As a part of the Idaho Conservation League’s work, we encourage bike-friendly communities where people use their cars and fossil fuels less and improve air quality. We also promote community pathways for bicyclists and preserve open space for wildlife and recreationists, including mountain bikers. Many ICL members are cyclists-and staff also ride.

So it’s ironic that some of my proudest work over the past 17 years has been working to designate places in Idaho where bicycles are not allowed-wilderness.

Some mountain bikers have found themselves at odds with proposals for new wilderness areas because this designation precludes mountain biking. While this conflict has been in play for years, passage of the Boulder-White Clouds wilderness bill in 2015 was the latest episode. For some background on this issue, check out Grayson Shaffer’s article "The Mountain Biker and Wilderness Relationship: It’s Complicated."

A Proposed Rewrite Undermining the Wilderness Act

A recreation advocacy group, Sustainable Trails Coalition, now seeks to rewrite the Wilderness Act to allow mountain bikes, strollers, game carts for hunters and other wheeled devices. The group has found some congressional champions. In 2016, the Human-Powered Travel in Wilderness Areas Act (S. 3205) was introduced by Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT). In early 2017, Rep. Tom McClintock (R-CA) introduced H.R. 1349. This bill has since passed out of the House Resources Committee.

The Sustainable Trails Coalition has stated they do not seek to open every trail to mountain biking, just some trails. Despite being portrayed as a way to build a broader base of support for wilderness, this proposal has been roundly criticized by conservationist groups, retired Forest Service staff, wilderness trails associations, and even some mountain bike advocates, among others:

In today’s world of outdoor recreation, this would open up the entire wilderness system to mountain bikes and would not only be counter to the intent and purpose of the original Act, it would change use patterns, degrade the wilderness experience, negatively affect other wilderness users, impact the primitive character, increase wilderness management and maintenance costs, add a high potential safety issue, and open the door to a continual erosion of the purpose and intent of the Wilderness Act. ~James Caswell, Chair, National Association of Forest Service Retirees.

The House bill is championed by McClintock who has a 0% 2016 score and a 4% lifetime score from the League of Conservation Voters. The six cosponsors have a lifetime average score of 2.3%. Most conservation advocates see this bill as an outright attack on wilderness and its congressional sponsors just using mountain bikes as the proverbial camel’s nose under the tent.

ICL Opposes a Weakened Wilderness Act

Wilderness is considered the gold standard of protections, and this designation remains one of the best ways to protect Idaho’s special places. Wilderness ensures that your favorite scenic vistas, hunting areas and fishing holes don’t end up being scarred by roads, blasted into bits and carried off by a mine haul truck or drowned under mine tailings

To leave wilderness areas undeveloped, Congress established which uses were allowed and which were disallowed. The following activities were in-hunting, fishing, hiking, horseback riding, backpacking, rafting, kayaking, and even using wheelchairs for disabled citizens. To safeguard wilderness values, roads and motorized transportation were not allowed, as were all types of mechanized transportation, including bicycles. The reference to mechanized transportation was quite clear and deliberate:

Its authors had the foresight to forbid "mechanized" and not just "motorized" travel in wilderness. Under this carefully worded law, wilderness areas must remain "untrammeled" and their "wilderness character" maintained. Designated wilderness is primeval nature, a landscape of human restraint, where natural conditions and self-sufficiency prevail. Sure, there are other land protection options such as national monuments or recreation areas, but nothing equals wilderness for protecting a vestige of America as it was for eons before the spread of civilization.  ~Howie Wolk, High Country News

Proponents for weakening the Wilderness Act are basing their arguments on several myths, including incorrect claims that the Wilderness Act first allowed bicycles only to ban them later. While some in the U.S. Forest Service originally misinterpreted the Wilderness Act, other federal agencies in charge of wilderness correctly safeguarded wilderness from bicycles from the start.  You may have seen some references to criticisms from Sen. Frank Church that  “it was not the intent of Congress that wilderness be administered in so pure a fashion as to needlessly restrict its customary public use and enjoyment. Quite the contrary, Congress fully intended that wilderness should be managed to allow its use by a wide spectrum of Americans.” This quote was not a nod to mountain bikes, as is sometimes implied, but a reference to the Forest Service’s initial practice of inappropriately dismissing potential wilderness areas because of signs of previous human activities, restricting facilities needed to protect the area, and removing historic structures to erase evidence of earlier use.

In their defense of wilderness, some wilderness advocates base their case against mountain bikes over resource concerns (I’ll note that horses can have bigger impacts on trails than bikes), that wilderness is only for quiet contemplation and not adrenaline (but what about backcountry skiers dropping into a couloir in the Sawtooth Wilderness or kayakers on the Middle Fork Salmon at high water?), that wilderness shouldn’t be some physical fitness endurance test (what about mountain climbers?), or that wilderness mandates a slow, sauntering pace (what about long-distance trail runners?).

To me, the issue comes back to mechanized transportation expressly mentioned in the Wilderness Act. Adrenaline and speed are tempered by the fact that wilderness areas are large enough to make you feel small and provide hours or days of contemplation before you return to the trailhead. Mountain bikes traversing the wilderness shrink the landscape and can diminish the experiences of other trail users. Leading a loaded string of pack horses to a hunting camp in Chamberlain Basin would be a different experience if folks had to worry about encountering mountain bikes at each blind corner in the trail.

Wilderness-Creating Some Breathing Room

Wilderness is one of the few venues we have left where we, as an expanding civilization, are encouraged to exercise some self-restraint. The Frank Church-River of No Return, Selway-Bitterroot, Gospel Hump, Craters of the Moon, Hells Canyon and other wilderness areas are a core part of who we are as Idahoans. Wilderness comprises just 4% of Idaho and 2% of the lower 48 states. As Idaho’s population grows, we will need some breathing room.

I recognize that many avid mountain bikers may disagree with this assessment-and that’s fine. As an imperfect analogy, consider the current debate in the biking community about how allowing eBikes on single-track, nonmotorized mountain bike trails will affect traditional recreational experiences.

The Sustainable Trails Coalition states that their bill is not a slippery slope because their proposal limits the additions to bicycles, game carts, strollers, survey wheels, and chainsaws. Should they be successful, I don’t expect the Sustainable Trails Coalition to advocate for eBikes, snowmobiles, small-scale logging, or strategic mineral exploration within wilderness. But I do expect advocates for those causes to be next in line. Surely the congressional backers of this bill are aware that passing this bill will make other changes easier. Of course, maybe that is the plan.

While wilderness offers the highest level of protection, other designations like national recreation areas and national monuments can prioritize both conservation protections and recreation activities, including mountain bikes. The irony is that, just as the Sustainable Trails Coalition tries to squeeze a conflicting use into America’s wilderness areas, McClintock and others are dismantling national monuments and have sponsored legislation to severely limit new designations. The International Mountain Bicycling Association opposes these efforts because its members recognize that mountain bike-friendly national monuments like California’s Berryessa Snow Mountain National Monument could be at risk.

The folks from the Sustainable Trails Coalition and other recreation groups have some good points. For too long, wilderness advocates have been narrowly focused on securing additional wilderness designations (which is still hugely important) while characterizing anyone who isn’t also a wilderness enthusiast as somehow being anti-conservation. Most mountain bikers and motorized recreationists also care about wildlife, clean water and a healthy environment for their families. They are just as committed to protecting access to trails and making sure that public lands stay in public hands.

A View Down the Trail

There are still some unprotected areas with wilderness values-primeval landscapes of at least 5,000 acres with outstanding opportunities for solitude and unconfined recreation-but they are shrinking.  Designating these places as wilderness consistent with the 1964 Wilderness Act is the best way to protect wilderness values and the fish and wildlife that live there. This means returning some motorized and mechanized trails to foot and horse trails. But we’ve learned some things from past efforts. Wilderness advocates should work proactively with mountain bikers and others to shape the wilderness boundaries to avoid conflicts where possible before designations occur. There may also be alternate designations  for collaborative groups to consider that meet both conservation and recreation goals. And while the focus is often on wilderness,  conservation can’t be confined to a wilderness area or to wilderness advocates.

No matter which side you take on this debate, you will likely still see someone from the other side the next time you go out on the trail. Be courteous. Say hello. Start a conversation. We all need to work together to maintain our trails, keep public lands in public hands, support the rural communities that are gateways to our public lands, and ensure that land management agencies have the resources they need to better manage our lands.

"If hikers and bikers are at each other’s throats, the only interest group that will benefit is the one that would prefer extraction and development," Grayson Schaffer, Outside Online.

What You Can Do

Tell your congressional delegation that wilderness values in Idaho’s wildernesses are too important to risk. The Wilderness Act should not be weakened to accommodate mountain bikes and other mechanized uses.