Mountain bikes and Wilderness—the topic is making headlines once again. Why? Because for the first time there’s a bill in Congress that proposes to end the blanket ban on mountain biking on the 110 million-odd acres of Wilderness in the United States. Will the bill actually become a law? Are we on the verge of finally regaining access to some of North America's best trails? Let’s dig in.First, A Bit of History
If this whole “Wilderness” thing has you scratching your head, check out the first article in this series
—it’ll give you a decent introduction on what the Wilderness Act is and how bikes wound up getting kicked out of Eden in the first place. Here, however, is the ADD version.
*When Congress enacted the Wilderness Act in 1964, they had two goals in mind:
(1) Halt development on America’s most pristine public lands; and (2) Encourage more people to explore the outdoors under their own power.
Matt Hunter, Backcountry, Alaska. Photo by Harookz
*Mountain bikes were not (and still are not) banned by the actual Wilderness Act
; that didn’t happen until 1984, when the United States Forest Service was persuaded by traditional environmental organizations to change their regulations, so as to ban bikes. The other four agencies that manage Wilderness areas followed the Forest Service’s lead and we’ve been on the outside looking in ever since. The original Forest Service regulations prohibited mechanized transport propelled by a non-living
power source, i.e. a motor. The new regulations banned mechanized transport altogether. Bikes are called out specifically. You can argue, of course, that horses, skis, snowshoes and kayaks all provide a mechanical advantage that enables humans to travel further and faster through the Wilderness—but none of these other forms of transport are prohibited in Wilderness areas. Bikes are special and by "special", I mean "screwed".
*Bikes aren’t the only things banned.
Any kind of machinery (aside from hand tools) that could be used to do trail maintenance also got the boot. Feel like maintaining tens of thousands of miles of trail annually with nothing more than a Pulaski, McLeod and a handsaw? Anyone who has built more than a couple miles of trail with hand tools will tell you that it’s no way to maintain trails on this kind of massive scale. It's hardly a surprise that a recent report from the Government Accounting Office found that a paltry one quarter of the Forest Service's 158,000 miles of trails actually met the Forest Service's own standards
|It's getting worse. Thanks to a shift in Forest Service policy, the rate at which we are losing access to trails is growing. And it's not because the trails are actually in Wilderness areas...it's because they are in areas that could potentially become Wilderness one day.|
Aravaipa Canyon Wilderness, Arizona, Photo Courtesy Bob Wick/BLM
*IMBA (the International Mountain Bicycling Association) does not agree with the ban, but doesn’t outright object to it either. Instead, the organization focuses on redrawing boundaries and creating alternative (less restrictive) preservation designations (such as National Monuments) that preserve access to popular trails.
*We are losing trail access at an accelerating rate. An increasing number of trails are being closed to mountain bikers—in some cases, as much as a hundred miles of trail at a time—not because they are located in Wilderness areas, but because the Forest Service is merely recommending that the area one day become Wilderness.
Leah Lind-White, Moab, Utah. Photo by Satchel Cronk
*A new group called the Sustainable Trails Coalition (STC) arose last year to challenge the ban; STC's mission is to overturn the blanket ban on bikes on federal lands. Wilderness areas are at the top of the list, but the group also seeks to get land managers to consider mountain biking on sections of big trails, such as the Pacific Crest Trail and the Continental Divide Trail.
*STC has now raised more than $130,000 in donations from mountain bikers and hired a lobbying firm in Washington, D.C. to find a member of Congress willing to sponsor the draft bill STC founder, Ted Stroll had already written.
Capitol Building. Photo by Cliff
The Bill Hits Capitol Hill
On July 13, Senator Mike Lee officially introduced The Human Powered Travel in Wilderness Areas Act
; a slightly-revised version of the bill that STC’s lobbyists have been schlepping around Capitol Hill this past year. Lee is joined by co-sponsor, Senator Orrin Hatch. In a nutshell, the bill eliminates the carte blanche ban on mountain biking in Wilderness areas and on a few of America’s best-known trails, including the Continental Divide and Pacific Crest Trails. If the bill gets signed into law, federal employees would also be allowed to bring motorized tools (think chainsaws) into Wilderness areas to help clear downed logs and the like.
The bill would not
, however, guarantee mountain bikers free rein in every Wilderness area. Instead, the bill requires that the people who manage these lands reconsider granting access to mountain bikes within two years of the bill becoming law. Land managers can still deny mountain bikers access to trails—they retain ultimate control—but if STC’s legislation passes, mountain bikers would have to be considered alongside hikers and equestrians instead of being summarily dismissed.
What happens if the land manager doesn’t come to a decision regarding bike access on a particular Wilderness parcel within that two-year window? At that point, the land becomes open to mountain bike use. The land manager can, however, decide to close it to mountain bikers again at any time. The two-year window is, in essence, a carrot at the end of the stick…an incentive to actually do something, but nothing that actually binds land managers hands.
|If you want access to some Wilderness areas, if you object to the way the Forest Service has been pre-emptively closing hundreds of miles of trails to mountain bikers, if you're tired of not being considered an equal when it comes to Wilderness access, you need to speak up in support of this bill. Now. Right now.|
Bruneau-Jarbidge Rivers Wilderness, Idaho. Photo Courtesy Bob Wick/BLM
Fear of the Trojan Horse
Yay, right? Well, as you might guess plenty of people are less-than-thrilled. In fact, a few months ago 116 organizations dog-piled onto a petition decrying the baby bill, which they claimed would be used to gut the Wilderness Act. Most of the big-name environmental organizations (such as the Sierra Club and Wilderness Society) were actually missing from the petition, but if their track record is any indication, you can expect them to join the fray.
Of course, none of this comes as a huge surprise. Mountain bikers have been painted as the knuckle-dragging, Redbull-chugging destroyers of Mother Earth from the get-go. Only a fool would believe that this bill would go unchallenged. Some of the opposition thus far, however, has come from other mountain bikers.
Why? Some riders believe that there are some places we simply don’t need to ride. I’d argue that they haven’t quite come to terms with the Forest Service’s latest policies, but to each their own. Other riders buy into the belief that we are, in fact, a more destructive force on the trails than, say the pack trains, cattle grazing or mining operations currently allowed in Wilderness areas. Even more riders, however, are aghast at the actual identity of the bill’s sponsors: Orrin Hatch and Mike Lee are not what anyone would call “eco warriors”. The League of Conservation Voters gives both Hatch and Lee lifetime ratings of 10 percent on their environmental voting records. In other words, the vast majority of their votes on conservation issues have been what the League would characterize as “anti-environment”.
Hatch and Lee are senators who’ve rarely seen a strip mine or drilling platform they haven’t fallen madly in love with. Both Lee and Hatch supported an amendment to the fiscal-year 2016 Senate Budget that would have authorized the sale of federal lands (including some Wilderness areas) to the states...who could, in turn, sell logging, drilling and mining rights to those lands to businesses. If these two guys are sponsoring the bill, what’s in it for them? Or more to the point, what’s in it for big business interests? Those are the questions that people are rightfully asking right now.
Wild Rogue Wilderness. Photo Courtesy Bob Wick/BLM
I can understand those fears. I’ve gone on the record several times to say that my fear is that this bill could be used as some kind of Trojan Horse for business interests who’d view it as a prime opportunity to open up some of America’s last pristine areas to logging, fracking and the like. I put the question to Stroll.
“I'm convinced,” says STC President, Ted Stroll, “that these senators sincerely believe that the bill is simply a good idea—that mountain bikers were never the kind of use singled out for exclusion in the Wilderness Act.”
“I strongly recommend that people actually read the bill
," says Stroll. "If they do, they’ll see that it is very narrowly written. There’s nothing in it anywhere that would weaken the protections of the Wilderness Act. It’s simply ensuring that things would go back to the way they were before the Forest Service revised its regulations in 1984.”
This is a Congress rife with Senators and House members eager to sell off public lands
to the highest bidder. If you care about the environment, these are scary times. What if Congress starts tacking on amendments that do, in fact, broaden the scope of the bill in ways that weaken the Act?
“I really don’t think that’s going to happen. But I realize some people are basically saying that we shouldn’t do anything here—we should just accept the status quo—because something bad might happen. They trot out this parade of horribles—all these things that theoretically could happen as an excuse to not try and improve things. I disagree with that kind of thinking.”
Cold Spring Trail, Santa Barbara, CA, Self-portrait by Satchel Cronk
Does the Bill Stand a Chance?
Will this bill actually go anywhere? That’s the real question. Well, the odds are never good for any bill. About ninety-six percent of bills die in Congress. While we still have a ways to go before the 114th Congress hangs up its spurs for good, this particularly divisive gaggle of politicians has only enacted two percent of the 10,896 bills slipped in the hopper this session.
Will Congress even find the time to consider bikes in Wilderness? You have to wonder. There is, after all, a carnival freak show of a presidential election afoot and Congress is currently grappling with a few "minor" issues...you know, gun control, homeland security and whether or not to fund an effort to counter the Zika virus. Spoiler alert, Congress couldn’t even agree on how much to spend on fighting a looming Zika outbreak in Puerto Rico, so they just said ‘screw it’ and went home for vacation. Bikes in Wilderness areas? You have to be a bit of an optimist to think that it’s the top thing on their minds at present.
Lee and Hatch's reputations don’t exactly help the bill's cause when it comes to picking up universal support from mountain bikers, though Stroll believes this will change when Democrats line up to co-sponsor it. Note the use of the word "when". Stroll is confident it will happen soon. Bi-partisan support would certainly help, though I don’t think the lack of Democrat sponsors is something that should be held against STC. Democrats generally line up behind environmental organizations without question—if those same environmental groups oppose this bill because they oppose mountain biking in Wilderness Areas (which virtually all of them do), plenty of Democrats will have steered clear of sponsoring the bill without even giving it a glance.
Andrew Slowey and Alex Dawson, Spencer Gap Upper, North Carolina. Photo by Brice Shirbach
So, what happens next? This is where mountain bikers could make a difference. True, the bill's chances could be better, but let's stop for a second: There's actually a bill in Congress right now. People have always said this would be impossible. That we should settle down, accept whatever bone is tossed our way and consider ourselves lucky. Thanks to the donations and support of mountain bikers this past year, there is now a bill in Congress that could change things. It's a small victory, but it's a victory all the same. That might be good enough for you or perhaps you don't mind being shut out of the Wilderness.
I'm not going to tell you how to feel about this--your opinions are yours and yours alone. If, however, you want access to some Wilderness areas, if you object to the way the Forest Service has been pre-emptively closing hundreds of miles of trails in states such as Montana, if you're tired of not being considered an equal when it comes to Wilderness access, you need to speak up in support of this bill. Now. Right now.
Forget the forums. It’s time for mountain bikers from the states to write their representatives in the Senate and House of Representatives and inform them that they object to the way the Forest Service and other agencies adopted anti-mountain bike policies in the 1980s. Tell your representatives that you are as much of an environmentalist as the guy with the hiking staff or the pack train. Tell them that you are tired of being shut out of Wilderness areas for no valid reason and with no recourse. If you're concerned that this bill could be co-opted and twisted into a Trojan horse for business interests, spell it out in your letter and demand that your representatives maintain the environmental protections afforded by the Wilderness Act. Make yourself heard.
Steens Mountain Wilderness, Oregon. Photo Courtesy Bob Wick/BLM
Here's What You Can Do. Now.
In this day and age it’s tempting to dismiss the “write your congressman” pitch as outdated or irrelevant, but as someone who has worked in the halls of government, I can tell you from firsthand experience, representatives are keenly attuned to what their constituents have to say in those letters and emails. Senators and House members want to stay employed and they do that by pleasing their voters. Make it clear to them that you will be greatly displeased if they let this bill go belly up or allow it to get perverted into something that actually weakens the environmental protections of the Wilderness Act.
Not into letter writing? Don’t know what to say? STC has a sample letter here
that you can copy and paste or tweak to your heart’s content. Or, hell, write your own letter on your own terms. This one, at least, is a starting point.
Not even sure that you should support this bill? Fair enough. There are plenty of voices for and against bikes in Wilderness. I'd suggest researching both sides of the issue and decide for yourself. Don’t, however, dismiss the Wilderness issue as some kind of wonky, boring bullshit that has no impact on your life.
Chad Cordell, Park City, Utah. Photo by Andrew Meehan
Not so long ago, we rarely lost access to trails because of the Wilderness Act. Congress, after all, rarely agrees to put a new Wilderness bill across the president’s desk. That’s all changed now since the Forest Service has chosen to preemptively close trails to mountain biking in many recommended Wilderness areas. Just ask those guys in Montana who have been kicked off of the hundreds of miles of trail that they personally maintained over the years. And, yes, new Wilderness areas do get adopted. Consider the loss of great trails last summer in Idaho's Boulder-Whiteclouds.
Any time the Forest Service conducts a new Forest Management Plan for its holdings—something they are obligated by law to do every 15 years—they must recommend new areas for inclusion in the Wilderness inventory and that means if you live anywhere near a Forest Service property, you now stand a good chance of losing access to it, whether or not it even stands a chance of becoming an official Wilderness area. Los Angeles riders dodged that bullet just a few years ago. Riders in North Carolina
and Washington state
are hoping to do the same right now. This matters.
The stakes are high. The only mistake you could make here would be to do nothing.