Legislation to restore mountain bike access in Wilderness areas reintroduced in Congress

Almost three years after going dark, the Sustainable Trails Coalition is back, with new legislation introduced in Congress by Senator Mike Lee.
A Wilderness area in Colorado
A Wilderness area in Colorado. Photo: Greg Heil

Senator Mike Lee of Utah (R) has just reintroduced legislation in Congress that would restore mountain bike access on some trails in Wilderness areas, according to the Sustainable Trails Coalition (STC). If this sounds familiar, that’s because Lee and the STC have pushed for this legislation before, beginning in 2015 and as recently as legislation introduced in 2021. This is at least Lee’s fourth attempt to introduce similar legislation in Congress. Singletracks covered the issue extensively until the bill failed to pass and the STC went dark.

According to Ted Stroll, President of the STC, “Senator Lee […] got the U.S. Forest Service and Department of the Interior to agree that mountain biking can work in Wilderness, at a congressional hearing he held in 2020. However, when a new federal Administration took office in January of 2021, those two agencies changed their minds.”

Other Wilderness legislation that has recently passed congress

While the STC went dark following President Joe Biden’s election, the winds of change have been blowing with regard to Wilderness legislation. A historic bill known as the Bonneville Shoreline Trail Advancement Act passed Congress in 2022. This bill was passed in an effort to help complete the 280-mile long-distance Bonneville Shoreline Trail (BST).

“To allow multi-use access to key sections of the trail, the legislation included a 1-for-1 swap of 326 acres of Wilderness across 20 locations in the trail corridor with 326 acres of new, contiguous Wilderness in nearby Mill Creek Canyon,” writes IMBA

The bill was sponsored by Representative John Curtis (R-UT) and Senator Mitt Romney (R-UT), and according to a press release from the STC, Lee also co-sponsored the bill. For more on the historic BST project, catch up here.

A quick overview of the proposed legislation

For those who are new to the topic, here’s a quick refresher on the proposed legislation.

The bills previously introduced in Congress have sought to “restore a prior Forest Service rule that allowed line officers to treat bikes as they do horses, hikers, campers, and hunters—i.e., allow or prohibit access based upon local conditions,” according to a press release from the STC. This change to the Wilderness Act that would allow local land managers to apply a science-based approach to mountain bike access. Land managers would be able to conduct studies to ascertain whether some trails could withstand mountain bike use. Currently, there is a blanket ban that prohibits all mountain bikes in all Wilderness areas in the country.

It’s important to note that the bill applies only to muscle-powered mountain bikes, and that e-bikes would still be banned in Wilderness areas.

The full text of the bill is not yet available at the time of publication, but “you should be able to find the bill text in a few days by checking congress.gov,” according to Stroll.

Opposing opinions

Even among mountain bikers, opinions on bikes in Wilderness are split.  Some of the most influential mountain bike advocates have historically been opposed to this legislation. IMBA testified in Congress against similar legislation in 2017. Ashley Korenblat, Managing Director of Public Land Solutions and a former Chair of the IMBA Board, has spoken out vehemently against Senator Lee’s actions in the past.

The STC and their supporters have pushed back against similar arguments and others in various opinion pieces published in 2016 and as recently as 2021. For their part, the STC says that they won’t quit. “We consider the agencies’ change of position in 2021 to be only a temporary setback,” said Stroll. “The Sustainable Trails Coalition will not rest its efforts in Congress and with the Executive Branch until reasonable bicycle access to trails on federal lands, notably Wilderness, is restored, in accordance with the Wilderness Act of 1964 and other legislation.”

Singletracks will be watching this topic closely as it unfolds.