Since the start, mountain bikes have lived in a certain gray zone in terms of definition. They’re not motorized; they are mechanized in that they provide a mechanical advantage, and they are human-powered. Their ambiguity puts them in an awkward spot when it comes to wilderness access. Opponents of bikes in wilderness argue that their presence detracts from the raw, simple experience of being in the wilderness. Advocates argue that mountain bikers want to visit the wilderness for the same reasons anyone else does: for that same raw, simple experience that mountain bikers would supposedly disrupt. The debate is a long way from reaching a peaceful homeostasis.
Legislators in the United States recently heard arguments in favor of Senate Bill 1695, the Human Powered Travel in Wilderness Act, the most recent unsuccessful bill to remove the ban on mountain biking in wilderness areas and give local authorities the power to ban or allow bikes on case-by-case bases. An advocacy nonprofit called the Sustainable Trails Coalition backed S.B. 1695 and continues to work on finding cooperative solutions between mountain bikers and other user groups. Now, with the 116th Congress over and no action taken on S.B. 1695, the bill has been archived and we’re back in the waiting game.How Did We Get Here?
For decades, those who want to protect the wilderness have struggled to define and redefine the Wilderness Act of 1964, which designated a set of protections to protect precious areas of land and encourage appreciation for those areas. The text, written before mountain biking was around, banned mechanized transport without bikes in mind. It specified what tools could be used for trail work — no chainsaws — and has protected the wildest places by minimizing human impact. In 1984, as mountain biking emerged and riders started to explore off road, the term ‘mechanized transport’ was clarified by the Forest Service under increasing pressure from traditional environmental groups like the Sierra Club and the Wilderness Society, and mountain bikes were deemed unwelcome.Idaho and Montana
The issue has become hotter over the last decade as Idaho and Montana gave the biking community specific examples of what it looks like to have trails taken away.
Idaho’s Boulder and White Cloud mountain ranges were almost incorporated in 2014 into what would have been a peaceful land protection agreement. It was almost the solution mountain bikers and declared conservationists alike had hoped for. Then politics intervened.
The plan was to turn the area into a national monument. Unlike wilderness areas and national parks, national monuments each have their own management plan, potentially allowing bikes, and only require presidential approval, unlike wilderness designations, which need to go through Congress. Up until the monument was proposed in 2014, Republican Congressman Mike Simpson of Idaho had introduced a bill every single year for the past decade to try to make the White Clouds a wilderness area. None of his bills had gone anywhere. Then, as the monument plan started to look like reality, the Idaho legislators decided they would rather approve Simpson’s bill than accept an Obama-approved national monument. The bill sped through Congress in just two weeks, and with the creation of the Boulder-White Cloud Wilderness, the mountain bike trails disappeared.
Things become more frustrating for mountain bikers, too, when bikes are banned from not only wilderness trails but trails in areas that might one day become wilderness. Montana has lost more than 700 miles of trail in the last decade, largely to ‘recommended wilderness areas’ (RWAs), which are essentially wilderness areas in dress rehearsal as they await Congress' approval, which can take decades. Most recently, Montana’s Bitterroot Valley lost 110 miles of singletrack to the Sapphire and Blue Joint wilderness study areas in a series of court battles that hinged on administrative technicalities and inflamed tempers on both sides of the issue. While that particular area is permanently closed to bikes, the conflict brought bike access into the spotlight, and groups on both sides of the issue are braced for future battles.What's the update?
The biggest update is that there is no real update.
The nationwide debate continued to evolve in November when the US Forest Service and the Department of Interior voiced their support of S.B. 1695 in the bill’s first hearing since its introduction in May 2019 by Sen. Mike Lee, a Republican from Utah. S.B. 1695 was the most recent of several House and Senate bills to be considered. However, legislators never got around to voting on it before the congressional session ended.
It's likely that an equivalent bill will be introduced in the next Congress. Although bills do not carry over between congressional terms, legislators often reintroduce their own bills over and over until one lasts long enough to make it to the vote.
S.B. 1695 didn’t include any subtext that would weaken wilderness protections, and rather than bringing about a blanket permit as some fear, it tried to move the power to ban bikes from federal to local authorities. It was written in specific, narrow language to avoid opening doors that might harm wilderness areas in the future. If the bill had passed, it would be up to land managers to determine whether biking is appropriate in any given area. Given that research has overwhelmingly shown that mountain biking has a negligible impact on trails (less impact than horses), the more significant effects would be social. Wilderness trail users go to wild places for the feelings they evoke, and many hikers and equestrians argue that the presence of mountain bikers would disrupt that primitive sense of distance from human civilization.What’s Next?
If user groups can compromise on a solution, it would have to be a solution that doesn’t catastrophize or turn a nuanced situation into an all-or-nothing fiasco. Such a solution might include allowing mountain bikes access to certain wilderness areas through a permitting system to keep the traffic sparse, designating a few specific bike-friendly trails through certain wilderness areas, and working with a diverse set of interest groups to preserve the remote feel of those spaces.
Many hope the next Congress will introduce a similar bill. Many hope it won't.
If such a bill passes, some opponents may find unexpected help. Including mountain bikers in discussions around wilderness trails would add a huge workforce of recreationalists who tend to enjoy trail work, so it would likely spell good things for the maintenance of remote trails. After all, mountain bikers want access for the same primary reason that hikers argue against mountain bike access: the privilege of experiencing unique landscapes. Hikers and equestrians argue against mountain bike access because they treasure those places. Mountain bikers, as it turns out, treasure them too.