Dismantling the Myths and Expanding Upon the Latest Bikes in Wilderness Bill [Opinion]

Addressing common fears and concerns about the Human-Powered Travel in Wilderness Areas Act following supportive testimony.
The Collegiate Peaks Wilderness. Photo: Greg Heil

John Fisch is a contributor to Singletracks.com and is a member of the board of directors of the Sustainable Trails Coalition, a non-profit organization dedicated to backcountry access for mountain biking, including consideration of Wilderness trails as legal mountain biking routes. His statements and opinions do not necessarily represent the opinion of Singletracks.

The Senate recently heard testimony from the two federal departments that oversee the bulk of our federally-designated Wilderness areas. Representatives of the US Department of Agriculture, which includes the United States Forest Service (USFS), and reps from the Department of Interior, which includes the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), both testified in favor of S. 1695, The Human Powered Travel in Wilderness Act, which would remove the blanket ban against cycling use in Wilderness areas, giving local land managers the authority to allow bikes on a case-by-case basis.

Chris French, Deputy Chief of the USDA Forest Service, testified:

“The USDA supports increased access to the national forest system lands and thus supports the bill’s intent.”

Michael Nedd, Deputy Director for Operations for the Bureau of Land Management, echoed Mr. French’s comments:

“The [Trump] administration has placed a high priority on increasing public use and enjoyment of all federal lands. S.1695 aligns with this priority by providing greater access and recreational opportunities on public lands and the department supports the bill.”

This testimony is a monumental step toward righting a decades-old wrong: a decision that was made to ban bikes without either legislative review or public input. Rather than rehash all the reasons this is a good thing in terms of scientific evidence, original intent of the Wilderness Act, or just plain equity and fairness, this piece will focus on two things; addressing the sometimes very real (but often created or inflamed by blatant fear-mongering) fears some have regarding this legislation, and demonstrating the actual benefits of the legislation beyond just mountain biking.

What the bill actually says

The most common fear expressed with regard to allowing mountain bikes in Wilderness is that it is just the first step in an erosion of the environmental protections afforded by Wilderness status. Fear-mongerers love to say that today it’s mountain bikes, then it will be motorcycles, then Jeeps, bulldozers, airstrips, mineral extraction, etc. Whether presented as a disingenuous tactic or a genuine concern, these fears are easily laid to rest by three basic facts.

First, the Wilderness Act was in force for two decades before the current bike ban was put into place. During those two decades when bikes were allowed, none of the ills mentioned came to pass.

Second, the proposed legislation is quite explicit that nothing with an artificial powered source is allowed; the words “human powered” are right there in the title of the bill itself, and there is no exception or caveat. Even e-bikes would remain prohibited.

Third, we need only look at the other federal designations that have successfully protected our wild places. We are told that we must have Wilderness because it is the “gold standard” for resource protection. That means that other designations like National Scenic Trail would receive less protection. Yet National Scenic Trails remain well preserved. If the Wilderness designation is even better, surely those places will also remain safe from development.

Another commonly expressed fear is that trails will become overrun with cyclists. This usually boils down to nothing more than another user group not wanting to give up their privileged status and share the trails with another user group. But even for those who may have honest concerns, the first thing to consider with regard to this fear is that this legislation does not by itself open a single trail to mountain biking. It only gives those with local knowledge the ability to assess trails for mountain biking suitability. If a trail can not handle additional traffic, it may remain closed to mountain biking.

If a trail has a legacy of heavy hiker use, it may remain closed to mountain biking. But most Wilderness trails are just that… wilderness, which means remote, rugged, hard to get to and harder to get through. Many Wilderness trails are actually disappearing due to lack of use. Surely such trails can handle a little additional traffic. And lastly, even if we refuse to accept the possibility of multi-user coexistence, a simple shared use schedule (where mountain biking is only allowed on odd numbered days for instance) can still provide hikers with a solitary experience without completely denying an equally low impact user group a similar opportunity.

The benefits extend beyond us

This legislation offers benefits as well. Opponents say it only benefits mountain bikers. The fact that it is only granting mountain bikers benefits they once had (without negative consequence), and that it only provides the opportunity to share the same benefits those opponents already enjoy is ignored. But these benefits which backcountry cyclists would admittedly feel most, are not limited to just those backcountry cyclists. As noted above, we are losing trails due to lack of use. Many a hiker has found their journey disrupted or even discontinued due to running into a lost trail. Shrinking Forest Service budgets will only exacerbate this problem, especially as trail maintenance is often the first thing cut when budgets get tight. Congress recently directed the US Forest Service to look for alternate ways of reducing their maintenance backlog. Mountain bikers also bring a very high level of per capita participation in volunteer trail work. In some places, mountain bike and equestrian clubs work together to clear and make safe trails for all users. This is a potential win-win right here.

This legislation also represents a boon for the very concept of Wilderness and those who desire its expansion. Every new Wilderness proposal faces significant opposition, most notably from powerful development lobbies. By dropping the arbitrary exclusion of mountain bikers from Wilderness enjoyment, we flip potential adversaries in the creation and preservation of Wilderness, into staunch supporters. The movement to remove the blind blanket ban on this form of low impact, human-powered backcountry travel is supported at the grass roots level by arch conservatives, ultra-progressive liberals, and all manner of moderates in between.

Where in today’s divisive climate can you find an issue that people across the far reaches of the political spectrum come together like this? That’s a huge benefit that transcends biking. Republicans are stereotypically pegged as heartless developers and mineral extractors. You want to get rank and file Republicans standing in formation with environmental Democrats in opposition to such things? This is your path right here.

Once we set aside the fear-mongering, and realize the full suite of benefits to be gained, it becomes clear that the last rational opposition to the proposed legislation dissolves. It was nice of the USFS and BLM understand that. Now, we need the rest of Congress to do the same, considering rational thought and fact-based decision making rather than fear-mongering and bowing to the will of the best funded lobby.

More info

This link includes statements by the bill’s sponsor, Senator Lee of Utah, as well as testimony from each of the departmental officials. The bill will need to be reintroduced if it does not advance by the end of the current Congressional session; January 3, 2021.

This link goes to the Congressional web site where you can read the actual text of the bill.

This is the link to the Sustainable Trails Coalition’s page discussing the effort in greater detail.