Opinion: Bill Is a Smokescreen for Bikes in Wilderness

The Human-Powered Travel in Wilderness Areas Act is a sham, says the author, designed to allow bikes where they shouldn’t be.


Are you ready for mechanized vehicles on every wilderness trail in the United States? That’s what you’ll get if a deceptive piece of federal legislation becomes law. Portrayed as a “modest” proposal for mountain bike access, the legislation is a Trojan horse that would throw open all designated wilderness areas to bikes and prevent federal land managers from later excluding them.

The “Human-Powered Travel in Wilderness Areas Act” was introduced into Congress by Utah Republican Sens. Orrin Hatch and Mike Lee, both known for their efforts to roll back environmental protection. You can read it online.

Hatch calls the legislation “a reasonable approach to allowing the use of mountain bikes on trails.” Lee says it would allow local land managers to decide whether to allow mountain biking in wilderness areas. Both statements are smokescreens designed to hide what’s really going on.

How would this legislation open all wilderness areas to bikes? It would give federal land managers a two-year deadline to determine whether bikes should be allowed on wilderness trails. If the deadline passes without formal decisions, bikes automatically would be allowed.

Problem is, the deadline is rigged for failure. The two-year window would be consumed with federal agencies developing rules to guide the process, not with land managers rendering decisions. Federal actions can’t be arbitrary. Decision criteria would need to be established and a lengthy rule-making process would ensue to figure out what makes one wilderness trail acceptable to bikes and another one off-limits.
Even assuming an unrealistic timeframe of one year for establishing criteria, the environmental review process required by federal law for the decisions would devour the second year, and most likely take longer.

With the deadline blown and all wilderness areas automatically opened to bikes, federal land managers then would be in the position of deciding whether to remove mountain bikes from wilderness areas, rather than determining if they should be allowed in the first place.

Here, the legislation contains another trap: It predetermines a decision in favor of mountain bike use by making mountain bikes r”ebuttably presumed to be in accordance with the preservation and maintenance of the wilderness character of a wilderness area.” In other words, the legislation would not only open wilderness areas to mountain bikes, it would lock in their use.

Further, in a reality-warping maneuver that reads like something from an Orwell novel, the bill would enable mountain bikes to sidestep the 52-year-old prohibition on mechanized transportation in wilderness areas by declaring bikes a non-mechanized form of travel. The bill states: “The term ‘mechanical transport’ does not include any form of human-powered travel, regardless of whether the travel is mechanically assisted, in which the sole propulsive power source is one or more persons.”

It escapes comprehension that a machine with gears, derailleurs, wheels, bearings, disc brakes, cables, gear shifts, a whirling chain and pedals does not add up to “mechanical transport.”

Also worth noting: The legislation’s contortion of “mechanical transport” would leave wilderness areas open to whatever pedal-powered contraptions emerge in the future. Seem far-fetched? Fifty years ago, who would have imagined bikes could penetrate the farthest reaches of nation’s wildest lands?

And what if there are “undue conflicts” (in the words of the bill) on trails between people biking and people walking? The legislation would allow federal land managers to separate the two uses by day, time of day or season. For example, bikes in your favorite wilderness area from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m.; hiking from 2 p.m. to 8 p.m. Or, bikes on Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays; hiking on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. Or: Summer’s for biking! Fall’s for hiking.

Is anyone looking forward to all this?

The Human-Powered Travel in Wilderness Areas Act is a sham. It would undermine one of the most farsighted conservation laws in the world, the 1964 Wilderness Act, which was enacted to protect the nation’s wild areas from the “growing mechanization” — to quote the law — of American culture. And if there’s a symptom of growing mechanization on public lands, it’s mountain bikes.

The bike industry may frame the activity as “human-powered” in an effort to obfuscate any difference between walking and riding. Advocates may employ the dark arts of modern politics.

But deception and sly tricks shouldn’t deprive the American people of a uniquely American heritage: The opportunity to wander through the nation’s most highly protected lands at a truly human-powered pace, step-by-step, free from the machines and speed of an ever-urbanizing, ever-industrializing society.

This story was published on High Country News. Photo by Bureau of Land Management

 

Showing 46 comments
  • Jay
    Reply

    I’m sorry that you are concerned about your wilderness experience, and I understand that change should proceed cautiously. More people accessing these lands will cause problems, but I believe that people should have access to their public lands, too. I love mountain biking because I can go further faster and see more. So yes, I am looking forward to all that. As always, proper education and fostering a culture of stewardship will be important.

    • Jeff
      Reply

      Well said! Thank you!

      ~Fellow Mountain Biker

  • Chuck Stock
    Reply

    Unless you are a bike rider. I’m not, I’m a hiker, but these pieces are always about protecting what is special to you, not the other guy. Bikes have just as much right to be on trails as hikers.

    • lturney
      Reply

      Look at the picture at the beginning of this article. Does that look like stewardship? It’s where erosion is going to take place.

      • dexter
        Reply

        Well, me and my moto have just as much right as cyclists. So there.

        When you phrase it in terms of rights, Nature ultimately loses.

      • Tim S
        Reply

        Actually yes, it does look like stewardship. Hikers and bikers can work together to develop, build, and maintain trails. Through communication and collaboration the two groups can create an outdoor experience that benefits both. Yes there is the question of speed and connections. Through proper signage, wayward hikers can avoid going uphill on downhill only trails. When I’m hiking, bikers have always been courteous to me, and I try to do the same when I’m biking.

  • Laidlaw
    Reply

    “Is anyone looking forward to all this?”

    As a hiker, mountain biker, and winter backcountry enthusiast, I am looking forward to all of it, yes. If a land manager has decided that mountain bikes are an acceptable use for the land that they are responsible for governing, that’s great. I will do what I can to make my way to that land and ride my bike there. If a land manager decides that it doesn’t make sense to allow mountain biking, that’s ok too. I’ll leave my bike home and walk through those places, just like I always have. I’ll also continue to share trails will other users that choose to travel differently that I do, smile at them as they go by, maybe even wave, and ask them about their day, because I want to hear their stories about how they’re enjoying the wilderness in their own way.

    While I’m here though, allow me to share some recent “research” I’ve done using a dictionary. It turns out, a “sham”, is “a thing that is not what it is purported to be.”

    You seem to be trying to make the case that the Human-Powered Travel in Wilderness Areas Act is a “sham” because… there’s a deadline? So basically, we should reword it so that… what? There is no deadline? We should just say “hey, whenever you get to this, next year, next decade, let us know?” Sounds to me like it’s written the exact way it’s purported to be. If the people that petitioned for this bill wanted their requests to be ignored, they could have just not written it and saved themselves a bunch of time, money, and effort. It seems to me like maybe your editor didn’t give you a deadline, so you skipped the option to write a well-researched piece and wrote this sham of an article instead. See? Deadlines can help!

    I’m pretty sure you’re not trying to say that the sham is because it takes over two years for a land manager to say “yes,” or “no.” Frankly, if two years is not enough time, that sounds like a problem with the bureaucracy surrounding their ability to make intelligent decisions, not something that mountain bikers are “smokescreening” you with.

    Or maybe it is a sham because you have a narrow view of what is considered “Human-Powered Travel?” Let me guess- is the thing that makes travel by horseback “ok,” and an acceptable mode of Human-Powered Travel, the fact that the humans feed the horses? I seem to be missing how mountain biking is less “human-powered” than exploiting an animal to do the work for you. Must be part of the “sham”…

    • MJ
      Reply

      Understaffed and underfunded land managing agencies don’t have a bureaucracy problem, they have a workload problem. The amount of work that allowing bikes into wilderness would entail would be substantial — NEPA analyses, cultural surveys, endangered plants and animal surveys, hydrology surveys, soil surveys, tribal consultation, etc. And this would be while doing the same thing for most other projects on public lands during the allotted time — oil and gas leases, recreation development, grazing permits, etc. Two years can go pretty fast…and Hatch and Lee know it, and that’s why the deadline is a sham — it looks reasonable to most people who don’t know the legal process land management agencies must undergo for projects.

      Of course, if you want a decision right away you can support Hatch and Lee…not only on this act, but also in their efforts to transfer public lands to the states…although that decision will be to sell it all off, wilderness included.

      I’m for open debate on this issue, but the Human-Powered Travel in Wilderness Areas Act is bad policy put together by people who don’t respect or care for wilderness. The Wilderness Act took eight years to pass (and many more to conceptualize) by those who sought restraint and humility in how we approach our remaining wild lands; it was about so much more than just forming a checklist about what would and wouldn’t be allowed in. Unfortunately, I don’t hear that much from any side (this opinion piece included) — no moral or ethical arguments about what changes might imply. Just what does more damage, horses or bikes, or how kayaks and bikes are the same thing. If more people want to change the law than leaving it as is, I’m fine with it…I just hope it doesn’t happen with this Act and that we have a full understanding of the implications of what we’re doing when we do it.

      • Mike
        Reply

        Great points MJ. This bill would deprive the public and land managers from engaging in a decision process despite suitability or local interests.

      • chris
        Reply

        my god, thank you. yes. why is no one talking about it this way? this bill has successfully pitted hikers against mtbers which is exactly the idea. how can no one see the forest for the trees? hatch is a scum-of-the-earth politician who has made it his personal crusade to transfer public lands to private developers. occam’s razor people. why the hell do you think orrin hatch gives a damn if you are out having fun on public land on your bike? he doesn’t. this is just another back door to de-regulating OUR land. i say this as an avid hiker, trail runner and mountain biker. how the hell will anyone bike/hike on these lands when they’re gone 50 years from now. this is the beginning of the end and all anyone wants to do is whine about how they want to ride their bike and me me me me me. jesus.

    • Jeff
      Reply

      I concur!

  • Sinjin Eberle
    Reply

    Agree.Sham. Red Herring. Trojan Horse.

    Whatever…

    This is the answer…

    https://www.adventure-journal.com/2016/08/blm-turns-to-mountain-bikers-to-build-trails-stem-illegal-routes/

  • Chris
    Reply

    This should have been a poll article

  • Alan
    Reply

    Change is scary.

  • Marc Sani
    Reply

    John Kelly has it right. Ask yourself this: Why would two Utah senators, both of whom have among the worst record for environmental issues that could be compiled, want to “buddy” up with mountain bikers? I would suggest that mountain bikers are not loggers, developers, miners, stockmen or oilmen. Mountain bikers are outdoor enthusiasts, therefore “green.” Lee and Hatch want to use this bill to drive a wedge into the Wilderness Act using a mostly uninformed mountain bike community as the hammer. Think about it.

  • Ted
    Reply

    I’m 100% for conservation and in fact would support legislation to keep all people from entering some areas. I see the merit in keeping mountain bikes off some trails but there is no way a mountain bike impacts wilderness the way pack animals and horses do. My point, access isn’t about impact, its about lobbying strength. If horses can go, so can bikes IMO.

  • Jody
    Reply

    Great!

  • Josh
    Reply

    Disappointed in AJ for publishing this.

    • Steve Casimiro
      Reply

      Disappointed in you for having a closed mind to us publishing things you might not agree with.

      • Ted
        Reply

        Yeah man, this is an op-ed filed under essays.

      • JB
        Reply

        AJ, who do you think you are for legitimizing anti MTB propaganda? This is not YOUR land it is collectively OUR land. One more outburst like this and you are off my reading list.

        As an avid MTBer and trail advocate 100% of the trails I ride are built and managed by VOLUNTEERS. The cost argument is hog wash as nearly every (there are some who are above moving dirt with a shovel) MTBer would gladly lend a hand to build and maintain trails. How many hikers and equestrians voluntarily drag shovels, chain saws, pick axes, and pry bars deep into the wilds to maintain and build trails?

        • chris
          Reply

          IT’S NOT ABOUT HIKERS VS. MTBERS.
          this bill has successfully pitted hikers against mtbers which is exactly the idea. how can no one see the forest for the trees? hatch is a scum-of-the-earth politician who has made it his personal crusade to transfer public lands to private developers. occam’s razor people. why the hell do you think orrin hatch gives a damn if you are out having fun on public land on your bike? he doesn’t. this is just another back door to de-regulating OUR land. i say this as an avid hiker, trail runner and mountain biker. how the hell will anyone bike/hike on these lands when they’re gone 50 years from now. this is the beginning of the end and all anyone wants to do is whine about how they want to ride their bike and me me me me me. jesus.

        • dexter
          Reply

          Your painting this as anti MTB propaganda is complete and utter hogwash. Go back and actually read the article, and get off your 1 x 9 hobbyhorse.

  • Nate
    Reply

    Not a sham. The greater Salt Lake City area has a lot of mountain bikers and a lot of wilderness that is locked away.
    Re: mechanized travel, A bike is functionally no different than a raft, kayak, pair of touring skis or a splitboard- all of which is allowed. In reality, the ONLY difference is that when the Wilderness Act was written, it was inconceivable to think that a bike could be ridden in wilderness.
    If there’s any hidden agenda in this bill, it is simply shining a light on the massive divide within a group of people that all consider themselves environmentalists. We can choose to be defensive and divisive or we can focus on listening, finding the common ground and dramatically increasing the environmental advocacy community.

  • Mike Curiak
    Reply

    Would love to see more balanced reporting to both sides of this issue. Knee jerks get us nowhere.

    • Steve Casimiro
      Reply

      This is an opinion piece, not reportage.

      • Steve
        Reply

        Steve, I get it that you have presented it as an opinion piece, but the author states opinions as facts. It reads like a Trump speech. Everyone has opinions, and are entitled to them, provided they don’t contradict facts. You can have the opinion that a dolphin is cooler than a shark, but you should not publish an opinion piece that the world is flat.

  • Bill Hatcher
    Reply

    I am currently mountain biking the length of the 790 mile long Arizona Trail. Several sections of the trail pass through wilderness areas. I respect that and bike around. I am ok with this because I respect what those wilderness areas have created. Sometimes it’s a pain, but I know I can always go back and see these places on foot.

    Check out the Wilderness act as defined by Congress in 1964 it’s a quick read http://www.wilderness.net/nwps/legisact

    If Ed Abbey was still around I bet his suggestion would be that you not enter wilderness areas unless you leave ALL trappings of civilization behind, including your clothes, but that’s Ed.

    • Max Baker
      Reply

      Edward Abbey? Didn’t he write ““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”?

  • Bob Horowitz
    Reply

    Really unfortunate, biased article. I am a mountain biker and an environmentalist. If I can pedal my sorry 54-year-old butt to a wilderness area, why can’t I enjoy the trails? I pay the same taxes as everyone else. The ban on bikes in wilderness was arbitrary, it was not based on science. Any fool can see pack animals have a much bigger impact. Politics does make strange bedfellows, I agree, but strident, uninformed anti-bicycle rhetoric from hateful hikers and irrational environmental extremists has caused this situation.

    • Steve Casimiro
      Reply

      It’s not an “article,” Bob. It’s an opinion, as it states in the headline.

      • Drew
        Reply

        Steve, what is it about having mountain bikes in wilderness areas that you disagree with, and why? Just trying to keep an open mind and would like to hear an opinion that differs from my own.

        Anyone actually read the entirety of the proposed bill? Going to look it up now…

        • Steve Casimiro
          Reply

          Drew, I very much appreciate your open mind. However, my opinion on bikes in wilderness is irrelevant to this essay, and I have never expressed it here, either overtly or through story choice. We have covered this issue extensively, though, both through reporting and sharing opinions from outside writers, and will continue to do so.

  • Chopper
    Reply

    Do the authors of this bill (who are, I suspect, not being receiving daily hand jobs by that incredibly wealthy, self-interested and Machiavellian Mountain Bike Super PAC, IMBA), herewith intend to slowly peel federal land management away from the Washington level by creating precedent at a local level of management (albeit still federal) for wilderness and other federal lands?

    Ultimately, Hatch and Lee would like to see Utah manage all lands at a state level so as to fully capitalize on the riches of resources locked up in that state, and this bill seems like a nice little step towards life under the banner of the Koch-dom.

    Idaho just lost the best goddamned mountain bike trail in America to some hare-brained wilderness creation. And it’s a saddle sore for everyone. But I wouldn’t like to see any of Idaho’s federally owned lands managed by the mouth breathing halfwits that pass the bills in our state legislature on a daily basis and would gladly pass on this if it opened the door to a day where our states took over management of federal lands.

  • Mick
    Reply

    Jet boats and airplanes had access grandfathered in when a piece of Idaho Wilderness was formed.
    Before creating a wilderness area, all user groups needs to be considered. In doing so the forest service allowed them to continue accessing the main Salmon River. The right decision.
    When the new Boulder-White Cloud wilderness areas were formed, one of the largest user groups were left out, mountain bikers.
    The wrong decision…in my opinion.

  • Mike
    Reply

    As a wilderness proponent, a MTBer and active trail advocate in general, I think the sponsors of this bill have a more insidious motive than weakening the Wilderness Act by redefining human powered transportation in wilderness areas, and it is evident in these comments. Instead of the tiresome old rift between motorized and non-motorized trail users, Lee and Hatch found a way to pit green trail users against one another. It’s not a Trojan Horse tactic, it is Divide and Conquer tactic. Lee and Hatch are not friends of the environment, trail users or public lands.
    Think about these questions: How does this bill create new trails, protect our public lands (wilderness or otherwise) or improve/maintain the trails that already exist?

    PS MJ made some excellent arguments.

  • Ted Vandell
    Reply

    Let’s start at the beginning.
    We need a judicial declaration on what constitutes “Mechanized Vehicle.”
    Currently there are only various opinions on what exactly that is.
    Personally I’d like this legislation shelved and some other, more explicit and reasonable piece of legislation introduced in the near future to allow BLM managers more flexibility in addressing this and other use issues.
    Blanket bans, or one size fits all solutions aren’t working well where they are in use now.

  • Paul
    Reply

    This opinion piece is unfortunately consistent with the extreme position that Wilderness proponents often take. Mountain bikers are much more likely to be aligned with them on critical issues than against them. Horses do a lot more damage than bikes, tear up the trials and contribute to erosion, introduce foreign grasses in their feces, and stink up the place. IMHO. And don’t get me started on the push for “Wilderness” designation to areas where there are already mountain bike trails!

  • Curt
    Reply

    Thank you for the OPINION piece. I love the irony of the usage of a BLM (who in a later article are embracing mountain bikers)picture for the page.

    As a mountain biker I have watched in interest as the battle has brewed over wilderness lands. Like any polarizing topic, not all the details can be covered in one page or especially a comment section. My ask that all readers learn more about the history (especially how good intended designations of new wilderness areas closed mountain bike trails), the true wants and desires of the majority of the users (don’t think RB Rampage represents all mtbers)and the detail behind the legislation.

    I agree the Senators behind this make me question its authenticity. A bill rarely flows through as originally proposed so there is opportunity for change. If there are parts you are happy with or areas of real concern contact your representatives. That is how good change happens.

  • Alexander
    Reply

    Quite the opposite Mike, if mountain bikers weren’t entirely excluded from wilderness I suspect you might see considerably more support for wilderness from bikers, IMBA, the industry, etc. So if this is a divide tactic it could very well backfire. It creates a bigger tent and as long as people like Mr. Kelley don’t let their emotions drive their actions we could very well end up with a stronger wilderness coalition.

    • Mike
      Reply

      I did not say that MTBs should be excluded from wilderness. A bill (introduced by sincere sponsors) that allows for the public and land managers to engage in a decision process has a lot of potential. How does alienating wilderness proponents (some of who are raging anti-MTBers) going to build a stronger coalition?

  • John
    Reply

    The ban on mechanized equipment in so called wilderness designated areas has nothing to do with biology. It’s all about one group trying to impose some type of user purity based on their personnel/political beliefs. The ban is no different than keeping blacks in the back of the bus or off the lunch counters.

    • jim
      Reply

      um, can you spell false equivalence?

  • Lance
    Reply

    I would suggest that if you use the phrase, ” Advocates may employ the dark arts of modern politics,” it would be best to not use such inflammatory and misleading language as, “Are you ready for mechanized vehicles on every wilderness trail in the United States” and “bike industry.” It might be also best to clarify that bikes have been banned from wilderness not for 52 but 32 years.

    Irregardless, the op-ed makes one valid point. Two years may be too short to evaluate impacts, identify appropriate trails, and do a NEPA. As much as I would like wilderness access, or more accurately access to the WSAs and recommended wilderness that has been close to bikes here in Montana, I want it done in such a way that is sustainable and minimizes the the impact to the ecosystem and other users. Still this is something that can be remedied in the bill.

    As far as a wedge being created between conservation groups and mountain bikers that has been a chasm building over time each time a newly designated wilderness closes a cherished trail, or de-facto wilderness is created in WSAs and recommended wilderness. Ten years ago mountain bikers and wilderness advocates were to a large degree overlapping cohorts. Then mountain bikers lost access to hundreds of miles of trail not because of impact on the landscape or because of user conflict, but rather to ensure that designating these areas as wilderness some day in the distant future will be easier. This is not my opinion. It is a fact and it is in writing.

    From the Record of Decision for the Bitterroot Travel Plan that closed 178 miles of trail to bikes earlier this spring, “…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.

    In response to the DEIS, the Forest received a number of comments from members of the mountain biking community, both local and national, regarding prohibiting mechanical transport use, including bicycles, in the RWAs. They feel that mountain bikes do not physically impact these areas, nor do they have the same impacts as motorized vehicles. I recognize that some types of motorized/mechanical transport may have different physical impacts on the landscape. However, prohibiting bicycles and other types of mechanical transport acknowledges there are impacts on the social and biotic environment that do not show as physical “scars” on the land, but which are inconsistent with the wilderness character I am responsible for maintaining.”

    Think about that. We have been stewards of these wilderness style trails and there is no physical scar despite 20+ years of mountain bike use. These place were our escape from our hectic overly connected lives and the last thing we would want wold be to trash them. If we are having an impact, figure out ways to manage and mitigate it. If a trail is in an elk calving area, close it for the spring. If a trail crosses a wetland re-route it. This summer the Forest Service asked us to delay clearing one of our favorite trails because the first peregrine nest in years had been spotted. Despite this being one of our favorite trails, the logs are still there until the nest is abandoned or the falcon fledges. Bans are the sledge hammer of management. Maybe it is time to start using a scalpel.

  • jim
    Reply

    rule of thumb. if orin hatch is for it wilderness lovers should be against it. additionally this odd notion that bikes impact trails the same as hikers is laughable at best. i’ve hiked the same trail by my house for 15 years. two or three years ago bikers started using it the physical damage is obvious. agree horses impact trails negatively no argument from me there.

    • Lance
      Reply

      Jim,
      Hatch voted for the Sawtooth National Recreation Area and Jerry Peak Wilderness Additions Act, does that mean Wilderness groups should have opposed it. I’ll judge the bill on its merits, not who is sponsoring it. Do I trust Hatch and Lee? Of course not.

      Presumably if mountain bikers are now using a trail, there is overall increased use in the trail. Increased use results in increased impact whether the users are hikers, trail runners, or bikes. There are plenty of trails I can point to where there is minimal mountain bike use, yet hikers have cut all the switchbacks. This happened the other day while we were clearing trails, and a groups of hikers passed us going straight down the hill bypassing every switchback while we cleared the fallen logs off the designated trail. So the challenge is demonstrating that the mountain bikers are causing a disproportionate amount of impact relative to overall increased trail use.

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