A Look at Why Bikes Are Banned in Wilderness

Few issues more sharply divide outdoor lovers who are normally on the same page.

Lance Pysher is not a happy man. Nor are thousands of mountain bikers in Montana who were recently given the news that they were no longer welcome on 178 miles of singletrack trails in Bitterroot National Forest.

“These are trails that we’ve been maintaining,” he says. “Low-traffic, backcountry trails on which there hasn’t been any conflict at all. I don’t think I’ve even run into hiker or horseback rider on most of these trails in the past ten years.

“To be told that we can’t ride trails we have been clearing and keeping open for years, not because we are having any kind of negative impact on the environment, but because we might not fit in with someone’s idea of ‘the wilderness ethic’… It’s hard.”

And it’s getting harder. The Forest Service, the land manager in question, recently unveiled a new travel plan for a portion of the Kootenai National Forest, outside Whitefish, Montana, that will reduce mountain bike access there from 86 to 17 miles.

While none of the trails in question are located in officially designated wilderness areas, the Wilderness Act is being used to manage them as such. If you’re a mountain biker, it boils down to this: You don’t belong here…or in a growing number of places.

When President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Wilderness Act in 1964 into law, America was in dire need of comprehensive environmental safeguards-particularly ones that could protect entire ecosystems. The nation was rapidly fragmenting into so many chunks of cities, highways, industrial zones, and suburban sprawl. A more stringent form of stewardship was, and still is, necessary. The Wilderness Act, which seeks to preserve habitats in their pristine states, was a breakthrough.

But where do mountain bikes fit into the wilderness paradigm? They don’t. There are now 762 wilderness areas in 44 states, comprising nearly 110 million acres, or roughly five percent of the American landscape. Alaska, California, Arizona, Idaho, and Washington house the largest wilderness parcels. Bikes are off limits in all of it. What’s more, there are many Wilderness Study Areas and recommended wilderness areas-parcels that Congress hasn’t designated as wilderness, but which have been singled out as worthy of inclusion at some point in the future. Mountain bikers may ride in some of these areas, but are losing access to a growing number of them. This is what’s happening now in Montana.

Mountain bikes weren’t originally banned by the Wilderness Act; that breed of bike didn’t actually exist at the time. The act explicitly prohibited motorized transport. A number of groups, including the Sierra Club and Wilderness Society, convinced the U.S. Forest Service to publish a regulation in 1984 explicitly prohibiting mountain bikes in wilderness areas-essentially broadening the prohibition from motorized to mechanized transport. The other government agencies that manage wilderness areas (the BLM, the National Park Service, and the Fish and Wildlife Service) followed suit.

Studies show equestrians cause more erosion than mountain bikers. Courtesy of Oregon BLM

On what basis were mountain bikers excluded from wilderness? Critics of mountain biking didn’t provide evidence that mountain bikes caused more erosion or disturbed wildlife more often than other trail users. In 1984, the sport was still in its toddler stage-no studies on mountain biking’s environmental impacts had even been conducted at the time. Mountain biking’s opponents, instead, based their objections to bikes in wilderness areas on blanket assumptions that bikes must cause more damage. This is still the rhetorical approach most often employed.

“It’s simply not true,” says Mark Eller, communications director of the International Mountain Bicycle Association (IMBA). “There are a few exceptions, but the vast majority of independent, peer-reviewed studies indicate that mountain bikers are no more impacting on natural resources than other recreational trail users.”

Most studies, in fact, show that mountain bikes cause about the same amount of erosion as foot traffic and significantly less damage to trails than horseback riders–both groups have largely unfettered access to wilderness areas. IMBA has trumpeted these studies for years, as have other organizations. The science is not news to land managers. Which begs the question: if environmental policy is supposed to be based on sound science and the science does not actually support the ban on bikes, why then are mountain bikers still persona non grata in America’s Wilderness?

“What you are not considering,” says Eller, “is the social sciences. You won’t get much argument, at higher levels within the government, that the impacts on trails from mountain biking are any higher than that of hikers or equestrians. But you will get a lot of argument about the social impacts of including mountain biking. The rationale for banning bikes from wilderness has more to do with bikes ruining other trail users’ experience of a primitive landscape.”

Hole in The Wall trail. Sapphire Wilderness Study Area. Photo by Lance Pysher

You might expect IMBA, mountain biking’s largest advocacy group, to oppose the ban on wilderness. They don’t. Not outright. Instead, IMBA works with policy makers and competing trail users to preserve access on existing multi-use trails by redrawing proposed wilderness boundaries and/or employing alternative preservation classifications (such as National Recreation Areas or National Conservation Areas) that allow for bike access.

It’s a tactic that has preserved some trail access in the past. Critics within the mountain bike community, however, contend that this strategy is a losing one. Mountain bikers might retain 10 miles of trail, they argue, but in doing so riders also lose access to a hundred more miles in the same area. Less charitable types have characterized IMBA’s approach as coming to the negotiating table, intent on merely begging for scraps.

As evidence that IMBA’s approach yields results, IMBA President Mike Van Abel points to a recent meeting with Colorado Congressman Jared Polis, who met with IMBA to get its input on drawing the boundaries of a proposed wilderness area in central Colorado’s White River National Forest. “Having direct involvement in a land protection bill that will include wilderness is real time evidence that this practice is working,” says Abel. “You talk about a whole new paradigm-that conversation would never have existed ten years ago. Back then, we just got steamrolled.”

But the question remains: If IMBA holds that mountain bikes fundamentally belong in the wilderness, why aren’t they fighting to overturn the actual ban on bikes?

“Because it’s a political non-starter,” says Van Abel. “You can say that the law is unjust, but who makes the laws? Congress does. Well, who elects Congress? We do. We have what we have as a law because the citizens of this country deem it so. That’s democracy in action. So if we, as a society see that as unjust, then we should change the law, but the political reality is that most people-including a lot of IMBA members-do not see the law as unjust.”

Blodgett Canyon, Montana's Bitterroot Mountains. Photo by Lance Pysher.

Back in Montana, Lance Pysher and fellow members of the Bitterroot Backcountry Cyclists, are trying to come to terms with what all this means. Montana’s backcountry is a hodgepodge of Wilderness Study Areas and recommended wilderness areas. Congress has voted relatively little wilderness into being within Montana in the past few decades. In recent years, wilderness advocates have sued the Forest Service, alleging that the agency isn’t doing enough to manage its recommended wilderness areas with a rigor in keeping with the spirit of the Wilderness Act.

In response, the Forest Service is revising travel management plans for several of its forests and those plans have advocated for the exclusion of mountain bikers from hundreds of miles of singletrack. The Forest Service did not conduct any studies to determine whether bikes have had an adverse impact in those areas, but rather has maintained that the mere presence of mountain bikes in recommended wilderness areas might make it less likely for Congress to one day grant them wilderness status.

To mountain bikers, the Forest Service’s actions look a lot like a land grab. Even when trails aren’t in wilderness areas, they are increasingly being managed as if they were. Mountain bikers, no matter how conscientious they prove to be, are losing ground with no end in sight. IMBA’s president is quick to voice his organization’s opposition to this.

“This is wrong management and, quite frankly, bad policy,” says Van Abel. “IMBA does not believe that a bicycle on a trail in an area recommended for wilderness somehow detracts from its wilderness characteristics or potential. Taking the wilderness management framework beyond a congressional act is poor public policy.”

To Montana mountain bikers, the rulings come as a cruel blow and raise an ugly question: Would mountain bikers be able to maintain access if they took a page out of their critics’ playbook and simply sued federal agencies to retain their access? Do mountain bikers need to play hardball?

“Sure, while drinking post-ride beers we have batted around the idea of getting lawyered up,” says Pysher. “The consensus is that it’s a road we’d rather avoid. The idea just leaves a bitter taste, maybe because we see groups on the other side of the fence always ready to sue, but never around to fix a trail. We’re an IMBA chapter and we still think the best approach is through engagement, maintaining trails, and being good stewards.”

“Wilderness is supposed to be about solitude and preserving the environment and we want those too,” says Pysher. “But now the Wilderness Act is being used to regulate the ‘right’ way to appreciate that environment. That’s not being pro-wilderness, that’s being anti-bike.”

Photos by Lance Pysher

Vernon Felton is a contributing editor to Adventure Journal. He lives in Bellingham, Washington.
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Showing 93 comments
  • Cam

    I’m torn about this.
    Fade to 1986, north of Durango,. Backpacking with my brother, around a corner come two bikes and a dog. Fast. I just have time to jump out of the way (with my REI external frame pack controlling things movement-wise) in time to hear a “sorry man” as they sped by.
    “Oh my” I thought. I gotta get me one of those!
    Summer of ’88 a friend and I dirtbagged around the west with mountain bikes. We went wherever we wanted to. I still remember ripping down a trail east of Ketchum, surprising a middle-aged backpacking couple who looked like they were having heart attacks. The memory haunts me.
    Now it’s 2015, I’m much older, slower, and riding a rigid again (except with fatter tires), basically now I’m just a bikepacker. I have time in my slowness to see the skid marks, the cut switchbacks, the shuttle pickups full of DH and dirtjumper bikes… and rarely see them at the trailbuilding parties.
    Mass media is great at showing the young, hip crowd with their flashy clothes and Red Bull, catching air and skidding at nearly every turn, dirt flying. From the vast majority of these videos it seems skidding is the preferred way to scrub speed quickly, and look cool. Riding smooth and clean is boring to watch and doesn’t get chicks (or bros) evidently.
    My point is: when the land managers and other wilderness users see these videos (I bet they are well supplied by the horse and hiking crowd) … well, we’re done for.

    • ErikK

      Being a sustainable trail user has little to do with what type of transportation your on. All scientific studies performed on trail use generally show that mountain bikes have the same impact or in some cases less of an impact on trails. Allowing mountain bikes could potentially mean more trail users, and that could mean, a greater impact on trails, but like hikers, mountain bikers are beginning to follow guidelines akin to leave no trace. Ethics are the main factor that determine how users impact trails. Horses do far more damage to trail yet are permitted to use trails with little to no consideration. There are ways to allow mountain bikes into wilderness that are both sustainable and beneficial for all users.


  • Slim

    I mountain bike for exercise, not for thrills. I used to ride a nice loop right outside the house. Now the downhillers from the big city show up every weekend and most of the summer, and my loop is littered with signs warning “limited vision area” because the macho bikers have their girlfriends drop them off at the top of the hll and bomb down. I have to get out at the crack of dawn to avoid most of them. I asked one of them to please not skid around the corner and destroy the trail, and I was treated to a display of rude language ( I am old enough to have been his grandmother) . If bikes are being banned, these attitudes aren’t helping.

  • oliver

    The base, underlying issue was not addressed in this article. Mountain biking is an ‘adrenaline sport.’ No matter how slow you go, it is still moving unnaturally fast through the landscape. You are unquestionably mechanized. One of the largest problems in our modern culture is that we all go way too fast all the time and never slow down, even when recreating. Big W Wilderness is one of the last refuges we have in which to truly slow down, move the way we have evolved to over millenia: upright walking. This is why mountain bikes are not allowed in Wilderness areas, and why the majority wants it that way. I ride. There is epic singletrack all around the small Colorado town where I live, and I am lucky enough to be able to ride to it from my house. It’s a great way to stay in shape, it’s fun and I love it. Even got a fat bike this past winter. But mountain bikes in Wilderness? No way. We need these places; where we leave our toys at home and stand up, walk and find the old rythym.

    • Mark E

      The speed of travel argument is far from watertight. There are a lot of trails in Wilderness that I’m quite sure I can run faster than I could bike. I’d challenge any mountain biker to race me on the Four Passes loop in the Maroon Bells wilderness, for example. And, if rock climbing and running class 5 whitewater are okay in Wilderness why would a bikepacking trip—average speed of about 4 MPH—be too “extreme?”

      • Todd McMahon

        Mark E, 4 mph, what a laugh.
        If you are going to go at 4 mph you might as well
        be hiking, there’s not much difference.
        I contend that even the cool bikepacker type
        mountain bikers will go much faster than 4mph.

        Also, biking is much difference than Mountain Climbing
        or kayaking. In both of those instances, the mechanical
        part of the equation is not making you travel faster.
        Climbers don’t travel that fast, and kayaks are basically
        running with the current. Meanwhile, Mountain Bikes make
        you go much faster than if you didn’t have a bike.

        Is IMBA going to pass a speed limit of 4 mph in the wilderness
        and be out there enforcing it?

        • Lance

          Regarding mountain biking being an adrenaline sport, of course it is. So what? So are kayaking, backcountry skiing, and rock climbing, and mountaineering. The idea that enjoying an adrenaline rush is an affront to the wilderness ethic is absurd. Mountain biking is also an endurance sport, and yes 4 mph is about right for primitive backcountry trails. Do I go faster on the downhills? You bet, and again so what, as long as I’m on an empty trail with adequate lines of sight.

          Jun 25, 2014 5:45 pm Distance: 16.1 miles Elapsed Time: 5:09:34 Avg Speed: 3.1 mph Max Speed:28.0 mph Avg Pace: 19′ 14″ per mile Min Altitude: 4,561 ft Max Altitude: 7,369 ft

          As far as kayaks or rafts only going as fast as the current, obviously you have never encountered a head wind on a section of flat water. If oars and paddles didn’t offer a mechanical advantage, we would still be paddling using our hands. As far as skis, the question of whether they are faster than walking in snow is obvious.

          Gears are a form of a simple machine like levers and screws that provide a mechanical advantage just like oar locks. They are not a power source.

          So skis have been around for thousands of years, so have wheels. A ski carved out a single piece of wood without edges and attached with leather straps bears as much resemblance to my carbon fiber reinforced, steel edged, high density base with freedom telemark binding with a free pivot, ski brakes, and springs attached to dual density plastic boots while wearing water proof clothing as my bike does to a wooden wheel.

          Again this gets back to the point that the wilderness ban on bikes is not one of impact, but rather one of a minority of people trying to enforce their code on the proper beliefs one must have to be allowed in the backcountry.

          “A man on foot, on horseback or on a bicycle will see more, feel more, enjoy more in one mile than the motorized tourists can in a hundred miles.”
          ― Edward Abbey, Desert Solitaire

      • trebor

        Even the people who win the MTB races only average about 11 mph. I average around 8. I was riding and someone on a horse was coming toward me (on double track) at full gallop speed. It scared the bejesus out of me. You simply cannot argue that MTB is faster, more imposing, or more dangerous than horse riding.

    • RomanD


      So cross-country skiing and ice skating are both unquestionably mechanized, I reckon, but they are allowed in Wilderness, right?

    • Lance Pysher

      Not quite sure why my tent, sleeping bag, pad, stove, gore-tex clothing, crampons, ice axes, snow shoes, skis aren’t also toys.

      I can guarantee you I go plenty slow, and do plenty of walking while carrying my bike up the inevitable too steep, too rocky, just too tired sections of trails they want to close in Montana.

      Even if all Wilderness was opened to bikes, not something I entirely endorse there will still be plenty of trails that will never see a bike. I just don’t see a free for all with bikes everywhere. Most of the trails I hike will continue to be hike only since they simply would not make an enjoyable ride up or down. Leaving trails in the their uber-primitive state should be adequate to keep bikes out of the majority of areas.

      If you really don’t want to see anyone while hiking skip the trail entirely and you will have 95% of the forest to yourself.

    • Jim

      I live in the Colorado Rockies… and am surrounded by Wilderness. The Sierra Club and various Equestrian groups have an attitude of “never enough” and keep pushing hard to take away more bike trails. Its frustrating… especially when organized equestrian groups go through and devestate the trails that we built and keep cleared. They don’t stay on the trails and when they do… the trails are destroyed by steel-shoed 1200 lb beasts. To make things even worse… when we want to ride FatBikes in the winter, they are lined up to block them. That has nothing to do with adrenaline and everything to do with an anti-bike bias.

      When hikers take off their shoes and hit the trails au-natural… I’ll concede that they are keeping wilderness wild. Until then, they are just as mechanized as cyclists are.

    • John Fisch

      Since when is speed “natural” or “unnatural.” I can gallop a horse faster than I can ride my bike. Over the course of a long ride, I can cover far more distance on horseback than on a bike–at least the bike forces me to use my own energy where a horse does not. Horses are allowed in Wilderness — so much for the speed and “upright walking” arguments.

      What about all the other mechanized, and electronic, devices which are allowed in Wilderness? So much for the “toys” argument.

      Most flawed of all is your assertion that mountain biking is an ‘adrenaline sport.’ This poses two problems. First, you assert that everyone’s in it for the rush when the typical backcountry cyclist is out there for the exact same reason as the backcountry hiker: peace, meditation, solitude, etc. Second, your assertion that there is only one way to achieve this (on foot) is falsely prejudicial and self-serving.

      • Todd McMahon

        Most of the time horse riders on a trail go at a moderate pace. The last thing a horse rider would want to happen is their horse trip on a root or rock and break a leg. A lot of farms and ranches have arenas and fields where they take their horses to run them in a safe fashion. You also failed to mention that Mountain bikes are fairly fast objects that horse might mistake for a cougar or other predator.

        John, Mountain biking is an “adrenaline sport” no matter how much you try to deny it. Mountain bikers can go upwards of 500% faster than a normal hiker, and cover much more ground. If a mountain biker were out there for the same reason as a hiker, they’d be hiking.

        • JK

          “If a mountain biker were out there for the same reason as a hiker, they’d be hiking.”

          What a BS attitude, so you are saying the only way people can enjoy these areas is the way that you enjoy them? You realize how self centered and arrogant your attitude is?

          FWIW, I have a medical reason for not being able to hike long distances. I can bike all day, but I have extreme pain in my legs if I hike for long distances. I would love to bike these areas and enjoy them. Unfortunately, attitudes like yours prevent me from doing so.

  • Eric

    If trail riding is outlawed, only outlaws will ride trails.

  • Tony

    I am a mountain biker. It is my job and my passion. I am a Wilderness advocate. I believe that designated Wilderness is one of our greatest American assets. This discussion has remained a slippery slope for decades. The science is there in favor of mountain bikes – with regard to ecological impact (trail impact, wildlife impact/displacement, water quality, etc.). The social science is largely inconclusive (human impact, administrative impact, etc.) in favor or not for mountain bikes in “capital W” Wilderness areas. The crux of this argument – to me – is that in attempting to argue in favor of changing an element of the Wilderness Act, we are setting a dangerous precedent – regardless of your opinion of federal land management agencies. In a time where our federal public lands are being discussed as political commodities (see any number of recent western state legislature’s favor of transfer of federal public lands), we have to understand that by opening the door to the amendment of a critical and fundamental piece of legislation (The Wilderness Act of 1964), our timing does not favor the majority of the very places we love to ride. I have stood in public meetings and been called a “yahoo” who only seeks an adrenaline rush and that me and my bike have no place in the backcountry. I have had discussions with folks that mountain bikes are no more mechanized than a Dynafit binding and shouldn’t be excluded. These and the hundreds of other arguments are all very much worth exploring but right now, we’ve got to continue to establish, foster and grow the relationships we have with the USFS and respective Ranger Districts, BLM Field Offices, IMBA, local groups of ALL trail users, industry and local businesses to figure out what works in our own communities. No easy task and often extremely unpleasant but necessary. True, when Forest Plans, Travel Management Plans and BLM RMPs change, we might not be able to legally ride some amazing trails that we love and the trade-offs are often lop-sided but the more frequently we submit public comment, organize and show up to public meetings, the more political and social capital we gain. Only then can we can truly hold the USFS and BLM accountable with regard to continued mountain bike access in non-Wilderness areas. By showing that we are invested in the process, that we as mountain bikers are taking initiative to figure this stuff out locally instead of asking for or demanding a sweeping amendment to federal legislation, we are insuring ourselves, our children and all non-motorized trail users against a much more complex and challenging prospect down the road…. just sayin’.

    • Lance Pysher

      Agreed. I have been there and continue to be at those meetings and interacting with other stakeholders. Getting involved is key, and building that social capital is key. Still it hasn’t stopped the forest service in Montana from closing over 500 miles of trail in the last 6 years, and potentially another 250 miles this year.

      The more I have studied this issue, the less I see this as changing the Wilderness Act. Yes, the wilderness act does restrict mechanized transport in the same sentence as power boat and aircraft. To me the context is clear that mechanized was a catchall category for motorized vehicles.

      If you were to rewrite the same sentence replacing mechanized with bikes it just sounds silly.”…there shall be no temporary road, no use of motor vehicles, motorized equipment or motorboats, no landing of aircraft, no mountain bikes, and no structure or installation within any such area.”

      I don’t see how revising the definition of mechanized will be a slippery slope. Motorized vehicles, mining, logging as explicitly prohibited in the Wilderness Act unlike bikes.

      • John Fisch

        It’s not even a revision of the Act or even the definition of “mechanized” but rather a simple return to the original intent of the word “mechanized” as was intended at the time of the Act and as further clarified in the USFS first (and most in tune with original intent) interpretation of the Act when in their implementation of the Act (in 1966), they specifically defined “mechanized” as “powered by a non living source.”

        Nobody’s asking for a change to the Act or the original definition of “mechanized”; just a return to the meaning as originally stated.

    • Mandy

      In regards to the wilderness and keeping it that way, I’d probably consider the following study which looked at the responses mountain sheep had in regards to hikers, mountain bikers and motorized vehicles. I think the results will throw your threw a loop.


      Secondly, in regards to the social issues, I’d probably suggest taking a look at this study:

      Maybe ya’ll should pull some funds together and give the above study a whirl.

      Or whatever, just say f* it and migrate to Canada.

  • Mike

    The language of the Wilderness Act has _*_always_*_ included a prohibition on “mechanized” (mechanical) transport in addition to motorized vehicles and equipment:

    TITLE 16 USC, CHAPTER 23, § 1133(c) Prohibition provisions: commercial enterprise, permanent or temporary roads, mechanical transports, and structures or installations; exceptions: area administration and personal health and safety emergencies
    Except as specifically provided for in this chapter, and subject to existing private rights, there shall be no commercial enterprise and no permanent road within any wilderness area designated by this chapter and, except as necessary to meet minimum requirements for the administration of the area for the purpose of this chapter (including measures required in emergencies involving the health and safety of persons within the area), there shall be no temporary road, no use of motor vehicles, motorized equipment or motorboats, no landing of aircraft, no other form of _*_mechanical transport_*_, and no structure or installation within any such area.

    To say that the 1984 Forest Service regulations explicitly prohibiting mountain bikes in wilderness areas broadened the prohibition from motorized to mechanized transport, is complete mis-statement of fact, to say the least.

    • RomanD

      mechanical |məˈkanikəl|
      1 working or produced by machines or machinery: a mechanical device.
      • of or relating to machines or machinery: a mechanical genius | mechanical failure.
      2 (of a person or action) not having or showing thought or spontaneity; automatic: she stopped the mechanical brushing of her hair.
      3 relating to physical forces or motion; physical: the smoothness was the result of mechanical abrasion.
      • (of a theory) explaining phenomena in terms only of physical processes.
      • of or relating to mechanics as a science.
      1 (mechanicals) the working parts of a machine, especially a car.
      2 (usu. mechanicals) archaic (especially with allusion to Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream) a manual worker: rude mechanicals.
      3 Printing a completed assembly of artwork and copy, typically mounted on a sheet of stiff paper.

    • Ken

      The original regulatory language in the C.F.R. published in 1965 defines “mechanical transport” as: “any contrivance which travels over ground, snow, or water on wheels, tracks, skids, or by floatation and is propelled by a non-living power source contained or carried on or within the device”

      The key word in the original regulation and definition is AND….. “AND propelled by a NON-LIVING POWER SOURCE.”

      A bicycle is mechanized – not motorized. Powered by a living human.

      I am not of the opinion that bikes should be allowed in many existing wilderness areas. I do however think that blanket regulations do not work and managing public lands to this extreme is wrong. Non motorized bicycles should be allowed on existing trails in WSA’s until it is determined with scientific evidence that mountain biking is significantly more detrimental to the land than other user groups or when the land is actually designated as wilderness. Note…I said ON EXISTING TRAILS. I am not advocating free riding down open slopes or ridges or building miles of bike park and DH trails.. If there is an existing trail….Let us use it or show why we shouldn’t.

      • Todd McMahon

        The argument could be made that Bicycles use of gears, etc
        does provide a power source that the rider would not have
        without them. Therefor, bikes do have a non-living power source.

        • RomanD

          So wax on skis, too? Let’s go all the way and talk about soles on shoes, then.

          • Todd McMahon

            Ski’s are a simple mechanical device that have been use since prehistoric times. Mountain bikes are not simple mechanical devices and only have been used since the 1800s

        • Trevor

          All sorts of *wrong* arguments could be made. That one included.

          Bicycles create mechanical advantage, and more efficiently use human power for locomotion, but the human riding the bike is still the sole source of power. Simple, basic, physics.

          Ignorance of basic science and logic, and reliance on emotion and hysteria, is why so many of these types of discussions go off the rails.

  • David

    The focus should be on removing or altering the 1984 regulation not attacking the Wilderness Act. Something like Mountain Bikers for the original Wilderness Act…a position like this along with an acknowledgement that land will still be managed and bikes won’t be allowed on every wilderness area would be more likely to succeed.

  • Bob

    My thoughts: Completely unsatisfied w IMBAs approach to Wilderness (main reason I don’t support them anymore). I’m sure they have to be politically pragmatic & play w the current landscape but seriously minimal effort to rally the troops. We may not have the big national #s but I’m sure we have more passion, enthusiasm & untapped potential to make a dent in this politically motivated, exclusionary, back room BS.

    Why with our #’s hasn’t there been a national campaign to galvanize support on this topic ? I’m not talking about gaining access to current WAs but to stop the constant push for more & more WAs. See these WA all or nothing types never stop. They want more & more & more. They aren’t content w the millions if prime acres they already have. That’s the problem. These are not fair & equitable people they’re selfish, sometimes liars & have been falsely self appointed as to determine non-motorized use in the USA.

    I’d like to see a coordinated effort between IMBA, the bike industry & media to Educate the average Joe (who knows not abut this bs policy) & to actually fight this policy. I think IMBAs policy on this is a whimper & seeing their name on support for future WAs is disheartening.

    WA policy is outdated & people need to be made aware of that. We have so many riders. Their numbers are greater but demographics are on our side big time. They are mostly dinosaurs. Look at what’s been new & transformed just in the last decade. Skateboarding & snowboarding -once fringe now mainstream. Marijuana – revolution happening from the ground up. Goodness gracious we’re simply talking about riding a frickin bicycle (a healthy thing). & if it’s about $$ well we’ve revitilized many towns too.

    So yeah, a national, representative group that would light the fire under the ass on this issue would be great. It’d probably result in more bike sales because this type if stuff can breed enthusiasm which is contagious. And IMBA thanks a lot for all that you do ! This issue just wreaks of outdated BS & looking at all the high alpine from the front range of which almost none can be bicycled on, sucks. Thanks for reading.

  • Brian

    The Wilderness Act explicitly prohibits motor vehicles, motorized equipment, and other forms of “mechanical transport.” The prohibition on mountain bikes is not new and not something the Fed agencies dreamt up, it dates from the 1964 Act and was clearly intended by the authors. Not because of the potential impacts, but because mechanical transport changes one’s orientation to place…not always, perhaps, but often enough that there is value in saving some areas to be experienced with minimal technological aid. I’m a biker too, and there are some wilderness trails I’d love to ride, but my personal desires don’t comprare to the broader social value of saying, “not here,” in the relative handful of places we have chosen to protect as wilderness. Long live bike-free wilderness.

    • Matt

      “It was not the intent of Congress that Wilderness be administered in so pure a fashion as to needlessly restrict its customary public use and enjoyment. Quite the contrary, Congress fully intended that Wilderness should be managed to allow its use by a wide spectrum of Americans.” – Sen. Frank Church (D-ID 1957 to 1981). I suspect this is why the original regulatory language in the C.F.R. published in 1965 defines “mechanical transport” as: “any contrivance which travels over ground, snow, or water on wheels, tracks, skids, or by floatation and is propelled by a non-living power source contained or carried on or within the device” (36 C.F.R. § 293.6 (a)). In 1984, under pressure from hiking and equestrian groups, the Congress changed the regulatory language with a clause which states: “Possessing or using a hang glider or bicycle” is prohibited (36 C.F.R. § 261.18(b)). If the intent is to abide purely by “no other form of mechanical transport” we need to take a closer look at skiing due to bindings being mechanical, or rafting because oarlocks and oars are simple machines that provide a large amount of mechanical advantage to a rower on a large watercraft. But it isn’t really about mechanical transport anymore.

      • Jeremy

        Congress did not change the CFR that was the Forest Service.

    • John Fisch

      1. All the testimony leading up to the act makes it clear that the use of the word “mechanized” was directed specifically at motorized vehicles. The goal was two fold: to prevent the development of infrastructure required to support motor vehicles and, to get Americans out of their cars and enjoying their wild places under their own power. Bikes are fully compatible with this intent.
      2. Look at the working you quoted–every example given has a motor–further proof of the actual class they were looking to ban.
      3. Look at the original USFS definition of “mechanized” as they first implemented the intent of the act: “powered by a non-living source.”

      A full study of the creation of the Act, the reasoning behind it, and the original implementation by those closest to it clearly shows that the 1984 regulation was not jsut a broadening of, but an actual conflict with original intent.

      • Todd

        Again, John, Testimony is not the law. The law is the law. If the law says that motorized vehicles and other mechanical transport is not allowed in the wilderness, then that totally includes bikes. You also could say that mountain bikes do have a non living power source being gears and pedals. If you took the gears, pedals and chain off of a bike and rode it for a hour, perhaps your would go 5 miles in an hour. Put the pedals, gears and chain back on the bike and you’d probably go at least 10 miles in an hour. What’s the source of the extra power and distance. Well, I’d have to say it was the gears, pedals and chain. So, in that interpretation, bikes do have a non living power source.

  • Colin

    The article misses the fact that bikes are not banned in WSAs, generally. Only the Montana WSAs created by the Montana Wilderness Study Act of 1977. The WSA bans at issue in this article stem *directly* from the text of that law: http://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/STATUTE-91/pdf/STATUTE-91-Pg1243.pdf The FS lost at the Ninth Circuit on this issue, and the new management plan is a result of that loss.

    That’s a separate issue of the ban in wilderness itself, as opposed to the proto-wilderness Montana WSAs. But that should be made clear to readers so they’re not confused.

    • Vernon Felton

      Colin, I alluded to that fact in the beginning of the piece–that access is being lost in a growing number of WSAs (Wilderness Study Areas), but, yes, you are right: each land manager has the flexibility to determine whether or not to prohibit mountain biking in WSAs and recommended wilderness areas. The issue, as the article points out, is that the Forest Service, in particular, is increasingly opting to manage WSAs as de facto Wilderness–at least as far as mountain biking access goes. The lawsuits are, to some extent, pushing them to do so. Thanks for adding the clarification.

    • Lance Pysher

      I don’t think you can separate the proposed closures in Montana from the regulatory changes to the definition of mechanized in 1984. The new management plan predate the Ninth Circuit lawsuit. The Bitterroot Travel Plan scoping began in 2007, and the Beaverhead Travel Plan was finalized in 2009 prior to the lawsuit. The closures in Montana extend beyond the WSA to include additional recommended wilderness areas that were not part of the 1977 Montana Wilderness Study Act.

      Contrary to your assertion the 2009 lawsuit did not require the FS to close the WSAs to mountain bikes. It required the FS to ascertain the aggregate impact of mountain bikes and motorized impacts in WSAs to make sure the impact did not impact their existing 1977 wilderness character. That is why some WSAs still allow motorized use as long the use predated the 1977 act.

      In the Bitterroot the ROD admits there is no evidence that mountain bikes are impacting the wilderness character and motorized use existed prior to the 1977 WSA act. In the words of the Forest Supervisor, “Additionally, allowing uses that do not conform to wilderness character creates a constituency that will have a strong propensity to oppose recommendation and any subsequent designation legislation. Management actions that create this operating environment will complicate the decision process for Forest Service managers and members of Congress. It is important that when the wilderness recommendations are made to Congress that they be unencumbered with issues that are exclusive to the wilderness allocation decision. Congress is not the appropriate forum in which to debate travel management decisions.”

      If bikes were allowed in wilderness the trail closure in Montana would not be occurring.

  • chris solomon

    This story doesn’t contain a single quote from anyone who’s in favor of the new restrictions, and why they feel that way. A bit more balance in the reporting, please.

    • steve casimiro

      Numerous stakeholders from that side of the issue were contacted but did not responded.

      • some guy

        No offense but you should have noted who you contacted and that they specifically didn’t respond. When people are tying to play the messaging game or hiding from honest debate, often their silence at a particular time is particularly telling of their real intentions.

    • Vernon Felton

      Chris, we weren’t able to get feedback from groups opposing mountain bikes prior to the story going live. I have, however, since been able to conduct an interview with a representative from the Sierra Club and will be posting a follow up piece that includes extensive comments from the organization. Thanks for the feedback.

  • Jay Long

    Very contentious issue; can appreciate both sides.

  • RomanD

    What makes bikes “mechanized” but skis and sleds not? What about a wheelbarrow? What about one of those long boards?

    Why don’t reins on a horse, the bit in the mouth, the stirrups make horse riding “mechanized”?

    How about oars on a big ugly oar rig with its 100 pound cooler of beer and steaks in the “wilderness”? Aren’t they “mechanized”?

    What court and when said, “yes, bicycles are mechanized in the same way as a what the framers of the Wilderness Act really had in mind — motors”.

    By the way Wilderness Areas in Alaska (outside of Denali NP and Glacier Bay) can have mountain bikes. If you look deep enough you’ll find stories about legal mountain bike trips across Alaska Federally Designated Wilderness (try National Geographic May 1997, for example).

    In fact, the very same folks who would keep pacrkrafts out of Yellowstone and mountain bikes out of wilderness FLY (talk about mechanical and wilderness-killing) into the very areas they so love — Alaskan wilderness. I would rather have packrafts and mountain bikes infall wilderness than airplane in any. But I digress.

    Somehow I think this mountain bikes are mechanical has never been court-tested: please tell me where it has been, and if you really want bikes in wilderness, that’s where it should be taken, no? To court?

    • Lance Pysher

      Wheelbarrows (aka hand carts) are defined as mechanized and also banned in designated wilderness. It highlights the absurdity of the current definition of mechanized, since oar boats and skis are considered too primitive to be consider mechanized, but not wheelbarrows.

      • Artie

        A lever is not a wheel, bikes have levers too though don’t they, called pedals. . That is two mechanical devices. Wheels and levers. Of course the gears on a bike are also pulleys, So that is three mechanical devices on a bike. Not really very simple transport is it?

        A bike has two wheels, so do carts and trolleys. If you allow bikes then you will have to allow two wheeled carts, which are also prohibited in wilderness and on most trail systems. You can fit and use narrow wheelbase two wheel carts on bike single track but how would bikers like it? Mights get in the way, slow you down? But for many people, using a cart to access the wilderness would open up many more areas for them to experience. There is a long cart tradition of cart use too, much longer than bikes. The mormons didn’t bike to utah, they used two wheeled carts! Their historic pionteering trails still exist. If you allow two wheeled bikes on trails, why can’t I use a cart, or a cart drawn by an oxen or a horse. I grew up driving a two wheeled sulky behind a pony, Is it now ok for me to take it out on the forest trails into the wilderness? I would never have considered it before but I don’t think being considerate of other non wheeled trail users is what this is about now is it?

        So, is it now ok to use carts on bike trails, most carts are just levers and wheels so you may want to consider how you’d like to share the trails with carts and horse or lama drawn carts. I could see hooking up a lama to one of those off pavement baby buggies and taking it all over the off road areas, you know the traditionally non wheeled areas, I could use my lama cart to access miles and miles of trail and haul my gear into areas I have never been able to access. I’m sure there are many lama outfitters who would be able to provide this new back country experience, non mechanized gear strollers to the back country, thats the ticket!!

        Maybe bikes should be limited to trails with other wheeled vehicles like carts, motorbikes, ATVs, unicycles? Of course then they would probably need their own lane there too.

        • Lance

          Wow, a llama pulling a baby buggy up some steep switchbacked rocky gnarly wilderness trail. If you can train the llama and pull it off, my hat is off to you. It sound adventurous and I would proud be to share trails with you. Good luck and send photos.

          “The llama is a quadruped which lives in big rivers like the Amazon. It has two ears, a heart, a forehead, and a beak for eating honey. But it is provided with fins for swimming.” Monty Python

    • Josh Spice

      Thank you, Roman. And to add to your comment, mountain bikes ARE legal in Denali, just not from road’s center to 150 ft in either direction. No rubber on the ground, just like Grand Canyon, to prevent causing social trails off the road.

    • Todd McMahon

      Roman, Cross Country Skis and Oarlocks have dated back
      to 5000 bc or earlier. They are considered simple mechanical devices.
      Whereas the bicycle dates back to the 1800’s and Mountain bikes to
      the 1970s. Bikes are not considered simple mechanical devises.

      And IMBA, as stated elsewhere in the comments, are afraid to take
      it to court because they most likely would lose.

  • Marc

    “You kids get off my lawn”!

  • Lance Pysher

    To anyone who thinks backcountry biking is too fast or just plain out of character for wilderness read Scott Morris’s blog on traversing the CDT by bike.

  • Chris

    So a bike riding at back country speeds will detract from a hiker’s (even though in this instance the local bikers say they don’t even see hikers back there) experience? But a horse smashing up the trail and dumping on it is fine?

    I’m tempted to take up trail running more, but it sounds like that’ll be banned too, as I’ll be going too fast and disturbing other people’s orientation.

    IMBA … Other countries have had mountain bikes reclassified as being not the same as motor bikes. Look at New Zealand. I was all set to join IMBA, but it doesn’t seem like that’ll do anything to solve the issue. Lawyer up and play the game the way the other groups do.

  • Mark E

    Chris, IMBA has lawyers on staff and has consulted with top-tier law firms that specialize in land use. Their recommendation has been, and continues to be, that a lawsuit designed to end the ban on bikes in federal wilderness would be unwise.

    Why? Because we could, and probably would, lose the suit—there is no law the federal agencies are breaking when they decide to restrict bike access on lands they manage. A defeat in federal court would establish legal precedent and pretty much seal the deal.

    That does not mean that IMBA has given up on this issue. The key, we believe, is to focus on a political and social remedy, not a legal one. In a little more than 25 years of existence IMBA’s influence on land protection has grown enormously. Until recently, mountain bikers’ voice were barely heard when new wilderness proposals were crafted. Today we have enough clout to protect trail access by getting wilderness boundaries adjusted, and by recommending non-wilderness forms of land protection (like national recreation areas) that allow for biking.

    If IMBA can continue expanding our influence we may very well reach a point where it becomes possible to introduce modifications—perhaps corridors for trails that allow bike use—to wilderness proposals. But that possibility would require that our suggestions gain enough political and social support that lawmakers would approve them.

    The bottom line is that only the U.S. Congress can create federal wilderness protection, and any attempt to modify the ban on bikes in wilderness areas will in all likelyhood require a political solution.

    • Pantz Lysher

      IMBA’s lawyers aren’t great lawyers, they’re just IMBA’s lawyers. Which means they’re good at placating, shmoozing, and lying.

      Mark, you don’t know what you’re talking about when you get into the meat of this subject, and I’m willing to bet $1,000.00 that IMBA’s lawyers would never take a stand which contradicts USFS with any level of strenuousness. We won’t see IMBA’s lawyers suing USFS on this Bitterroot Travel Plan, and we won’t see IMBA’s lawyers sue anyone else regarding resource management. The IMBA way is to throw money and PR at a problem, not to follow the same path that most powerful entities understand — litigation.

      You’ve demonstrated that you’re good at two-faced activity in a PR role, but you haven’t shown that you understand USFS Region I, nor the Bitterroot Valley, nor the interpretation of “mechanized travel,” nor the interpretation of “managed as wilderness.” So what are you actually offering here, other than excuses and apologies for doing nothing?

    • Todd McMahon

      IMBA, I really don’t think a political or social remedy is going to
      work if you are not on the right side of the legal argument.
      The Sierra Club is not going to sit there and let mountain bikes
      waltz into the wilderness. They are going to sue. And you know
      why they are going to sue, it’s because that’s what they do.
      Plus they have more political clout than almost any group
      outside of the NRA.

      Again, you have millions and millions of acres of public land
      that are not a Wilderness Area or proposes Wilderness Area.
      You’d be better off, and mountain biking as a whole would
      be better off if you concentrated on the millions of acres that
      you can build mountain biking trails on.

  • RomanD

    Remember that the CFR is not law, just bureaucrats’ interpretation of it. In 1984 the Sierra Club was big and powerful and the world of mountain biking small and weak.

    There are likely many more mountain bikers than Sierra Clubbers now, but we will have to wait for the old and gray selfish b*terds to pass, to loosen the lock on “their” horsy trails and fly-fishing creeks.

    This is not a matter of me, me, me from mtn bikers. Rather mine, mine, mine from the old school who would rather not share.

    What it’s going to take is a bunch of us ten years from now who can’t walk anymore but can pedal in our “wheel-chairs” to demand access to wilderness that is in the spirit of the Wilderness Act’s architects, as Matt above recounts,

    ” language in the C.F.R. published in 1965 defines “mechanical transport” as: “any contrivance which travels over ground, snow, or water on wheels, tracks, skids, or by floatation and is propelled by a non-living power source contained or carried on or within the device” (36 C.F.R. § 293.6 (a)). ”

    I think that original CFR language was the truest interpretation — motorcycles/ATVs/motorboats/airplanes and bicycles are qualitatively different but bicycles and skis/oarlocks/horse reins are quantitatively different — and the 1984 interpretation obviously the result of political pressure.

    We apparently can not yet apply the political pressure, but the fact that people are listening to us and there are so many more voices means our time is coming.

    Hopefully that time is soon.

  • Walter

    In negating negative social attitudes about mtbers, perhaps more needs to be done to highlight that mtb is not just an “adrenaline sport” and to focus on bikepacking and the multitudes of us that ride in the backcountry – I think that those of us that ride in such areas are not adrenaline junkies and ride to experience nature, typically at a much slower pace. For instance, in riding the Colorado Trail, bikepackers average about 4 mph. I should note that it is possible for mtbers and hiking groups to get along – many bikepackers support the Colorado Trail Foundation, which started as a hikers group but now the CTF advocates on behalf of mtb access to the CT.

    Also, what is IMBA’s position on advocating for a “wilderness +” that would allow bikes? Would such a designation require Congress (which means it is likely a non-starter)? Or can the FS create such a designation?

    • Mark E

      The Forest Service has made it very clear to us (I’m the IMBA communications director) that they are completely unwilling to change their management of wilderness in a way that would allow for biking. They will only get there if we can apply enough political pressure. The agency is not immune from politics—congress controls their funding and they are very aware of that.

      That’s not to say that we have an antagonistic relationship with the USFS. We actually work closely with them on many things in ways that are good for MTB. For instance, they have integrated IMBA’s trail building principles into their guidelines.

      But on this issue we are still worlds apart. The challenge is to close the gap without blowing up the good things we are doing together. It takes time.

      • Pantz Lysher

        “The Forest Service has made it very clear to us (I’m the IMBA communications director) that they are completely unwilling to change their management of wilderness in a way that would allow for biking. They will only get there if we can apply enough political pressure.”

        As the IMBA comm dir, you are biased in favor of (1) not making political waves and (2) dumbing-down all trails that aren’t already flow-style.

        How can political pressure affect bureaucrats who are not answering to voters? That’s the most absurd cover-up-hiding-behind-poor-rationalization I’ve seen from IMBA, and I’ve seen some big stinkers from that sad entity.

        USFS does not respond to public pressure. Public comments are accepted, but USFS is under no obligation to listen to the comments or take their content seriously. In nearly all cases, the public comment period is just a formality that pretends to make an already-made decision seem “accepted” by the public.

        The level of knowledge and experience offered here by Felton and many commenters in the thread is embarrassing. Nobody seems to understand how USFS works, nor how recreation management within USFS is handled. People assume that if in one region of the USFS there are bike-friendly acts and decisions, the USFS must be bike-friendly on the whole. Nothing could be further from the truth.

        This is not about bikes in wilderness. It’s not about bikes in managed-as-wilderness either. It is a long-term plan to make USFS lands resemble Lion Country Safari — safe pathways through a rugged landscape, not a real experience in the woods/mountains.

        BIKE magazine should be ashamed to run this kind of essay as an information piece. It’s a pathetic non-examination of an issue that a mountain bike publication should understand at the granular level. Instead Felton & company show naivete, ignorance and optimistic juvenilia as their touchstones. How pathetic.

        But I’ve learned to expect nothing from bike “journalists” and nothing from IMBA, so I’m actually not surprised. Just as I won’t be surprised when this travel plan succeeds, and won’t be surprised when, 10 years from now, the number of trails accessible by MTBs is reduced yet again so people can have the “trails” paved with asphalt. Perhaps at that time, roadies will rally for access!

  • Dexter

    ” AND is propelled by a non-living power source contained or carried on or within the device”

    Are we all missing something here…

    Last time I check, my heart, lungs, legs and brain were combining for the POWER SOURCE. I think I am LIVING, although sometimes I question that post-ride. Thought about throwing that old Varoom motor on my bike, but can’t seem to get it to fit in the front triangle. Damn shock is in the way. It won’t mount up to my Voile’s either.

  • Walter

    Mark, thanks for that information.

    Is this something that the FS can change, if they are willing, or will it require an act of Congress? In other words, is this something that political pressure from some key members of Congress is enough to get the FS to change their position? Or will it require a bill passed by Congress?

    The articles notes that Colorado rep Jared Polis appears to support IMBA’s position. I assume enough political pressure from Congressmen on committees directly affecting FS funds would sway FS to change their mind. Is that what IMBA is pursuing? Or is IMBA pursuing other political pressures?

    • Mark E

      The change would not require a congressional act, the agencies could make it happen by modifying their own regulations.

      But they have made it very clear that they will not do so. The application of political pressure to agency leaders is the most promising avenue.

      The successful negotiations with Rep. Polis in Colorado are a good indication that there are political leaders who are willing to listen to mountain bikers and work on our behalf.

      The other main area that IMBA focuses on in this regard is to continue meeting regularly with agency top brass and keep them appraised of our concerns. Obviously this has not changed their minds on bikes and wilderness, but it continues to yield good results in other areas, like an increasing number of federal properties that are managed with mountain biking in mind.

      Today we have purpose-built MTB trails, including black diamond-level stuff, in the USFS, BLM, and smaller federal agencies like the Army Corps of Engineers (e.g. Raystown Lake in PA). Even the NPS is starting to approve purpose-built MTB trails at an increased rate. So we are being careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater when we work them over on the wilderness issue.

  • T.S.

    As a bicycle mechanic, avid mountain biker, and someone who has spent a full 6 months working building trails in a Wilderness area and another year and a half working for the federal government doing trail related work, I have a few comments. The type of riding that will occur in big W Wilderness is not red bull rampage, making the comparison is like showing a parkour video as representative of all hikers and a wild west horse back shoot out as all equestrians, sure it exists, but it is using a logical fallacy to try and prove a point. Most riding in the wilderness will probably be bikepackers and other ponderously slow gear laden adventurers who would rather ride a bike than hike, and don’t want to cause massive amounts of damage to trails by riding a horse. If you are really worried about damage to the eco systems, then PLEASE ban horses in the Wilderness, they absolutely destroy trails. All that being said, if anyone trys to include E-bikes in this debate they are not bikes and I would rather have no mountain biking at all in the Wilderness than have E-bikes allowed anywhere other than already designated motorized trails. =)

  • Brook

    I am often amazed at how SOME hiking and equestrian advocates sound like a little kid whining about how they don’t want to share their toys. It’s purely selfish entitlement. 99% of riders are not adrenaline junkies looking to run other users off the trail, they are just like hikers but want to see 40 miles of trail in a day instead of 10.

    An important thing to consider is that funding for wilderness areas, parks, and trails, is becoming more and more hard to come by. Riders spend more and volunteer more per person than any other user group. So while some people might be advocating to restrict riders they may be endanger the very thing they are so passionate about. It’s better to share like grown-ups than not have it at all.

    • Artie

      Grown ups on roads and sidwalks have seen how sharing with bikes usually goes, they are willing to share on others “trails” but really are happiest with their own lane. If bikers want others to step aside for them on the trails, they may have to adjust their own expectations and demands for access to “other trails” especially in wilderness areas too. Because isn’t that really what sharing is all about?

  • Chris

    The Blue Ribbon Coalition has been working for years to keep public lands open for the public not from the public. http://www.sharetrails.com They work tirelessly for everyone who uses our public lands. I am a big fan of “back country designation” it offers much of what wilderness protection does but actually allows people to use normal means of transportation to get there favorite spots and allows mechanized maintance .

  • Todd McMahon

    Here ‘s something we should consider. Montana has 94 million acres of public land. Out of that around 6 million acres are roadless, meaning they are wilderness or could become wilderness. The actual wilderness acreage right now is 3.4 million acres in Montana.

    So, it you look at the math, there are over 87 million acres of land that are not wilderness or roadless in Montana. Have the mountain bikers totally mountain biking trails on those 87 million acres to the point where they have nowhere else to build mountain biking trails? No. They have plenty of great places to ride and to build even more trails.

    Bicycles are mechanical devises and fall into the category of “other mechanical transport.” I feel it’s just rotten that IMBA is even pursing this. Perhaps they are doing it just so they can make inroads elsewhere, as Mike Eller seems to suggest when he writes “but it continues to yield good results in other areas,…”

    To say the only Mountain Bikers that will ride in the Wilderness are cool bikepacker mountain bikers is also misleading. All types of mountain bikers will be riding in the wilderness if it’s allowed to happen. Do you think the Gonzo speeding mountain biker will stay out of the Wilderness if they are allowed into the wilderness? There’s no way that’s going to happen.

    Again, there are 85 million acres of public land that are not Wilderness or Roadless Areas. If they can’t find a good place to build a mountain biking trail system, well they are not looking very hard.

    • RomanD

      And there we have it.

      Still, the situation seems a lot better than it was in 1985 — more positive voices, more people getting into positions of power and influence , not to mention the 29inch wheel and the 5 inch tire — but it’s looking like we’re gonna need another 30 years to get to where people will say, “you know, there are many more pressing things in life and the world than keeping kids and their bikes out of nature. Maybe we should let the kids in and they will value what little wild is left and do their part to keep the motors out.”

      Paradigms shift easiest when the keepers of the old ones simply pass on. Mixed blessing this living ’till we’re 90 world.

      • Todd McMahon

        Roman, if you want to get kids out riding mountain bikes in nature this is not the way to do it. I live in Madison, Wisconsin, and having mountain biking in wilderness areas is not going to help any kids here get involved in mountain biking. The nearest wilderness area is 300 miles away. Instead, IMBA and other mountain biking groups should be building trail systems closer to urban areas. For instance, like I said I live in Madison. There is no mountain biking trail system on the east side of Madison. The closest ones are Cam Rock or Quarry Park, both of which are over 20 miles away. If a kid wanted to go mountain biking after school on the east side of Madison, there is no place for that kid to go. So, basically, kids from some of the biggest high schools in the state, Madison East, Madison LaFollette, Monona Grove High School and Sun Prairie High School have no place convenient to ride their mountain bikes. Therefore, in the whole area, kids are missing out on mountain biking. Having mountain biking trails near where kids live will do more good than having mountain biking in wilderness areas, or having mountain biking on the Pacific Crest Trail. That’s what IMBA should be focused on.

        • Lance


          I think one of the the differences we have our locations. For me wilderness isn’t just an abstract concept, living in rural Montana access to trails in WSAs and RWAs is a daily reality. We are hiking, skiing, boating weekly in Wilderness area, along with biking the adjacent lands almost daily. Your kids in Madison don’t have trails nearby and that is a shame. If the Forest Service extends the wilderness ban to areas with wilderness potential that means my kids don’t have trails to ride. Believe it or not there are kids who live in the mountains who want to ride mountain bikes on trails.

      • F.L

        “you know, there are many more pressing things in life and the world than keeping kids and their bikes out of nature. Maybe we should let the kids in and they will value what little wild is left and do their part to keep the motors out.”
        The kids have ALWAYS been welcome. So have mountain bikers. No one is stopping anyone from going into a wilderness area. They just need to leave their bikes at the boundary.

    • Brook

      The article says that the bikers have been maintaining the trails for decades. Why should they have to abandon their hard work just because they COULD go somewhere else? What if you built a house, someone took it from you, and told you that you can build one next to it?

      True, that maybe not every single rider that goes on the trails will be the coolest guy ever but that same logic applies to people in general… I’ve met a lot of a-hole hiker in my day.

      • Todd McMahon

        Brook, It’s been known since 1977 that these areas are
        targeted to become wilderness areas. Would you build
        your house at a place where you know you would have
        to move it in a few years?

        • Lance

          To clarify the WSA were created to study their wilderness potential in 1977. One half of the Blue Joint WSA was found to have high wilderness potential, the other half not so much. When they studied the Sapphire WSA, it was not recommended for wilderness. The Montana WSA act allow nonconforming uses including pre-existing motorized use which these areas had as long as they don’t impact the wilderness potential. In the travel plan the Forest Service did not document any adverse impact.

          If we weren’t maintain these trails no one would be able to use them. The Forest Service clears these trails once every seven years. We are currently clearing a trail for the FS that has not been cleared in 14 years. We are encountering 100-200 fallen trees every mile where a fire burned through in 2000. In addition the regenerating lodgepole are not 10 feet tall and according to FS regulations need to be removed to create a corridor 4 feet wide on each side of the trail. Anyone who has ever encountered a regenerating lodgepole know why they are called dog hair. There is at a least one tree every foot so we need to thin somewhere in the order of 20,000+ saplings every mile so that you can walk this trail and complain about how bikes are ruining your wilderness.

        • Brook

          I might have in 1977 since the unnecessary ban on bikes didn’t come till the mid-80s

  • Lance

    A few things here to take issue with. The first is the total area of Montana is 94 million acres public and private.Of that 31 million or roughly 35% is public. The National Forest are 17 million acres. When you subtract the wilderness areas from the national forests, the 6 million aces or roadless area is a significant proportion of the National Forest and closing roadless areas to contain bikes would be a significant constraint.

    More locally 50% of the Bitterroot National Forest is already designated Wilderness, and 1/3 of the the remaining forest is recommended wilderness and WSAs, and even more is roadless but does not have wilderness potential. If we followed your rules between 2/3 to 3/4 of the Bitterroot would be closed to bikes. Suddenly it doesn’t sound quite as reasonable.

    I’ll admit to having been on the fence for a long time of about the wilderness ban, and what pushed over was not some new found desire to carry my bike up marginally rideable trails on the off chance I could ride back down without killing myself, but rather enough conversations such as this one. What it comes down to is the principle of opposing the wilderness ban, because once you concede the point, suddenly you end up needing to justify why if bikes are not allowed wilderness, why should they should be allowed as a “non conforming use” in WSAs and RWAs, and now all roadless areas.

    So while I believe it is crucial to stand by our beliefs and not concede the ban, I’m also a pragmatist and appreciate the IMBA approach that sometimes you need to compromise, especially since we don’t currently have the political capital to reverse the ban at this time.

    The mechanical transport issue had already been discussed enough here in the comments. No point in rehashing it other than to say the only reason skis and boats were excluded from the mechanized category in 1984 was that the members of the Sierra Club and Wilderness Society liked to ski and boat, and not mountain bike and hang glide.

    Finally, the comment about cool bike packers confirms the point that in the end the ban isn’t really about being mechanized, but rather about enforcing the proper attitude.

    The irony of all this being that once I get all worked up about this, I need to take a deep breath and remember that in the end this argument is between two groups of privileged predominantly white males (as far as I can tell from the names) probably between the ages of 35 and 55 who in general probably agree about most things, who like to hang out in brewpubs drinking IPAs and follow some variation of a of vegan/paleo/locovore diet, and we are arguing about access to a sliver of land that 95% of the population will never visit.

  • Walter

    Perhaps another (additional) avenue is press more on the local level by having mtb groups work together with hiking clubs/groups for social events and trail building events. The Sierrra Club and other hiking groups are bitterly opposed to mtbers but if there were more joint events with hiking groups, then their position may change over time.

    In other words, let’s tackle this from both the top (by working with FS and at FS through political pressure from Congress) and from the bottom, by working with the groups that are opposed to mtb access. For instance, having trail repair days with mtb groups and hiking groups so that, slowly (with a beer afterward!), hiking groups will see we have more in common and actually get to know each other. It won’t happen overnight but if there was this type of movement at the local level across the U.S., I think eventually I would lead to a change in attitude.

  • Lance

    Can you find me some hikers who do trail work? Would love to have the help.

  • Tom Parker

    It is easy for these discussions to broaden and become more generalized and philosophical. However, if you look at the Montana Wilderness Study Areas (WSA’s) in the original article (Blue Joint/Sapphire), these areas receive very little use by any user group. Recently, the mountain bikers have recognized that these resources have been on a decay trajectory from lack of use and recent forest fires. Keeping the trails open requires significant focused effort because post-fire lodgepole pine forests eventually close trails with miles of jackstraw blowdown, and even non-burned areas suffer from lack of regular Forest Service trail crews in the last 20 to 30 years. These two WSA’s are ideal for mountain bike use because they include long networks of high quality single track that lead to relatively uninteresting destinations, or in most cases to no destinations (or views) at all. The resource is mainly the trail network more than where the trails lead. Given lack of Forest Service budgets to maintain trails, the only way this resource can be sustained (and recovered in the case of some trails) is if a user group helps out. In this case, that user group is mountain bikers because they are the only ones who really want to use and focus on these areas, particularly Blue Joint. Like most Montana trails, there is a pulse of horse and ATV use during hunting season, but that is a concentrated period when traditional wilderness users (and at least this mountain biker/ hiker) stay out of the mid-elevation country which characterizes these two WSA’s in question. In my opinion, the WSA designation was inappropriate for these two areas and mountain bikers should be welcomed to continue using these areas as they are the main hope to maintain and restore the unique trail resource we have here. I am one of the few regular users of these areas and I am a mountain biker and hiker, with 14 years spent working on Wilderness trail crews. I wholeheartedly support the Wilderness Act and Wilderness designation of some areas, but not all areas proposed to be studied as potential Wilderness should become Wilderness, or should be managed as such. If 38 years of study has not resulted in Blue Joint or Sapphire being added to a Wilderness Area (as Taylor-Hilgard also part of the 1977 Montana Wilderness Study Act was added to the Lee Metcalf Wilderness), then let’s acknowledge we studied this question and the answer is no.

  • Dan S.

    I’m not familiar with these particular trails and don’t have a dog in this particular fight. But this article contains at least two serious factual errors that call the writer’s objectivity into question:

    1. It is simply not true that mountain bikers “don’t belong” in wilderness. Mountain bikers are welcome in wilderness and no federal agency or environmental organization will ever stop them from entering wilderness. What they cannot do is bring their bicycles with them. The prohibition is not on the person but on the means of travel. More generally, it’s time to stop categorizing human beings by the way they choose to recreate on a particular day. Many of us enjoy walking, riding, and driving, without ever changing into a different person.

    2. Mountain bikes *were* banned by the original 1964 Wilderness Act, because the Act bans “mechanical transport”. Anyone who argues that “mechanical” in this context means “motorized” has no leg to stand on, because the “mechanical transport” ban is in addition to a separate, explicit ban on motor vehicles. Thus it’s clear that Congress intended to ban NONmotorized mechanical transportation. And you can’t argue that the law must be ambiguous about mountain bikes because mountain bikes didn’t exist in 1964; bicycles most certainly did exist, and were often used off pavement long before the development of specialized bicycles for that purpose.

  • oldtimer

    In all the pro biking comments above pretty sad to see so little that indicates any love of or appreciation for wilderness. Somehow just seems like a lot of fit white males who are pissed off that they can’t use their toys in the wilderness. Why? I don’t know; seems like they could all walk, and as anyone who has been there knows, the appreciation of wilderness and truly inspiring feeling of being in wild country is best achieved on foot and with as little encumbrance as possible. Of course I am sure that writer above who is presumably a competitive runner can run through it as fast as a bike. Why would he?
    I ride my mountain bike, regularly but would not think of taking it along on a trip where I wanted to cleanse my spirit in the wilderness.
    Growing up in the Rockies, in my early years the passage of the Wilderness Act was one of the most gratifying acts this government ever did. Now we have a well to do and educated group of athletic individuals to whom wilderness means so little that they won’t even enter it if they can’t be riding bikes.
    Fortunately for now we still have the wilderness, and hopefully I will pass away before these folks and their Blue Ribbon Coalition buddies have completely eviscerated it.

    • Carl


      your statement “Somehow just seems like a lot of fit white males who are pissed off that they can’t use their toys in the wilderness. Why? I don’t know; seems like they could all walk”


      I am fit, yes. but I am also handicapped. I crushed both my calcaneous bones in both heels many years back which leaves me unable to hike for any length of time. yes, I have tried many times with agonizing results. Mountain bikes for me are not a toy, but a tool to allow me to once again enjoy the back country. please rethink your blanket idea of what a mountain biker is. Some of us just want to share the same enjoyment of the outdoors and appreciation of wilderness but can’t without the assistance of zero impact riding.

  • Lance

    Apparently I have an inadequate appreciation of the wilderness and despite 14 years on a Wilderness crew, Tom Parker is also inadequately reverential. Nevertheless let me share some of my memorial day weekend with you since I spent two of the three days in the areas of recommended Wilderness slated for closure.

    On Saturday I invited some friends from Missoula down to ride a trail in the Sapphire WSA that I and some friends had cleared earlier this year when we hiked in. This is my third visit since then and despite this being Memorial Day weekend and every pull out on the drive to the trailhead having someone camping. We encounter no one hiking the trail, no one riding horses on the trail.This was the first time my friends had ever ridden here and when we were done three hours later their eyes glowed, they were laughing. They were alive. They had been rejuvenated and they did it on bikes.

    The next day I went for a hike to waterfall with my kids, again in an area recommended for wilderness. Why didn’t we ride bikes? The trail is too rocky and too steep, and even though bikes are currently allowed no one has any interest in riding there. On the way down my kids started to run. Why did they run? Because it was fun ands they were expressing their exuberance. The idea of telling them to slow down because they were going to fast to appreciate their surroundings just didn’t occur to me. Instead I learned from them and we all laughed and ran and raced them back to our truck.

    There are many ways to enjoy being outside and being in wilderness and while being different they all lead to rejuvenation and remembering what it is to be alive, and that is why bikes belong in the wilderness and backcountry.

  • oldtimer

    Yes, I am sure there are also plenty of folks who would ride motorcycles down those trails and would come back with glowing eyes as well. Snowmobilers likewise; they love riding in the wilderness and coming back rejuvenated. Plenty of them around my neck of the woods. Actually have seen some of those guys with glowing eyes; it can be spooky at night. Still not clear why your party couldn’t have walked instead. But that way of course couldn’t express exuberance, which can do a lot better on a bike. Or any mechanized vehicle. Sorry, I’m old and didn’t understand that.
    And for those who seem to have a jaundiced view of the FS, I did have a long acquaintance with Mardy Murie, as well as a few of the other early initiators of the Wilderness Act. The fact is that she was very clear in the intention of the bill to exclude mechanized transport, and she had no doubt where bicycles were to be placed. So don’t knock the FS; it was simply Mardy and Bob Marshall etc who were unable to comprehend that bicycles are not mechanized transport.

  • Lance

    Why didn’t we walk? I guess for the same reason the trail to the waterfall had 10 cars in the parking lot and where we rode our bike had just ours. It just isn’t that great a hike.

    When hiking I usually describe my destination when I say where I’m going. Maybe Baker Lake or Trapper Peak. The trail is a means to an end.

    When biking the trail itself is the destination. It may not have the best views, or an interesting endpoint, but is itself interesting. I look at things differently when hiking, skiing, cycling or oaring a raft. Each teaches me a different appreciation for a spot of land,adding depth to my understanding, and as such I have discovered some trails are better by bike, some by hiking, and some by a combination of both.

  • Todd McMahon

    Lance wrote “When biking the trail itself is the destination. It may not have the best views, or an interesting endpoint, but is itself interesting.”

    So basically, you don’t care if the mountain biking trail is in the wilderness or not.

    • Free Loader

      “So basically, you don’t care if the mountain biking trail is in the wilderness or not.”


    • Mike P

      That pretty much of confirms what many of us have suspected all along.

  • Larry Glickfeld

    This is one of the main reasons I quit the Sierra Club back in the ’80’s. I have written numerous letters questioning how wilderness can allow horses and the resulting mess they leave behind — not to mention the ease with which they provide wilderness access which creates a certain lack of respect for it. With horses, trail camps become not much different than car camps. Of course it’s all politics, kind of like water rights: horses have been there “forever”, so they get priority. No one has ever given a legitimate scientific or social reason why mountain bikes shouldn’t be allowed in (at least, portions of) the back country, while horses are pretty much given free run.
    I find it ironic that, as an environmentalist, I find myself generally opposing any proposals for new wilderness areas, and I certainly will never again support the Sierra Club until this policy is revised.

  • Jeff N

    Mountain biking is a sport closely equated to hiking and horseback riding, and bears no resemblance to motorized trail sports. Thus, as an advocate for wilderness preservation and an advocate for mt biking and hiking, I strongly believe that wilderness area advocates need to recognize the scientific facts and the common thread that bikers have with hikers and equestrians and create “Corridors” specified for riding through a given wilderness area. How these folks think horses have less of an impact than bikes is beyond me. As for the slow enjoyment of trails, that is relative to the rider and taking it slow by other users and along difficult sections is just a part of trail etiquette. http://www.RADtrek.com

  • Joey H

    This isn’t about hiking vs biking. This is crazy environmentalism. They do not care about access to public lands. They will ban hiking though cumbersome permits or require a guide when the time is right. Recreational users of these lands need to swallow their preconceived ideas about who trails are for, and realize that all access could end. These agencies are supposed to be the stewards of the land for us, its owners.

  • Tom

    The more we limit wilderness to only those that hike or horseback, the more we significantly limit the numbers of those who will fight for wilderness. The biggest threat to wilderness is not the use by those that recreate within it. We need as many people in the wilderness as possible so they can understand what is at stake when energy or resource policies are up for debate.

    Instead of limiting use, we need to be expanding. More trails with dedicated use and flow. More and more people is a reality, and if we don’t get them in the hills enjoying the amazing wilderness, they will demand its resources from the cities. Your call.

  • Rich

    Democrats messing stuff up way back in 1964.

  • Jesse

    Seems ban of mountain bikers is becoming contagious with public land managers . Out hear on Cape cod the National seashore has ticketed fat bikes on the beach . any bike off a marked trail approved for bikes like the rail trail is at risk of a ticket or worse banned from public land . What about banning wheeled beach carts too , anything with a wheel or anything mechignized. That would ban anybody that is hiking with prosthetics too . I think the land managers just say no because they do not wont to be bothered ! So we will soon have to pay at private bike parks to ride in the wilderness or on the dirt , same thing . Montana I guess I’ll scratch White Fish off my mountain bike vacation trip . J

  • Gordon

    If every other mountain bike video didn’t show mountain bikers riding off trail we’d get some credibility with the general public. Watching the pros shred off trail doesn’t help either. The argument for wanting to enjoy nature just doesn’t hold up when the biker is making another new line right through untouched wilderness.

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