Mountain bikers have long been banned from wilderness areas because of a phrase in the 1964 Wilderness Act prohibiting “mechanical transport.”
But a bill being considered in the U.S. House could change that.
HR 1349 would amend the Wilderness Act so that the use of bicycles, wheelchairs, strollers and game carts are not prohibited.
On Dec. 13, the bill, introduced in March by Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Calif., passed the House Natural Resources Committee by a vote of 22-18. It will now be voted on by the full House. It still needs to be considered by the Senate.
If passed by the full Congress and the president, it would give local land managers the discretion to decide if certain trails in wilderness areas could be opened up to mountain biking, including in the local Lizard Head, Hermosa Creek and Weminuche Wilderness areas.
The idea is controversial, even among mountain biking groups.
Opponents argue the mountain bikes violate the intent of the Wilderness Act to minimize human impacts on pristine lands. Proponents say the Act was created before mountain biking existed and did not intend to ban those areas to human-powered activities.
In testimony submitted to the House, the International Mountain Bicycling Association said it does not support the bill to allow bicycles in existing wilderness areas.
The group works to encourage mountain biking-friendly land protections, including severing popular biking trails from proposed wilderness areas.
“As we gain ground in these efforts, we feel it is unwise to amend the Wilderness Act — one of the nation’s most important conservation laws — when the outcome mountain bikers desire can be reached through on-the-ground collaborative efforts,” according to their House testimony.
Another biking group, the Sustainable Trails Coalition, supports the bill, said board member John Fisch.
He emphasizes that the proposed amendment is not intended to give universal access to all wilderness areas to mountain bikers.
“It would allow local land managers to analyze on a case-by-case basis whether a trail in a wilderness area could be opened up to mountain biking,” Fisch said.
The group believes the Wilderness Act has been misinterpreted in its ban of bicycles.
“The intent of no mechanized was to get people out of the cars, and get out and enjoy the land under their own power,” he said.
“Other nonmotorized mechanism are allowed such as cross-country skis, which are a mechanical advantage, or oar-locks of a raft flowing through a wilderness area.”
He said the bill would return the decision on whether to allow mountain biking in wilderness areas back to local land managers.
“Before a blanket mountain bike ban in 1984 by the Forest Service, local managers had that authority, so this bill resets it to allow for that option,” he said.
To accommodate the disabled, wheelchair use is already allowed in wilderness areas under a 1990 amendment to the Americans with Disabilities Act. Wheelchair use in wilderness areas is limited to devices suitable for indoor pedestrian areas, according to the amendment, and trails do not have to be constructed to accommodate them.
The proposed bill to allow bicycles in wilderness areas is opposed by a coalition of 133 conservation groups.
“For over a half-century, the Wilderness Act has protected wilderness areas from mechanization and mechanical transport, even if no motors were involved with such activities,” the coalition wrote in a letter to the House Natural Resources Committee. “Congress intended that Wildernesses (are) kept free of bicycles and other types of mechanization and mechanical transport.”
Jimbo Buickerood, of the San Juan Citizen’s Alliance, said protected wilderness areas make up a small percentage of public lands and should remain free of machines.
“In Colorado, 85 percent of our public lands are already open to mountain biking. There is no need to take this irreversible and indefensible action.”