By Jesse Juen

H.R.1349 – To amend the Wilderness Act to ensure that the use of bicycles, wheelchairs, strollers, and game carts is not prohibited in Wilderness Areas, and for other purposes.

This proposal would amend the Wilderness Act to allow for mechanized transportation within wilderness areas.  If we could take a step back in time and see how this was considered during the original discussions that led up to creation of the Wilderness Act we would see that it was actively considered.  What the creators of the Wilderness Act realized is that one of the bigger problems facing our Nation was the rapid growth of mechanization and how the  impact mechanization would further lead to the loss of the dwindling  wilderness resource.  Although they probably could not imagine how quick and far technology for bicycles might advance they were savvy enough to know that mechanized technology would advance and if that technology were active in wilderness, it would threaten future generation’s ability to benefit from wilderness.

This bill is a perfect example of how mechanization of bicycles has advanced to a point where mountain biking can occur in just about any natural setting you can imagine.   Friends of mine were sharing a story from the 30 year anniversary of the Wilderness Act conference which they attended in New Mexico.  Gaylord Nelson, one of the speakers at the conference, talked about how he and others considered whether bicycles were truly an issue to wilderness, and concluding that all forms of mechanical transport contradicted the purpose of wilderness and therefore included it in the list of prohibitions.  Considering that mountain biking was just taking off and beginning to cause noticeable changes, he reflected back to those earlier discussions and concluded they had made the right decision for wilderness.

Primitive recreation, as defined by all the federal land management agencies in regulation and policy, does not include mountain bikes.  The Wilderness Act mandate is to preserve wilderness character (Section 4(b)) which includes primitive recreation.  So how do agencies go about implementing this bill when it contradicts the essence of preserving wilderness character?  Yes it would end up in court.

The proposed amendment states:  ‘‘Nothing in this section shall prohibit the use of motorized wheelchairs, non-motorized wheelchairs, non-motorized bicycles, strollers, wheelbarrows, survey wheels, measuring wheels, or game carts within any wilderness area.’’  As you can see, this statement allows for cross country mountain biking to take place immediately.  In addition, it doesn’t preclude where they ride bikes.  As a result, it would be up to BLM and the USFS to develop special rules to protect areas where damage to sensitive resources would occur.  It doesn’t take much imagination to figure out how long it might take for the agency to issue a rule vs. how quickly folks might be riding mountain bikes throughout wilderness areas.  This would create a much different perception of the mountain bike community and I don’t think it would be a positive one either.

The real point here is this would create a very difficult management situation for the BLM and the USFS and demand a considerable amount of time working with the variety of mountain bike advocates, hiking and horseback riding groups, planning for trails, development of trails, responding to visitor conflicts, and responding to resource impacts that, with limited staff and time, would be quickly sucked up into protracted and controversial planning that would inevitably end up in court.  Wilderness is a place to slow down, to take on its own terms, and to practice restraint.  A sizable portion of our population cherishes these opportunities, and if passed by mountain bikes on the trail, would be instantly drawn away from that experience they seek.  The resulting conflicts will lead to expensive management fights at the agency level as well as in the courts.  Just as importantly it would also paint a very important and positive mountain bike community in a very negative light.

With just under 3 percent of the land base in the lower 48 designated as wilderness, emphasis should be focused on providing mountain bike opportunities in other places of the Federal estate.  What if we were to shift Congressional thinking and ask for Congress to consider a bill that would direct the agencies to study and plan for a high quality mountain bike trail system in non-wilderness lands.  The proposed expansion of Scapegoat Wilderness area is a great working example of folks working through how to accommodate both uses and management without trying to shove a square peg in a round hole.  In discussions for that proposal, some lands would be designated as wilderness, while other lands would not so as to allow for the management of high quality mountain biking trails.

My ask of Congress is that you would take the time to get input from both sides of this issue as well as the agencies responsible for the Federal public lands.  Fully evaluate the lands that would potentially be impacted to truly understand what is at risk, how all of the uses and management can be accommodated without opening Pandora’s Box by prescribing mechanized uses in wilderness areas.

Last but not least, one of the testimonies given to the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Federal Lands included a discussion of how Senator Frank Church said that the USFS was interpreting the wilderness act too strictly.  Interestingly enough, Senator Church’s words had nothing to do with mountain bikes or mechanized equipment.  He was addressing the narrow interpretation the USFS was using through its inventory process as to what would qualify for wilderness.  In other words he was telling the USFS should consider more areas for potential wilderness designation than they were willing to at the time.

Humans are masters of modifying their surroundings, and finding ways to make things easier.  We all do it.  Everyone fashions their home, their yard, and their neighborhoods in the way they want to experience and see them.   Wilderness is the one place where we as a Nation consciously decided to leave it as it is, without utilizing our tools to modify the landscape or otherwise dominate it by way of efficient transportation.  When we enter wilderness, we take nature on its own terms and keep our impact to a minimum by entering with restraint, that is, by way of the transportation which is a part of our formative past.  If we lose this in wilderness, there isn’t anywhere else to go and get that experience.  Actual designated wilderness is a remarkably small portion of our amazing country.  It seems to me there is plenty of opportunity to plan and develop outstanding mountain bike trails for our rapidly growing recreation community without competing for entry into our wilderness areas.