SALT LAKE CITY — More than 100 million acres of America’s most rugged landscapes designated as wilderness are off-limits to mountain bikers, but two Utah senators have introduced legislation that would allow bikers to join hikers and horseback riders in those scenic, undisturbed areas.
The proposal is controversial within the biking community and opposed by conservationists who say bikes would erode trails and upset the five-decade notion of wilderness as primitive spaces.
Creating Central Idaho’s Boulder-White Clouds wilderness last year — and closing off some of the most popular mountain bike routes in the new wilderness — was a bitter defeat for mountain bikers, who had teamed up with preservationists to support a much larger national monument that would allow mountain biking. That Idaho bill became one of the catalysts for a bill to examine whether to open up some existing wilderness to mountain bikes.
In 2014, the Idaho Conservation League, The Wilderness Society, the Wood River Bicycle Coalition and the International Mountain Bicycling Association reached an agreement on which trails would remain open to bikes in the national monument proposal they carried to the Obama administration. But in September of 2015, when Simpson resurrected his wilderness bill, he refused to support their agreement and closed two of the key routes mountain bikers coveted.
The 75,000-acre Boulder-White Clouds wilderness was signed into law by President Obama a year ago.
“Before that, I wasn’t interested in lobbying to ride in the Sawtooths or the River of No Return Wilderness,” said Chris Cook, a Boise mountain biker and a long-time advocate for expanding biking in the White Clouds and other roadless areas. “Mountain bikers got thrown under the bus by the environmentalists.”
The bill from U.S. Sens. Mike Lee and Orrin Hatch, both Utah Republicans, would give local officials with the Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Forest Service and other federal management agencies two years to decide in each wilderness area if bikes will be allowed. If no decision is made within two years, the bike ban would be lifted in that area.
The legislation, which has not yet had a hearing, comes from somewhat unlikely sponsors. Hatch and Lee both represent Utah, where outdoor recreation and mountain biking are big business, but are supporters of the GOP state’s push to take over public lands controlled by the federal government — something environmentalists and outdoor recreation groups oppose.
Lee, who said he’s a former mountain biker, said his bill takes on what he sees as another overreaching federal regulation that hamstrings locals and that there’s no evidence that mountain bike tires cause any more erosion than hikers do.
At issue is a part of the 1964 Wilderness Act restricting the use of “mechanical transport” — bikes, all-terrain vehicles and cars — in those more than 100 million wilderness acres in 44 states. It’s the only blanket ban on bicycling in the federal public lands system.
The ban on “mechanical transport” doesn’t include wheelchairs, which are allowed as part of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Lee notes that skis, rock climbing gear, kayaks, which are also allowed, “arguably involve some type of mechanical action” and help people move about.
While mountain biking wasn’t a popular sport when the law was passed, they will alter the character of those spaces and are tough on trails, said Alan Rowsome with The Wilderness Society, a Washington, D.C.-based conservation group.
Rowsome said that only about 10 to 12 percent of all U.S. public lands are protected under the Wilderness Act, one of “the bedrock environmental laws we have in this country” setting aside some areas as sacrosanct.
That includes tens of thousands of acres of forests, valleys, lakes and peaks around Lake Tahoe, that “if mountain bikers could start riding those trails, they would be in Seventh Heaven,” said Ted Stroll, president of the Sustainable Trails Coalition, a nonprofit that’s working to overturn the ban.
Stroll said the wilderness ban on bikes leaves riders in Colorado on dirt forest roads from Crested Butte to Aspen instead of more scenic single track trails. In North Dakota, he said, about 100 miles of one bike trail are bookended by wilderness zones, leaving bikers to make detours at both ends to avoid the protected areas.
The International Mountain Bicycling Association doesn’t have a position on the bill and is still reviewing it, according to president Mike Van Abel, but the association’s 40,000 mountain bikers are divided.
Some mountain bikers don’t want to upset longstanding political alliances with conservation groups and say bikers should instead focus on working with interest groups and lawmakers to negotiate and move the boundaries of wilderness areas to allow bikes on trails.
“Wilderness is the first time we as a species decided to put the needs of nature above the needs of man,” said Ashley Korenblat, the owner of a bicycling tour company based in Moab, Utah, a red rock mountain biking playground.
Korenblat, a former chair of the International Mountain Bicycling Association, said there are few trails in wilderness areas that would be fun to ride, but “the last thing the bike industry wants to do is have a big fight with the environmental community.”
The Idaho case
When the Boulder-White Clouds bill was drafted, Simpson said the issue of mountain bikes in wilderness was a larger issue that needed to be addressed separately. Preservationists went along with Simpson, a position they said honored their initial agreement with the bikers.
But it left many of the mountain bike community angry.
Brett Stevenson, a board member of the Wood River Bicycle Coalition, said the group has not taken a position on the Lee legislation. It has members on both sides.
“I think there’s a place for primitive use only,” Stevenson said. “There also are areas where mountain bikers should have access to big backcountry.”
The preservation community is getting grayer, Cook said, while the mountain bike community is getting younger and is dominated by millennials. Stevenson said these younger backcountry bikers are the next generation of protectors of wild places and have a lot in common with the preservation community.
But if they are rejected as they were with the Boulder-White Clouds bill, Cook said, they might even join those calling for turning public land to the state, which he said he does not support.