Mountain Law: Bill seeks to open wilderness to mountain biking (column)
The Wilderness Act of 1964 prohibits any form of “mechanical transport” in designated wilderness areas. It has long been debated whether mountain biking—a form of transport that did not exist at the time of the Act—is precluded by this language or should otherwise be permitted in wilderness. The United States Forest Service (USFS), which administers the act, has taken inconsistent positions on this issue.
Initially, the USFS wrote regulations in 1966 interpreting the act in which it defined “mechanical transport” to mean a cart, sled, or other wheeled vehicle that is “powered by a non-living power source.” This interpretation focused on the impact of the power, noise, and emissions of motor vehicles and did not exclude bicycles from wilderness.
The USFS later reversed course by issuing a declaration in 1977 banning bicycles, providing in relevant part: “[t]he following are prohibited in a National Forest Wilderness: … (b) [p]ossessing or using a hang glider or bicycle.” Then, the USFS adopted a regulation in 1981 under which bicycles could be used in wilderness with local permission.
The USFS flipped one last time in 1984, after various groups, including the Sierra Club and Wilderness Society, successfully convinced the agency to remove the reference to bicycles in the 1981 regulation. Since 1984, there has been no mountain biking in wilderness except as needed for administration.
That leads us to a bill, HR 1349, which may soon come up for a vote in the U.S. House. The bill was introduced by Rep. Tom McClintock (R-Calif.) and passed a key committee vote in December 2017. It would amend the act so it does not disallow the use of bicycles. That would permit local land managers to decide whether to allow such use in wilderness areas under their purview. If passed, the bill could potentially open mountain biking in places in Summit County where trails lead into wilderness, like North Ten Mile Creek, Rock Creek, Acorn Creek, Ptarmigan Mountain, and Eagles Nest.
Interestingly, the bill is controversial even among mountain biking groups. The bill is backed by an organization called Sustainable Trails Coalition, which was organized in 2015 specifically to advocate for changes to the act that would allow mountain biking in wilderness. However, a leading mountain bike advocacy group called the International Mountain Bicycling Association (IMBA)—which has a local chapter known as the Summit Fat Tire Society, of which I have been a member—has stated that it does not support the bill. (IMBA’s president is cycling legend Dave Wiens, who famously won the Leadville 100 MTB race six consecutive times and has also won other big races in Summit County.)
In written testimony to Congress, IMBA advocated collaborating with other use groups to reach consensus about public land use rather than amending the act. It points to examples such as the Continental Divide Wilderness and Recreation Act (introduced by Rep. Jared Polis and also pending in Congress), which has the support of diverse use groups and designates new wilderness while drawing the map to preserve certain trails for mountain biking.
I am not aware that Rep. Polis has taken a position on HR 1349. For his part, Rep. Scott Tipton, who represents Colorado’s 3rd District (covering much of the western slope) and sits on the committee that approved the bill, expressed concerns about a “one size fits all approach” to allowing various uses in Wilderness. He ultimately voted in favor of passing the bill through committee.
The bill is opposed by many environmental groups and use groups advocating hiking and horseback riding in wilderness. These groups emphasize the relatively small percentage of public land that is currently designated wilderness and seek to keep this land pristine as contemplated by the act. They draw attention to the high speed at which mountain bikes travel, which can disturb other users. Some of them derisively refer to the bill as “Wheels in the Wilderness.”
HR 1349 may come up for a full vote in the House soon. If it passes the House, it would then be sent to the Senate (from which it would go to the President for final signature). Personally, I’d like to see certain trails in Wilderness open to mountain biking, but I somewhat sympathize with IMBA’s concern that changing the act may not be the best approach.
Noah Klug is owner of The Klug Law Firm, LLC, in Summit County, Colorado. He may be reached at 970-468-4953 or Noah@TheKlugLawFirm.com.
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