The Wilderness Act turned 50 a few years ago. Middle-aged, not keen on change, it would likely rather approach its golden years without controversy, but last month at the urging of the Sustainable Trails Coalition, Utah Sens. Lee and Hatch introduced Senate Bill 3205, the “Human-Powered Travel in Wilderness Areas Act,” that aims to allow mountain bikes in designated wilderness and the act is back on center stage.
There is a lot to know and understand about wilderness and the Wilderness Act, perhaps most importantly that only about 5 percent of the entire U.S. (including Alaska) and 2.7 percent of the lower 48 is protected as Wilderness. There are currently just over 109 million acres contained within the National Wilderness Preservation System in 44 states and Puerto Rico, 56 million acres of which is in Alaska. Wilderness lands are found within and managed by all four land management agencies including the Forest Service, National Park Service, Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Bureau of Land Management. Colorado’s largest wilderness area is the Weminuche Wilderness, in our backyard, at almost 500,000 acres.
Wilderness makes up a small percentage of our country’s hundreds of millions of acres of state and federal public lands. And considering that, the effort to open wilderness lands to bikes misses the mark.
First and foremost, the act is one of our foundational environmental laws. Enacted in 1964, it was designed to safeguard a remnant of our nation’s public lands from the advances of population and technology, “expanding settlement and growing mechanization.”
Howard Zahniser, The Wilderness Act’s principal author, defined wilderness in 1956 as a place that offered outstanding opportunities for solitude, primitive experience, and without the “mechanisms that make us immediate masters over our environment.” To Zahniser, wilderness remained a place of human restraint. He spent eight years working with Congress to develop the precise language the act contains that includes acceptable activities in Wilderness, biking not among them.
The controversy, and what S.B. 3205 is written to amend, is the Wilderness Act’s definition of “mechanical transport” that for 50 years has strictly excluded motorized and mechanized transport in wilderness. There is no reason to change that now. Over 100 conservation, sportsmen, wildlife, hiking and horseman’s organizations stated this in a March letter to Congress calling on them to reject calls to amend the act.
If Lee and Hatch were truly interested in public lands stewardship, they would not be chipping away at the Wilderness Act. Nor would they be working to transfer public lands to the states, which have no money to manage them properly. Their efforts are disingenuous and transparently aimed at gaining access to our public lands for extractive uses while straining the traditional alliances of conservation and recreation groups, the latter of which are split on the issue.
Instead, in this 100th year anniversary of the Park Service, they would be working to fully fund our public land agencies to catch up with millions of dollars of maintenance backlogs. They would support local efforts of broad coalitions of users to establish and share new trails on other public lands, including suitable park lands – a new initiative the International Mountain Bicycling Association has been advancing.
What is needed is a 21st-century land ethic that builds on the strength of the Wilderness Act instead of working to dismantle it.