Since 1984, America’s wilderness areas have been off limits to mountain bikers. For more than three decades, the smart money said the ban would never lift. There’s a slim chance, however, that might soon change. This past week, Utah senators Mike Lee and Orrin Hatch introduced The Human Powered Travel in Wilderness Areas Act, legislation that would reverse the blanket ban on mountain biking in wilderness areas and on some iconic backcountry trails, such as the Pacific Crest Trail, Pacific Northwest Trail, and Continental Divide Trail. The bill would also allow federal trail builders to bring tools such as wheelbarrows and chainsaws into the backcountry to maintain trails.

PLENTY TO DISAGREE ABOUT
Hatch and Lee’s bill may be in its infancy, but it has already aroused heated debate from both sides of the issue. This past March, 115 organizations joined with advocacy group, Wilderness Watch, in issuing a letter to Congress opposing the very draft legislation that Hatch and Lee have come to sponsor. The sub-headline to Wilderness Watch’s press release sums up their position well: “Some mountain bikers are attempting to amend and weaken the Wilderness Act.”

HOW THE BILL CAME ABOUT
While the International Mountain Bicycling Association (IMBA) does not agree with the wilderness ban on bikes, it also doesn’t oppose it. Instead, IMBA prefers to work with environmental groups on hammering out boundary readjustments or alternative preservation designations that would preserve mountain biking on key trails. Not all mountain bikers, however, see eye to eye with IMBA’s approach, including a small group of riders in Marin County, California who a little more than a year ago created an organization called the Sustainable Trails Coalition (STC). In less than a year’s time, STC raised $120,000 in small donations and hired a lobbying firm that began passing a proposed bill to various members of Congress.

STC’s goal was to go directly to Congress and overturn the Forest Service’s blanket ban on bikes in wilderness areas. Their argument? Bikes don’t have any more impact than hikers or equestrians, mountain biking is compatible with the wilderness ethic and Congress’s intent back in 1964 was never to ban human-powered machines, but rather motorized ones.

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In other words, STC’s position is essentially the polar opposite of many organizations such as Wilderness Watch. As you might guess, neither side seems interested in a compromise solution.

WHAT’S AT STAKE?
The answer to that question depends on whom you talk to. For mountain bikers who oppose the ban on bikes, this legislation is an opportunity to see a great grievance finally addressed. For those on the other side of the fence, the bill is simply the latest attack on the environment. There is a tide of support in Congress these days for privatizing public lands and easing environmental regulations, which is merely a gentle way of saying,”ramping up the raping of Mother Earth.”

In this political environment, many people are concerned that the bill could become a Trojan Horse for weakening Wilderness protections. They point to the fact that the bill’s sponsors, Orrin Hatch and Mike Lee, are anything but darlings of the conservation movement. The League of Conservation Voters gives both Hatch and Lee dismal lifetime scores of 10 percent.

“I think it’s unfortunate,” says STC President, Ted Stroll, “that our political dialogue in this country has gotten so polarized that we are divided into two camps and each side is incapable of conceiving that they could ever work with people they disagree with on anything important, like wilderness. Senator Lee doesn’t have any hidden agenda here. It’s also worth noting that there’s a good chance there will be a Democrat sponsor to the bill in the near future.”

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WHAT DOES THE BILL ACTUALLY SAY?
The Human Powered Travel Act does not, it’s worth noting, actually make mountain biking legal in all wilderness areas. Instead, it demands that the federal land managers who oversee these lands actually weigh whether or not mountain bikes are suitable on the property in question.

Land managers are under no obligation to open up wilderness areas to bikes if they feel mountain biking will degrade the environment or create trail conflict. They must, however, give mountain biking consideration. The bill also requires that they make this decision within two years of the bill becoming law. If they haven’t done so within that time frame, the area will be opened to non-motorized uses, such as mountain biking. The land manager can, however, rule against bikes at that point and close it to mountain biking again.

It’s also worth noting that while all the coverage has focused on wilderness areas, there are other trails at stake here too.

“It’s not just wilderness,” says Stroll. “It’s any trail under federal jurisdiction.”

This would include the Pacific Crest, Continental Divide, and Pacific Northwest trails. The exception? The Appalachian Trail.

“The bill doesn’t seek to open up the Appalachian Trial to anyone beyond hikers,” says Stroll. “The Appalachian Trail is designated as a footpath by Congress in the National Trails System Act. By contrast, when you’re talking about trails like the Continental Divide Trail and Pacific Crest Trail, it’s says right in the National Trails System Act that bicycling is considered an acceptable use of those trails. We’re just trying to get the Forest Service to honor that fact.”

THERE’S A FIGHT AHEAD
Will The Human Powered Travel in Wilderness Act actually reach the president’s desk? That’s anyone’s guess. While the Sierra Club and Wilderness Society have yet to outright oppose the legislation, such declarations may simply be in the works. In addition, there’s no shortage of traditional environmental organizations who will fight to keep the Wilderness Act from being touched in any way, shape or form. Not on the eve of a potential Trump election.

On the flip side, there are also a growing number of mountain bikers who contend that they are just as much environmentalists as hikers and who are galvanized by the first real prospect of regaining access to the Wilderness.

The only safe bet is that things will continue to heat up in Washington, D.C.

Photo by Trailsource.

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Vernon Felton is a contributing editor to Adventure Journal. He lives in Bellingham, Washington.