Switchback- Should Mountain Bikes be Allowed in Wilderness Areas?


Last summer President Obama signed the Sawtooth National Recreation Area and Jerry Peak Wilderness Additions Act, creating 3 new wilderness areas in the Boulder- White Cloud Mountains of Central Idaho. The new wilderness, while mostly remote with challenging access, also closed several mountain bike trails that were held in high regard by local cyclists. The wilderness bill was opposed by a well-organized local cycling advocacy group, which lobbied for a national monument designation that would have continued to allow mountain bikes access to these trails. The designation renewed debate in the mountain biking and wilderness advocacy communities on whether bikes should be allowed in wilderness areas across the US.


Why Mountain Biking in Wilderness  is a terrible, no good, awful, silly idea

By Andrew Gulliford

Mountain bikes do not belong in wilderness. A friend of mine refers to adrenaline-laced mountain bikers bombing down a forest trail as “lycra clad thugs.” While that’s too harsh a judgment, mountain biking does not belong on federal wilderness lands set aside to maintain healthy ecosystems, peace, quiet, and natural settings.

The wilderness idea began at Trappers Lake near Meeker, Colorado where in the summer of 1918 Arthur Carhart surveyed the lakeshore for tourist cabins to be leased out on one-acre sites. He did the survey, but he also fly fished all summer and realized that some places in America should be left alone–free from development and man-made intrusions. Carhart presented his idea at a meeting in the Denver office of the U.S. Forest Service and Aldo Leopold understood it and expanded upon it in 1924 creating the Gila Wilderness in southwest New Mexico.

Leopold sought “a continuous stretch of country preserved in its natural state, open to lawful hunting and fishing, big enough to absorb a two weeks’ pack trip, and kept devoid of roads, artificial trails, cottages, or other works of man.” He was seeking outdoor recreation where hikers and horsemen could experience nature on its own terms.

A pivotal ecologist whose research and writing bridged 19th century conservation and 20th century environmentalism, Leopold ushered in a wilderness ethic and a broad understanding of habitats and natural processes. He would be chagrined at 21st century mountain bikers who treat nature as a “dirty gym.” Too often their goal is not awareness and transcendence but rather to speed down a trail and film personal antics with helmet-mounted cameras.

Leopold believed wilderness sharpened American character, taught personal responsibility, and required humility in remote settings. Leopold’s ideas became national law in 1964 with passage of the Wilderness Act.

Twice a year I teach a college class titled “Wilderness in America.” Many of my students mountain bike, which is fine. There are thousands of miles of roads and trails on U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management lands. Mountain bikers can happily jump rocks, caroom around trees and bushes, and spin through mud.

I’d rather walk. I teach my students that by definition wilderness is a place without mechanization. Firefighters can’t even use chain saws. They are required by law to use “the minimum tool” and that means hand-sharpened bucksaws to cut trees and clear trail.

Where do you draw the line? Once you allow mountain bikes, then do you allow motorcycles on a single track? Once you allow mountain bikes do you then allow elk hunters to use carts on wheels to haul out their game? Once you allow mountain bikes do you then permit single person flying machines once they are invented? Today not even helicopters can land in wilderness without special permission for rescues. If you’re a firefighter and you’re dropped into wilderness by repelling out of a helicopter you hike out. With all your heavy equipment.

We did not save millions of wilderness acres for extreme sports. Some of my students have gone on to become wilderness backcountry rangers. “The appealing part of the job is about educating the public on why these special public lands we call ‘wilderness areas’ are important to us as rangers and why they should be taken care of. Why does the backcountry matter so much?” asks Ranger Jay Rezabek. He explains, “The real meaning of being a Wilderness Ranger to me is how simple, stark, and unspoiled it is out in the Wilderness; a ranger works to keep it that way for current and future generations.”

Instead, people poach wilderness for their own gratification. They poach it driving in on snowmobiles in winter, or riding mountain bikes in summer. What difference does it make? A lot. Federal wilderness is a protected landscape intended for natural ecosystems, not the latest craze in human toys. Wilderness is intended to be a place where we are personally responsible and free of the ever-changing technology that dominates our modern lives. Boundaries have to be drawn somewhere, and that’s why Congress drew the line at wilderness so that we could preserve a vestige of the wild frontier that shaped American history and culture.

The challenge now is not how many miles can you hike in a day, it is how many people you can teach about why wilderness matters. Wolves belong in wilderness, not mountain bikes.


Andrew Gulliford is a professor of history and Environmental Studies at Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colorado. His book Outdoors in the Southwest: An Adventure Anthology won the New Mexico-Arizona Book Award for Nature/Environment and the Colorado Book Award for Best Anthology. He can be reached at gulliford_a@fortlewis.edu


Unite the Biking and Wilderness Communities

By Jim Hasenauer

There should be a deep affinity between the mountain bike community and Wilderness advocates. We both value protected public lands, healthy eco-systems and the kind of outdoor, human powered recreation that tests our stamina and offers rich, sensory contact with wildness.

Of course, the authors of the 1964 Wilderness Act didn’t consider riding the heavy one- speed bicycles of the day as the kind of “primitive and unconfined type of recreation” that the Act welcomes, but what about now? I first look at the history of the Wilderness bicycle ban and then at the potential future for a Wilderness System that allows responsible bicycle use.

I believe mountain bikes should be allowed on some (not all) trails in some (not all) Wilderness areas. I think the decision of which trails in which areas is best made by local agency staff with citizen participation

The Wilderness Act did not ban bicycles.

Many opponents of bikes in Wilderness point to the ban on “mechanical transport” and claim it’s obvious that bikes are banned because they are machines. This argument ignores the historical context. It was the height of the Cold War. There was great concern that the American public was growing soft. It was thought that travel through Wilderness should require effort, endurance and risk.   In mid-century America, “mechanical transport” referred to the automobile and other motorized contrivances like ski lifts.

In 1966, the Forest Service defined “mechanical transport” as “propelled by a non-living power source”. There is documentary evidence that the Forest was aware that it was not banning bikes and that “some groups” might object. In fact, in the same year, Michael McCloskey of the Sierra Club wrote a law review article arguing that the Forest had errored and that bicycles should have been banned from Wilderness, but they weren’t.

The 1984 regulations that banned bikes were an expression of user conflict.

Modern mountain biking came on the scene in the mid 1970’s and boomed in the 1980’s. Tension between trail user groups heightened as mountain bikes became more popular. Traditional environmental groups like the Sierra Club and the Wilderness Society attempted to use their influence to ban bikes from trails on all kinds of public lands. During that period, the Forest developed some contradictory policy regarding bikes in Wilderness. In 1977, the Forest specifically banned bikes and hang gliders from Wilderness on the assumption that preventing unprepared users getting into the Wilderness was easier than getting them out. Then, in 1981, the same year the first mass produced mountain bike came down the assembly line, they published a regulation that presumed bikes were allowed in Wilderness unless specifically banned by an order.

In fairness, in those early days, no one knew whether bikes were safe in the trail user mix nor if bike impacts were manageable. The precautionary principal was applied. In 1984, without significant bicyclist input, bikes were specifically banned from Wilderness. (It’s worth noting that if the 1964 Wilderness Act really did ban bikes, the 1977, 1981 and 1984 regulations would not have been necessary.)

Now, thirty-two years later, there’s an abundance of evidence that mountain bikes are reasonably safe and that bicycle impacts are not significantly different than hiking impacts. Bicyclist organizations have matured, are extraordinarily active in trail construction and maintenance and have shown themselves to be stalwart partners to land managers. Some people still dislike mountain bikes, but land managers have largely used fact based decision making in dealing with bike use. Early bike bans have been reversed nationwide and mountain biking has become an enormously popular form of outdoor recreation. Many rural communities have reaped significant economic gains from mountain bike recreation. Mountain biking is now widely perceived as a legitimate use of backcountry trails.  Why shouldn’t mountain bicyclists have access to the same kinds of solitude, natural wonder and sublimity as other Wilderness visitors?


A united outdoor recreation constituency will protect more Wilderness.

The mountain bike and Wilderness communities are natural allies who have been divided by historical resentments. As new Wilderness areas have been proposed, mountain bicyclists organize to stop them or to redraw boundaries in order to protect the resource, but preserve bike access to trails that we ride. Time and energy is spent fighting each other rather than working together on our common goals.   Most recently, the Boulder White Clouds Wilderness designation in Idaho, left behind fractured relationships, mistrust and acrimony. These battles are missed opportunities to strengthen a public land constituency and protect threatened resources.

Our public lands are at risk.  Land management agencies are underfunded and there are billion-dollar maintenance backlogs. Energy development and extractive industries threaten the natural system of wild places. Commercial interests have designs on public land and have sometimes lured agencies in with the promise of financial benefits. Traditional visitors of the public lands are predominantly white and aging. This is a time for all who love the public lands to expand our base and work together.

Few actions would be as powerful in uniting the mountain bike and Wilderness communities as an agreement that bikes might be allowed in Wilderness. It could energize public lands efforts of all kinds. There are still several proposed and recommended Wilderness areas being considered and they will need public support. Wilderness advocates could preempt opposition and secure this support not just from their philosophically aligned membership, but from a large, organized constituency of people who really use the public lands. Mountain biking has a growing number of young participants. They too would be socialized into this united constituency. As importantly, once we’re in, you can count on the mountain bike community to help restore and repair the Wilderness trails that are currently disappearing under the yoke of disuse and lack of maintenance.

It’s time for a dialogue in the outdoor recreation community. It’s time for a change that acknowledges mountain biking for what it is—a safe, sustainable, health promoting, muscle-powered kind of recreation–exactly what the Wilderness Act celebrates.

Jim Hasenauer is a Professor Emeritus of Communication Studies at California State University Northridge.  He was a co-founder of the International Mountain Bicycling Association and served on its Board from 1988-2004.  In 1998, Hasenauer was inducted into the Mountain Bike Hall of Fame. 

12 Responses to “Switchback- Should Mountain Bikes be Allowed in Wilderness Areas?”

  1. ” It was thought that travel through Wilderness should require effort, endurance and risk. In mid-century America, “mechanical transport” referred to the automobile and other motorized contrivances like ski lifts.”

    Exactly. Part of the problem is that people tend to confuse the Euro-American-invented, romanticized concept of “wilderness” with the Wilderness Act, which is a piece of legislation. The Act did not set up special churches on public lands. These are non-motorized recreation areas for the “use and enjoyment” of the American People.

    Use. Enjoyment. Loaded words.

    And while the anti-bicycle people tend to point out the “no mechanized transport” phrase in the Act, they tend to ignore the “no commercial enterprise” part. Equestrian outfitters seem to be exempt from this, and advertise a “wilderness experience” with almost no effort, a relatively safe and effortless trip on horseback to a wall tent complete with wine and cheese, comfortable beds, and three course meals. This seems to be quite the opposite of requiring “effort, endurance and risk.” And this double standard, cherry-picking what you like about a piece of legislation, while ignoring what you don’t, needs to be pointed out, front and center. Speak truth to power.

    In closing I would like to express my extreme disappointment in the fact that we had a mountain biker in the White House for EIGHT YEARS, and the International Mountain Bike Association did not take advantage of this. This organization needs to remember that it exists to advocate for cyclists, and not worry about what their chums in the Sierra Club think. Imagine if your lawyer left out key pieces of evidence in order not to offend the opposing side.

  2. It’s so disappointing to see an otherwise seemingly respectable academic repeat the familiar fear-mongering and falsehoods that have been the mainstay of anti-bicycle rhetoric for thirty years.

    Peppering his opinion with prejudicial characterizations like “Too often their goal is not awareness and transcendence but rather to speed down a trail and film personal antics with helmet-mounted cameras” or describing off-road cyclists as wanting nothing more than to “…jump rocks, [careen] around trees and bushes, and spin through mud.” is the hallmark of an argument that relies on fear and misinformation rather than rational discourse and factual reflection.

    And it doesn’t take long for Mr. Gulliford to trot out the baseless slippery slope argument and to invoke the specter of motorcycles, “flying machines” and snow mobiles. All of it is a silly diversion from what is otherwise a perfectly reasonable proposition: the idea that we might allow some bicycles on some trails in some Wilderness some of the time.

    Mr. Gulliford concludes with a seemingly powerful statement: “Wolves belong in wilderness, not mountain bikes.” The problem is that Mr. Gulliford has absolutely no basis whatsoever to support his implication that mountain bikes are any more incompatible with wolves than Mr. Gulliford is on foot or horseback.

  3. Jim Hasenauer is absolutely wrong when he says that the Wilderness Act didn’t originally ban mountain bikes. It banned “mechanical transport” which includes mountain bikes. Jim cites a Forest Service rule that is confusing, but the Forest Service is only one of four government agencies that manage Wilderness Areas. The Fish and Wildlife Service, National Parks Service and Bureau of Land Management all got it right the first time.

    It’s obvious that mountain bikes are “mechanical transport” and therefor should be banned. And a confusing Forest Service Rule doesn’t take priority over the Wilderness Act. Sorry.

  4. No vehicles. No horses. No commercial outfitters. No modern skis. No modern snowshoes. No inflatable rafts. No plastic kayaks. No camp stoves. No Vibram. No waterproof clothing. No bright clothing or tents. No lightweight gear. No industrial trekking poles. No water filters. No digital cameras. No GPS. No electronics. No modern fishing gear. No guns. No contact lenses.

  5. The anti-bicycle advocates like isawtman feel that if they repeat the term “mechanical transport” often enough it will convince people that it means something different than what it meant in 1964 when it was written. They are relying on ignorance and, to be honest, that strategy worked very well for decades (which is why you see it repeated above) until the Sustainable Trails Coalition came along recently and began to unveil the historical context.

    “Mechanical transport” was directed at a whole set of motorized and remotely-propelled technologies like motor vehicles, trains, cable cars, planes, motorboats and chairlifts. Technologies like skis, snowshoes, rowboats and bicycles, all of which require no additional or permanent alteration of the land and require the visitor to struggle under their own power are exactly the type of backcountry travel that the Wilderness founders would likely be proud to see under the umbrella of allowed uses.

  6. Randy (Sage) Welch, albeit trolling, is at least being somewhat consistent. Unfortunately, if we had pursued a policy like he describes back in 1964, today we’d be more likely to have 110 acres of Wilderness rather 110 million acres.

  7. Trail Lover, The following statement is incorrect: ““Mechanical transport” was directed at a whole set of motorized and remotely-propelled technologies like motor vehicles, trains, cable cars, planes, motorboats and chairlifts.” In the testimony in the hearings for the Wilderness Act, Congressman Comptom White said “I’m talking about the mechanical contraption behind the horse.” So, obviously, the mechanical contraption behind the horse was some sort of wagon, and is not motorized.

    So, what are you going to do now that your whole theory has been blown out of the water?

  8. Tman: Now don’t be a nucklehed and show these selfish, entitled, childish, lying vehicle fanatics the context of that quote from White. It will really unravel what we are trying to do here. You and I must have constant vigilance.

  9. I believe you’re referring to and apparently misconstruing the following exchange during congressional testimony in 1964. You may want to reread it. What the following exchange makes fairly clear is that people were, exactly as I said, using terms like “mechanical device” and “motorized vehicle” interchangeably.

    Mr. Florance: “Horses and buggies are not prohibited.”

    Mr. White: “I’m talking about the mechanical contraption with wheels that goes behind the horse. The buggy. Or the spring wagon. This is considered — and is this not a mechanical device?”

    Mr. Florance: “No, it is not a motorized vehicle.”

    Mr. White: “Well, thank you, Mr. Florance, for your explicit explanation. I have no further questions.”

  10. ^ Sock Puppet: I know its real hard for your tiny brain to understand a wheeled vehicle is mechanized transport.

  11. With over 110 MILLION acres, an area larger than California, there has to be SOME trails that can accommodate bikes, which have less environmental impact than a horse.

    If you can hunt, ride a horse, have a giant bonfire, poop in the woods, why can’t you ride a bike on SOME of the trails?

    Just as a blanket ban is wrong, a blanket permit is wrong as well.

    There are thousands of miles of trails in Wilderness. Many, if not most, could accommodate bikes without the fall of mankind and the destruction of the earth.

  12. Trailover
    And exactly who is Mr Florence? He is an employee of the Forest Service. The Forest Service was actually against the Wilderness Act. It’s obvious that Congressman White was concerned about more than just motorized vehicles. So that blows your theory that “mechanical transport” is supposed to mean “motorized transport” completely out of the water.

    And after the exchange between Mr Florance and Congressman White, the authors of the Wilderness Act actually changed the wording. They added the words “no other form of” in front of mechanical transport. It’s obvious that the phrase “no other form of mechanical transport” includes bicycles.

    And Jackson, Wilderness Areas are only 2.5% of the land area in the lower 48 States, and even your beloved Ted Stroll says it will never be over 3%. There are other land designations like “National Recreation Areas” that are specifically for recreation. Meanwhile, Wilderness Areas are to keep a “primeval character” to them. Mountain bikes are product of the industrial age, not ancient times, so mountain bikes are not primeval in character.

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