Mountain bikes are fun, they’re quiet, and they take their riders to amazing places. So why are they banned in wilderness? It’s a question of great concern to Ted Stroll, who, as head of the non-profit Sustainable Trails Coalition (STC), is working to change the Wilderness Act to allow mountain bikes in some of America’s most highly protected, scenic landscapes. But his effort is causing a rift within the mountain biking community and it’s primary advocacy group, the International Mountain Biking Association (IMBA), and threatens to unravel a relationship with conservation groups that is an effective alliance for the preservation of public lands.
The issue of mountain bikes in Wilderness has long divided conservation minded riders and staunch advocates of wilderness protection. Aligned in their desire to keep areas protected from resource development, they disagree on the meaning of wilderness and what activities are appropriate within its boundaries. Wilderness advocates put nature first and say that primitive recreation like backpacking or horse packing are sideline activities allowed under the law. They contend that mountain bikes, a form of mechanized transport, are incompatible with wilderness values, and that bikers startle wildlife and cause damage to soil and water resources through trail erosion. Mountain bikers counter that they have very little impact, certainly less than horses, and that they are being unfairly excluded over hiker’s prejudices and an antiquated law.
Stroll says that Congress’s original vision in 1964 did not mean to preclude what was then, a non-existent mountain bike, even though bicycles designed for rugged travel date back to the late 19th century. The Marin Museum of Bicycling chronicles mountain biking history starting with the 25th Infantry Bicycle Corp, who in 1896 rode from Missoula, Montana to Yellowstone National Park and back. In 1953, off road cycling enthusiast John Ridley Scott assembled what he called a “Woodsie Bike” using a Schwinn World Diamond Frame, balloon tires, flat handlebars and derailleur gears. And by the late 1960’s the Larkspur Canyon Gang rode vintage, 1930-40’s era single speeds with balloon tires around Mount Tamalpais and through Baltimore Canyon in Larkspur, California.
But Stroll says that language in the Wilderness Act prohibiting “mechanized transport,” refers to people being moved around by machines, not people moving themselves with mechanical assistance, and that mountain bikes are compatible with wilderness values such as rugged, self reliant travel. “We would like that same blissful and rejuvenating back-country, alpine experience that hikers enjoy, and Wilderness is where one finds that. Increasingly so, as more and more of the high country is designated as Wilderness or managed as such,” Stroll said.
STC is seeking what Stroll says are “modest” reforms to the Wilderness Act that would restore mountain bikes to a place where they were once allowed prior to a 1984 Forest Service decision that banned them from Wilderness once and for all. The coalition has drafted a bill called the Human Powered Wildlands Travel Management Act that would lift the blanket ban on mountain bikes and place authority on local federal land managers. Stroll says that officials would be encouraged to open trails to various forms of human powered travel but would not be required to do so, and that the proposed bill doesn’t insist that mountain bikes be allowed in all Wilderness Areas. “Bicycle access will likely be allowed only where it is in keeping with other people’s desire for remoteness.” Stroll said, noting that backcountry mountain bikers also share the same desire. “It is unlikely to be authorized in crowded areas, but it could be restored in Idaho’s Boulder-White Clouds Wilderness where decades of unobtrusive cycling was lost with a new wilderness designation in 2015.”
Stroll says that numerous studies debunk claims that bicycles have a large impact on the land, and that if wilderness recreation allows for pack outfitting and backpacking with modern equipment and freeze dried food it can’t reasonably exclude the environmentally benign mountain bike. “Bicycles are quiet, slow, and environmentally friendly,” he said. “Bicycle riding is lower impact than backpacking and arguably more primitive.” Stroll believes that trails, people’s experience, and the overall heath of wilderness will improve if mountain bikes are allowed. He says that many trails are in disrepair and blames the Wilderness Act’s insistence on using primitive tools for maintenance. “The absurdities continue to amount and become more glaring,” he said. “At some point they will collapse under their own weight and we will have a better wilderness system for wildlife, flora, water quality and visitors.”
Conservation organizations aren’t buying Stroll’s arguments and in March, 116 of them signed a letter to Congress opposing STC’s efforts. “For over a half century, the Wilderness Act has protected wilderness areas designated by Congress from mechanization and mechanical transport, even if no motors were involved with such activities,” the letter said. The letter asserts that keeping Wilderness free of bicycles is as Congress intended, and that that the benefits of wilderness would be lost by allowing mechanized transport in these areas.
Scott Groene, Executive Director of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA), one of the 116 groups that signed the letter, says that STC’s proposed legislation is just the latest in a string of attempts to weaken the Wilderness Act and that it is doomed to fail. “For over 50 years anti-wilderness forces have tried to punch holes in the act through both Republican and Democratic Congresses to no avail. This fringe group of bikers doesn’t add anything to the political clout of the dirt bikers and other off-roaders that want to ride everywhere,” he said. Groene, who has lived in Moab for more than 25 years, says that mountain biking was one of the reasons he moved there, and that he has seen a dramatic increase in the development of quality trails in the area beyond the “old crappy jeep trails.” “It’s the same in many other places,” Groene said. “More and more quality trails are being constructed and it isn’t necessary to do it in Wilderness, or in areas proposed for it. These guys are just playing into the hands of the anti-wilderness crowd.”
IMBA isn’t standing by STC’s arguments either, and in February the board released a statement reasserting their longstanding position on trail access, public land conservation and Congressionally designated Wilderness: “IMBA’s board has determined that IMBA’s mission, and the mountain bike enthusiast community is best served by reiterating our strong commitment to collaboration and further diversifying and strengthening broad partnerships that serve as the backbone of advocacy success for our chapter network.” The board also reiterated their “assertive and active stance” for trail access, and public land protection through bike friendly conservation designations.
IMBA’s position is being increasingly criticized by many of their constituents as well as sister organizations such as the New England Mountain Bike Association (NEMBA). In December, 2015 NEMBA’s Executive Director Phillip Keyes in an open letter to IMBA urged them to support STC in removing the ban on mountain bikes in Wilderness: “We do not believe that our, or IMBA’s, ability to advocate to protect critical mountain bike trails is contingent upon acquiescing with the status quo,” And, in a dose of strong armed persuasion, he went on to say that if IMBA didn’t support STC’s proposal, it would be a “lose-lose” scenario for them. IMBA would become irrelevant if STC was successful without them, or they would be to blame for not offering support if they failed.
Ashley Korneblat, past President of IMBA, current partner in the non-profit Public Land Solutions and CEO of Western Spirit Cycling, thinks that STC and NEMBA’s well-intended approach is misguided. She thinks their efforts to introduce legislation to amend the Wilderness Act doesn’t take into account political reality, and that their position of hikers vs. bikers is a polarizing argument that will alienate potential allies in the overall fight to protect public lands through mountain bike friendly designations. “The issue is part of a much larger discussion on how we use our public lands,” Korenblat said. “By focusing on hikers vs. bikers, STC is woefully uninformed about the environmental community and their millions of individual and corporate supporters who are seeking to defend places in their natural state.” Korenblat says that the fight, as framed by STC, is splitting a voice that should be united and will ultimately cost mountain bikers who represent a very small portion of the population. “Why should environmental groups who are friendly to bikes keep working with us if there is a splinter group trying to go around them by proposing a bill that will undermine the founding legislation of the modern environmental movement?” she asked. “If STC gets a sponsor for their bill, it will be a symbolic bill without support from across the aisle, and won’t have a chance of passing. The bill’s sponsor will be using the mountain bike community to poke the enviro’s in the eye and it won’t open an inch of trail.”
Korenblat thinks a better strategy is to cooperate on the ground with environmental groups by working to protect public lands, keep trails open, and help federal land management agencies like the Forest Service realize they are in the recreation business. “We can keep trails open both in and around proposed and recommended Wilderness Areas by working with the land managers to identify trails as recreation assets…but we have to work trail by trail, the silver bullet STC is promoting will not work,” Korenblat said.
Stroll acknowledges the uphill climb he faces getting legislation passed to amend the Wilderness Act, but is confident that within ten years there will be some reforms. “Many people have an outsider’s view of Wilderness and aren’t aware of problems that beset it,” Stroll said. “Those of us who visit it see abandoned trails, trails damaged by pack stock trains, trails in such poor condition that no one can access them in a practical matter. STC’s effort can’t fix these things alone, but by getting bicyclists back on some Wilderness trails, and letting federal officials maintain them the way Congress intended, we’ll be keeping them in better shape for all visitors.”
In the final analysis, it comes down to what was intended by Congress when they set aside lands as Wilderness “to be administered for the use and enjoyment of the American people in such manner as will leave them unimpaired for future use….where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man.” Is the ban on mountain bikes simply an overzealous interpretation of a ban on mechanized transport, or is it a clearly stated and obvious reference? Do backpacker values trump those of mountain bikers, or is it about the land itself, where humans are merely privileged visitors? Should mountain bikers work with conservation organizations to protect lands, allow trails, and preserve Wilderness, or should they fight for access into Wilderness Areas? In an era of shrinking wild spaces and hyper-tech culture, when outdoor experience is a recreation asset and more and more people clamber into the backcountry, the debate will only get louder. And in the midst of it all, only the land will remain silent.