Should bicycles be allowed in wilderness areas?
The question tends to provoke an immediate answer – thumbs up or thumbs down – and it is at the heart of the Human-Powered Travel in Wilderness Areas Act.
The legislation is not written in terms so starkly black and white. If passed, the proposals would not lift the ban of bicycles or other human-powered wheeled conveyances from federally designated wilderness areas. The measures would, however, give local land managers the discretion to open certain trails to wheels.
There are some intriguing possibilities: A family, with a robust stroller, could take a toddler or two a few miles into the Weminuche Wilderness to camp in the spectacular valley of the Los Piños River. Hunters, knowing they could pull a game cart to retrieve big game, could venture deeper into the backcountry of the South San Juans or the Flat Tops in search of elk. And mountain bikers eager to ride the entire Colorado Trail could do so, not obligated to detour around the six wilderness areas the trail traverses on its route from Durango to Denver.
Much could be added to a wilderness experience with wheels. But what would be lost? Plenty, according to Aaron Teasdale, an ardent hiker and mountain biker who recently penned an article on the subject for the Sierra Club. Mountain bikes would fundamentally change the experience, which for hikers and horseback riders is all about relaxation and slow, deliberate movement through spectacular landscapes.
“A mountain biker speeding around the bend can shatter that peace…. Just knowing bikers could be coming around the corner can add ambient tension to a hike, ” he writes.
And many cyclists do not want the access. The Boulder-based International Mountain Biking Association does not support the change. But many cyclists do advocate for the return of trail access they lost in more recent wilderness designations, as happened with Idaho’s Boulder-White Cloud Wilderness designation in 2015.
Their point is valid, and going forward, the answer might be best modeled by the Hermosa Creek watershed plan. It preserves more than 35,000 acres as wilderness but also sets aside 70,000 acres as a special use area, where mountain bikes are welcome. Clearly, all supporters of wild public lands will get more accomplished as allies than as adversaries.
But the question remains. And so does the answer: a firm and unequivocal no. Just 3 percent of the continental U.S. is designated wilderness, leaving some 500 million acres of public land available for wheels. And the Wilderness Act is not discriminatory (wheelchair access is allowed).
“It doesn’t discriminate against anyone,” said George Nikas of Wilderness Watch. “It says if you or I choose to go, we have to go on foot or on horse. Mountain bikers can hike.”
Yes, mountain bikes evolved after the act was passed, but they remain machines, and machines, by the wisdom and foresight of the act’s authors, are banned from wilderness.
According to Ted Stroll, president of the Sustainable Trails Coalition and a strong advocate of the bills, “Wilderness is about rugged and self-reliant recreation.”
He couldn’t be more wrong. Wilderness is about wilderness itself, the spectacular land set aside for its inherent pristine and undeveloped qualities.
We will continue to explore it without wheels, gladly moving at the speed of a stride.