Bill that Would Lift Bike Ban in Wilderness Areas Draws Mixed Reactions

Conservation and biking groups have assorted opinions when it comes to proposed legislation that would lift the existing ban on bikes across more than 100 million acres of U.S. wilderness areas.

Where are bikes allowed? That’s a question being debated because of newly proposed regulation.

In mid-July, two senators—Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Orrin Hatch (R-Utah)—introduced Senate Bill 3205— Human-Powered Travel in Wilderness Areas Act. If passed, the bill would revise two portions of the 1964 Wilderness Act, including the restriction of “mechanical transport”—in other words, bicycles—on more than 100 million wilderness acres in 44 states across the country. It would also begin to allow the use of tools, such as chainsaws and wheelbarrows, which the bill’s proponents say are necessary for the upkeep of trails inside these wilderness areas.

The Wilderness Act, passed more than 50 years ago, created the National Wilderness Preservation System and brought certain “wilderness” areas under the federal government’s control. The definition of wilderness, according to the act [PDF], is “an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”

Conservation groups oppose the proposed legislation. In March 2016, more than 100 such organizations joined together in writing a letter [PDF] to Congress voicing their opposition. Many of the groups fear that bikes would erode trails and erode the purpose of the wilderness areas in offering a “primitive” recreational experience.

“We’re very concerned about this legislation,” said Michael Carroll, senior director of the People and the Outdoors program at The Wilderness Society. “They’re literally rewriting the Wilderness Act.”

Bike groups also are finding the legislation controversial, even though a Singletracks study, released earlier this year, found that 96 percent of survey respondents thought that wilderness should be opened to bikes.

The International Mountain Biking Association, which is still reviewing the bill, doesn’t yet have an official opinion. According to the Associated Press, IMBA’s 40,000-plus members are divided on the idea.

However, in a blog post published in late July, IMBA President Mike Van Abel wrote: “IMBA is pleased to see the issue of access by mountain bike on trails on our public lands rise to this level of a much-needed national conversation. … However, IMBA is also on record with the strong belief that amending the Wilderness Act comes … with a risk of unintended consequences.”

Van Abel lists politics, polarization, and even the public land seizure agenda as some of those unintended consequences.

The bill is “narrowly written,” according to the Sustainable Trails Coalition, a nonprofit that is working to lift the ban on bikes in wilderness areas. In a press release, STC cited statistics that show that wilderness-designated areas are now 10 times the size they were when the act was signed into law. But even so, according to the Wilderness Society, the wilderness-designated areas make up less than 3 percent of the land mass in the country.

“Senator Lee’s bill will modify outdated blanket bans on human-powered travel and relieve a worsening situation,” said STC Board Member Ted Stroll in a press release. “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.”


Emily Bratcher

By Emily Bratcher

Emily Bratcher is a Contributing Editor for Associations Now. MORE

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