A recently proposed amendment to the 1964 Wilderness Act would allow mountain bikes — as well as game carts, strollers and wheelbarrows — in designated wilderness. The proposed legislation has reignited the debate about the original intent of the Wilderness Act, what wilderness means and if bikes belong in it.
House Resolution 1349 would amend the Wilderness Act so it couldn’t exclude bicycles, strollers, wheelbarrows, survey wheels, game carts and wheelchairs in wilderness areas. (Wheelchairs are already allowed under the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act.) The bill was introduced by Rep. Tom McClintock (R-California) on March 2 and referred to the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Federal Lands, which McClintock chairs and on which Wyoming’s Rep. Liz Cheney sits. Cheney’s office did not return phone calls or respond to emails for this story.
The bill is similar to one introduced in 2015 by Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), which died without a hearing. Opening wilderness trails to mountain bikes hasn’t been a priority within the bike community in Wyoming, said Tim Young, executive director of Wyoming Pathways. The organization has been focused on more pressing issues like preventing closures of existing trails and the Forest Service’s backlog of trail maintenance projects.
Young said he needed to study the bill more, but supports the idea that some wilderness trails would be appropriate for mountain biking. Bikes don’t hurt resources more than hikers and horses on backcountry trails, he said.
“Wyoming pathways represents all types of people-powered recreation, so we also support people who are hiking, the mountain bikers, cross-country skiers, anyone using human-powered ways to explore landscapes,” he said.
Young doesn’t think the bill is an attempt to gut the Wilderness Act, but instead clarify its intent. The Wilderness Act didn’t mean bikes, which weren’t popular at the time, when the authors banned “mechanical” travel in protected areas, Young said. Interpreting the language to ban bikes, one could also apply it so skis, which have mechanized bindings, he said.
“It’s not the Wilderness Act that bans bikes, it’s the interpretation of the law by federal land management agencies,” he said.
Wilderness Act took nine years to mold
Sarah Walker, interim director with the Wyoming Wilderness Association, disagrees. The 1964 law underwent more than 60 drafts and took nine years to pass.
“There was an amazing amount of intent and forethought,” she said. “It was a way to defend our natural environment from an increasingly mechanized world. It’s almost sort of a miracle we still have some of these sanctuaries where you can slow down and move at 3 mph and move deliberately and tediously and more slowly than some people want to — and that’s part of the appeal.”
Walker said she believes allowing bikes in wilderness will cause trail damage, create ecological impacts, but most worrisome, make the original bill more susceptible to changes.
Tony Ferlisi, a Lander mountain bike enthusiast, agrees. Ferlisi used to guide for Trek Travel and now designs trips for the bike company.
“This is less about whether bikes are appropriate or inappropriate in wilderness and more about the Wilderness Act as a whole,” said Ferlisi who also serves as the Forest Service liaison for the Lander Cycling Club. “I see it as more of a Trojan horse.”
He understands the arguments about why bikes should be allowed in wilderness. He doesn’t see the point in arguing about impacts because the only way bikes can be allowed in wilderness is with an amendment to the Wilderness Act which would weaken it, he said.
In places like Colorado or California, trails are pressured by large populations of riders, he said. Wyoming riders are less vocal about wanting bikes in wilderness because of how many trails there are for so few people, he said. Ferlisi would rather see creation of special recreation management areas, that don’t require an act of Congress, could still retain wilderness qualities, but do offer mountain bike trails.
“I think that we have a number of other tools in our public land management tool box to have non-motorized recreation allowed in areas that aren’t capital W wilderness,” he said.
He’d like to see mountain bikers using their energy locally to build new trails or maintain existing ones, rather than fight to ride in wilderness, he said.
He knows some people would love to ride bikes in the Wind River or Gros Ventre mountains. That would be an amazing experience, he said. “But as a whole we can do without that.”
“Wilderness is about more than just us as people,” he said. Wilderness offers a unique opportunity to preserve the landscape’s natural character. The clean water the West is fortunate to have often comes from sources with headwaters in wilderness areas. Wildlife use the protected migration corridors.
Wilderness “is a really uniquely American idea and I think it’s one our greatest assets as a country,” Ferlisi said. “I think from a cultural, biological and human health standpoint, it’s super important we retain these places are they are.”
If you want to judge for yourself, you can read the Wilderness Act, the first sentence of which follows.
In order to assure that an increasing population, accompanied by expanding settlement and growing mechanization, does not occupy and modify all areas within the United States and its possessions, leaving no lands designated for preservation and protection in their natural condition, it is hereby declared to be the policy of the Congress to secure for the American people of present and future generations the benefits of an enduring resource of wilderness.
(This article has been corrected to state that Ferlisi guided for Trek Travel, not Trek — Ed)