry and its conferences are an economic boon to Utah and may be a more reasonable explanation for their sponsorship than the offered conspiracy theory. Here is another take on the mountain biking in Wilderness issue from a Millennial lawyer in a recent issue of the Wyoming Bar Magazine.

  3. Thanks Eric. I think this is a huge mistake and we have good reason to be suspect of the bill’s sponsors. There are unlimited public lands already compromised by commercial activities that can easily meet the needs of the biking interests. Caififornia alone has some 17 million acres in publicly owned lands that are not Wilderness. Our Wilderness Areas deserve nothing less than full protection from biking, drones and other incompatible uses. I do a lot of trail work in Marin County, the “home” of mountain biking. Bikes have significant impacts on soil, hydrology, vegetation, habitat, bird populations and aesthetics. This is the reality. Wilderness is the only Public Trust Asset we can give to future generations that “will or would” be in some semblance of what it’s supposed to be. We have compromised every other Trust Asset (air, water, land etc) let’s show some humility and grace.

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Eric Biber

Eric Biber is a specialist in conservation biology, land-use planning and public lands law. Biber brings technical and legal scholarship to the field of environmental law…

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