Act could allow for mountain biking in federal wilderness areas |

Act could allow for mountain biking in federal wilderness areas

Mountain biking has grown tremendously in popularity during the past several decades. Likewise, the acreage of federally-designated wilderness has also increased significantly. Bikes are not allowed in designated wilderness areas, and some mountain biking enthusiasts (but what feels to be the minority) are beginning to feel shut out.

This emerging topic of conversation that has been getting increasing run in the mainstream news is the issue of whether to allow mountain biking in federally designated wilderness areas. Various mountain biking advocacy groups have led this charge, and have even raised money to fund a lobbyist in D.C. to work on this issue.


A Google search will quickly suck you into the vortex of this debate. Mountain bikers are feeling left out of decisions to designate increasing acreage as wilderness. In some cases, biking trails that have been used for years have been closed after an area was given wilderness status. You may be experiencing deja vu right now — that is precisely what the Bundy brothers were taking issue with as they occupied the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge last year — protesting as their decades-long grazing practices were progressively limited by the Bureau of Land Management in order to protect the natural environment. Many mountain bikers are genuinely conflicted — should we support wilderness preservationists or side with mining, timber, and business interests, who also want wilderness access?

Perhaps it should come as no surprise to learn that the leading politicians of Utah who have sponsored a bill to allow bikes in wilderness are the same politicians who also introduced legislation to sell off America’s public lands. The political leaders of Utah have been coming under much heat lately for their public lands stance, and have since lost the massive Outdoor Retailer Show to Denver.

Groups that have formed to challenge the motorized and mechanized aspects of wilderness face a mountainous hurdle, for several reasons. Most salient, the Wilderness Act of 1964 states categorically that there shall be no “form of mechanical transport” in wilderness. Arguments that bikes are, like hikers, muscle-powered conveyances, and that while bikes are mechanical, so are oar locks (which are allowed in wilderness) are a tough sell for most people. In addition, the traditional spiritual values of the wilderness experience — solitude, natural challenges, humility — are not descriptors one typically employs while enumerating the joys of mountain biking, such as exhilaration, adrenalin-rush and other adjectives that explain why mountain bikers wear all that protective gear.

Still, mountain bikers love wild places, and they are a rapidly growing, vocal group. A win-win way forward is exemplified in The Continental Divide Wilderness and Recreation Act, sponsored by Eagle County’s congressman in the U.S. House of Representatives, Jared Polis. Now in congressional committee, the Act was drafted by hundreds of collaborating stakeholders, including our local International Mountain Biking Association chapter, Vail Valley Mountain Bike Association and the Summit Fat Tire Society.


The wilderness part of the act would designate 40,000 additional acres of land as traditional wilderness (no bikes), and the recreation part of the act would designate 15,000 acres of White River National Forest as “Special Management” zones, where mountain biking would be allowed. This demonstrated a successful partnership between often misunderstood forces, transitioning into important co-stakeholders for the success of the introduction of this bill at a federal level. This type of collaboration should serve as the gold standard for new potential wilderness addition. There are many other threats to our public lands and open spaces; creating an unnecessary wall of resentment between two very ideologically-aligned groups who share conservationist values would be deeply counter productive.

Friends of Eagles Nest Wilderness looks forward to more collaboration with our local mountain biking enthusiasts and formal groups in order to conserve our public lands in an era in which they seem to be constantly under attack.

Tim Drescher is a member of the Friends of Eagles Nest Wilderness, an all-volunteer organization committed to the health and preservation of three Wilderness areas in Eagle and Summit counties: Eagles Nest, Holy Cross and Ptarmigan. Visit for more information.

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