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Why the Congress Shouldn’t Open Our Wilderness Areas for Mountain Bikes

This will be interesting. A handful of mountain biking enthusiasts have drafted the “Human-Powered Wildlands Travel Management Act of 2015.” Their draft does not deal with the hiking, backpacking, kayaking, and canoeing that millions enjoy in wilderness areas. Their goal here is to open some federal wilderness areas to mountain bike use.

Photo of Hiker Hiking to McGee LakesPhoto by Miguel Vieira A handful of biking enthusiasts have drafted a bill to open some federal wilderness areas to mountain bike use.

The half dozen bikers leading this have been trying to wedge their way into wilderness areas for years. I’ve met them and contended with them; they are impervious to facts. In a recent report in Outside magazine, they argue that “mountain biking was in its infancy, back in 1984, when the Forest Service revised its regulations, banning not only motorized transportation in Wilderness areas, but also ‘mechanical transport  …’”

The flaw in their argument is evident if you read subsection 4(c) of the 1964 Wilderness Act:

“except as necessary to meet minimum requirements for the administration of the area for the purpose of this Act (including measures required in emergencies involving the health and safety of persons within the area), there shall be no temporary road, no use of motor vehicles, motorized equipment or motorboats, no landing of aircraft, no other form of mechanical transport, and no structure or installation within any such area.” [emphasis added]

The biker argument that the prohibition on “mechanical transport” was introduced in 1984 is obviously silly when you find that exact phrase among things prohibited in the 1964 law. As the lawyer among them probably knows, but blithely ignores, the words of a law trump an agency’s interpretation in regulations. In this case, those who wrote the Forest Service regulation simply got it wrong. When they were drafting the original regulations in 1965, these western wilderness area administrators could not imagine a bicycle in the mountainous wilderness areas they knew. Mountain bikes were not invented until the early 1980s.

It is telling that the no-bikes-in-wilderness deniers only want to talk about the Forest Service, for the other three agencies administering millions of acres of wilderness — the National Park Service, the US Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Bureau of Land Management — did not make this error. They’ve always banned bicycles.

As a lobbyist working for protection of more lands administered by the USFS and the other federal conservation agencies, I am an expert on the law and history of wilderness preservation. When these few no-bikes-in-wilderness deniers claimed that those who originated the idea of preserving wilderness areas did not intend to exclude bicycles, I took it as a challenge.

Benton MacKaye was father of the Appalachian Trail, one of the founders of The Wilderness Society, and its president during the final years as the Wilderness Act moved through Congress. In 1897, he and several other Harvard students biked for 10 days from eastern Massachusetts into New Hampshire where they set off on a long backpack ramble in the White Mountains. The night before they began their hike, MacKaye wrote in his journal: “We have said ‘good-bye’ to the bicycles and civilization and will now pursue our way on foot through the White Mountains.” It would thus be, he wrote, his first encounter with “true wilderness.” Later he flatly insisted: “Primeval influence is the opposite of machine influence.”

Like MacKaye, his fellow Wilderness Society founders Bob Marshall and Aldo Leopold usually chose the broader and more inclusive words “mechanization” and “machine” to define the very antithesis of wilderness. For Marshall wilderness was “a region which … possesses no possibility of conveyance by any mechanical means.” Leopold, famed as for his introduction of the profound idea of the land ethic, wrote, “we who seek wilderness for sport are foiled when we are forced to compete with mechanized substitutes.”

In 1935, MacKaye, Leopold, Marshall and five others founded The Wilderness Society, issuing a platform that named mechanization in all its forms as the fundamental threat to wilderness. They characterized wilderness as “a serious human need rather than a luxury and plaything” but sounded the alarm that “this need is being sacrificed to the mechanical invasion in its various killing forms. The dominant attributes of such areas are: first, that visitors to them must depend largely on their own efforts and their own competence for survival; and second, that they be free from all mechanical disturbances.”

The biking-in-the-wilderness proponents appear to have finally tumbled to the fact that questioning interpretation of the Wilderness Act is not getting them anywhere. Their whole argument is a so thin that no self-respecting first-year law student would touch it. The lawyer among them knows that any federal judge would throw their case out.

So, as Vernon Fenton reports in Outside, this lawyer, Ted Stroll and some Bay Area bikers formed the “Sustainable Trails Coalition … that has since raised $70,000 and hired Wheelhouse Partners, a lobbying outfit in Washington, DC, to shepherd their proposed bill through Congress. The draft legislation is currently being revised by congressional staff.”

I am a great admirer of our Congress, whose members seem to me to be a good cross-section of our society. Many are serious legislators, but some are on the margins. So, it is easy to find someone to introduce any sort of bill. According to the government site, as of early December 2015, 7,588 bills and resolutions had been introduced in the US House of Representatives and/or the US Senate. Of those, only about five percent will become law.

So, on one level there is little reason to worry about this silly initiative. On the other hand, eternal vigilance is always wise. And, as the bill’s proponents describe it to Outside, the bill is cleverly drafted: “in its current form, the proposed Act requires that local managers from the Forest Service, BLM, National Park Service, and Fish and Wildlife Service consider human-powered transport in the Wilderness areas they manage. Those managers could still opt to exclude bikes from these wild places. They would, however, need to actually weigh the case for and against mountain biking, a genuine shift in public policy.”

Most lobbying of Congress is visible — if some version of this bill is ever introduced, national wilderness lobbyists will see it. If hearings are scheduled, they will alert wilderness activists and build strong grassroots opposition. However, I think it is more likely that the bill will be among the 95 percent that end up in the congressional recycling bin.

I knew and worked with the original sponsors of the Wilderness Act. Their objective, shared with conservation group leaders, was to bar both motor vehicles and all other forms of mechanical transport.The first bill that eventually led to the Wilderness Act in 1964 was introduced in the U.S. Senate on June 7, 1956 by Minnesota liberal Democrat Senator Hubert H. Humphrey. It too, provided that “there shall be no … use of motor vehicles, nor any airplane landing field, or other provision for mechanized transportation.” Introducing the identical House bill that July, the lead House sponsor, Representative John P. Saylor, a conservative Pennsylvania Republican, explained to his colleagues: “the stress and strain of our crowded, fast-moving, highly-mechanized and raucously noisy civilization create another great need for wilderness — a deep need for areas of solitude and quiet, for areas of wilderness where life has not yet given way to machinery.”

Reintroducing his bill at the outset of the next Congress in 1957, Senator Humphrey explained: “here is a measure designed to make sure that some parts of America may always remain unspoiled and beautiful in their own natural way, untrammeled by man and unmarred by machinery.”

Mountain bikers have tens of millions of acres of other federal conservation lands to enjoy. That, not this pointless legislative waste of time, is the win-win solution. This heads-in-the-sand legislative effort is a diversion when there’s so much bikers and wilderness groups can be doing together to promote such win-win solutions.

Americans treasure their machine-less wilderness heritage, the 765 wilderness areas protecting more than 110,000,000 acres of land. We flock to these wild sanctuaries seeking deep contrast with our everyday world. As explained in the Wilderness Act, Congress preserves these areas: “in order to assure that an increasing population, accompanied by expanding settlement and growing mechanization, does not occupy and modify all areas within the United States and its possessions, leaving no lands designated for preservation and protection in their natural condition.”

Nothing ruins that sense of contrast more than the whine and clank of both motors and machinery.

Clarification: The phrase "there's so much bikers and wilderness groups can being doing together" has been corrected to read "there's so much bikers and wilderness groups can be doing together."

Doug Scott
Doug Scott spent 40 years lobbying to persuade Congress to protect more national parks and wilderness areas. He is the author of The Enduring Wilderness: Protecting Our Natural Heritage Through the Wilderness Act (2004) and Wild Thoughts: Short Selections of Great Writing about Nature and Wilderness and the People Who Protect Them (forthcoming 2015).

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It says Trail Bikes.  That could mean mountain bikes, could it not?  It doesn’t say motorized trail bikes, so it could include mountain bikes.  At any rate, it isn’t as far fetched as saying “mechanical transport” is actually supposed to mean “motorized transport.”

By todd on Tue, March 29, 2016 at 7:46 pm

So these obvious non-conforming uses were grandfathered in because their use existed prior to the designation, but the same can’t be done for bicycles?

By Ray on Tue, March 29, 2016 at 1:08 pm

Ray and all—

The Wilderness Act’s subsection 4(c) prohibition on any “other form of mechanical transport” is all-inclusive.  So why are cross-country skis and other things of that sort permitted?

First, here is background on the application of subsection 4(c) generally and in ways not involving use of mechanical transport by the public.

FACT:  First, this important caveat—The language provides a narrow zone of discretion to the wilderness agency administrators (not to the public) to use motor vehicles, chainsaws, and other mechanized transport in cases of emergencies involving the health and safety of wilderness users.

**  Rescues of an injured hiker, canoeist, or mountain climber are example

** Fighting a going wildland fire is another, though administrators try to avoid this as much as they can, ass we now know that fire is part of a healthy ecosystem.  For example, a low-burning fire can clear out masses of underbrush and dead branches which have accumulated for decades as a result of the long history of policy requiring fires to be put out within 24-hours of detection

In our more enlightened times, agency personnel and their cooperating state and local fire agencies can use anything they deem necessary: temporary roads (allowed by that same subsection), any kind of motorized vehicle, and any kind of mechanical equipment.  Even then, policy requires that all these firefighters take every possible step to minimize impacts of these uses.  For example, the roads are not paved to make it as practical as possible to “roll them up” when the fire agency personnel are departing.

The discretion to do these things, including chainsaws, it held by regional foresters, BLM state directors, and their equivalent officials in the other agencies.  These officials can always be reached 24/7 and, if they are on vacation or traveling and cannot be reached, they have left signed orders delegating this decision-making authority to the next official down the chain of command.

FACT;  The language of subsection 4(c) is interpreted in a narrow way to promote non-disturbance and to minimize conflict between users on the ground.  The intent is to be protective of the wilderness and the qualities users find there.

FACT: The Wilderness Act prohibits public use of:

SAIL BOATS:  Sail boats are not allowed within wilderness areas:  they usually have motors (you may not even possess a motor in wilderness areas) and pulleys.

DOWNHILL SKIING:  Obvious—chairlifts and rope tows.

LANDING OF AIRCRAFT:  This covers airplanes, helicopters, and hang gliders.

Ray asks why jet boats and landing strips are allowed in the FrankChurch / River of No Return Wilderness Area in Idaho,

FACT:  These existed prior to the designation of the wilderness area in 1978, so like all other existing uses which would otherwise be prohibited (e.g. grazing of livestock by ranchers who were running their sheep and cattle with the wilderness area at the time that areas was designated,, they are grandfathered in.

FACT:  The issue with those landing strips, and other pre-established ones in other wilderness areas, such as the Bob Marshall Wilderness Area in Montana, is solely one of establishment (not the date the Wilderness Act was signed (though that applies to the Bob Marshall Wilderness Area, as it was designated as part of the Wilderness Act itself

FACT:  Subsection 4(d)(1) provides:

“Within wilderness areas designated by this Act the use of aircraft or motorboats, where these uses have already become established, may be permitted to continue subject to such restrictions as the Secretary of Agriculture deems desirable. In addition, such measures may be taken as may be necessary in the control of fire, insects, and diseases, subject to such conditions as the Secretary deems desirable.”

FACT:  These landing strips are almost all very minimal:  a grass strip along a riverbank.  It is not mowed or otherwise maintained.  These are typical.  I’ve landed at one within the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness Area along the banks of the Selway River.  The flight, with agency personnel, was in a private plane as I recall—the fact that it was a trip authorized by the regional forester allowed this landing.  I was accompanying a film crew which was working on a documentary about wilderness and the Wilderness Act.  The film crew paid for the flight.

EXCEPTION:  The main ranger station for the western half of “the Bob” is paved and consists of two strips crossing, to allow for landings and takeoffs regardless of wind direction.  I’ve landed there with Forest Service personnel in a Forest Service plane.

FACT:  The rational for this landing strip would not pass muster today.  It would not be allowed.

FACT:  Jet boats were running up and down the main stem of the Snake River within the wilderness area long before the wilderness area became law.  I’ve ridden in them as part of a Forest Service inspection trip to look over one of the pre-existing cabins and assess how it could be cleaned up and removed (broken up, the parts that could would be burned, the rest carried out on jet boats.

FACT:  The language of subsection 4(d)(6) states:

“Commercial services may be performed within the wilderness areas designated by this Act to the extent necessary for activities which are proper for realizing the recreational or other wilderness purposes of the areas.”

The jet boats in “the Frank” are a commercial service.  The boats with small motors used to transport some campers in the Okefenokee Wilderness Area are a commercial service (canoeists could not otherwise get through the thick matting of plant material—its a swamp,  Fish and Wildlife Service periodically keeps some lanes open to floating camping platforms.  Swamp buggies are allowed in the Everglades Wilderness Area administered by the National Park Service—otherwise there would be no way for the public to see the swamp,

FACT:  Jet boats were used in the summer of 2015 when The Wilderness Land Trust (on whose board I sit) organized a trip with its staff and volunteers traveled up the Salmon River in jet boats, under Forest Service permit and with rangers along to help) to remove all non-inflammable stuff from the large home, outbuildings, and just scattered stuff.

EXCEPTION:  Use of motorboats and landing of aircraft are allowed in wilderness areas in Alaska under special language in the 1980 Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act of 1980,  These areas are huge, they are places where Alaska Natives and Indians have long used boats for fishing.  Bush planes are common and may land in these areas.  I’ve landed in bush planes in the Noatak National Park (my honeymoon was a month-long float, no motors) to the Bering Sea).  We chartered the plane.

FACT:  I’ve landed in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, though that was in the small portion of this 18,000,000 acre area excluded from wilderness but within the refuge—the place where it is said oil companies want to drill.  They don’t, as they have plenty of oil elsewhere.  However, they have to do so to maintain their good relationships with the members of the Alaska congressional delegation—who are adamant about getting drilling rigs in there.

FACT:  Wilderness advocates strongly oppose oil drilling there.  there is a reason the drilling has not happened in the 36 years since the passage of the law which gave them the right to enter and drill, under permit.  Simple:  America’s environmental movement, local, state, and national, and the general public outside of Alaska have mobilized a major campaign to keep this from happening.  The Alaska Wilderness League runs the campaign in Washington, DC, with an office in Alaska.  The Sierra Club is part of the coalition and will stir up its vast network of chapters and local groups and his 1,000,000 members and supporters.  A bill to place this land in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge Wilderness Area has drawn large numbers of cosponsors in both the House and Senate.

Ray and all, I hope this has answered this good question.  If I can help in any way, please post questions here.

Doug Scott

By Doug Scott on Tue, March 29, 2016 at 10:37 am

Todd Writes:m ““In General, the use of motor boats, airplanes, trail bikes, 4 wheel drive vehicles, snowmobiles and the like is prohibited in Wilderness areas.”

So, it expressly says “trail bikes,” are prohibited.”

Everyone knows that “trail bikes” refers to nothing but motorcycles. Try again.

By StillWild on Tue, March 29, 2016 at 9:03 am

Genuinely interested.

Can you explain the logic of the exceptions to allow jet boats and landing strips in the Frank Church Wilderness?

By Ray on Tue, March 29, 2016 at 8:37 am

Friends –

Fact are important in public discourse.  I am a recognized authority on the history, wording, and on-the-ground application of the 1964 Wilderness Act because I am scrupulous about documenting every thing with links and footnotes so those who wish can go to the original source to see whether I’ve taken things out of context.  I pride myself of this devotion to documented fact.

Sadly, this is not true of the leaders of the STC, itself a small thing compared with the hordes of people who love this fine outdoor adventure sport.  Everything in the history section of their website is incorrect.  Most of the quotes they recite in an attempt to make you believe their case are wrong. Many are lifted out of context.

This is dishonest.

So Facts:

About Senator Frank Church:

FACT:  Senator Frank Church (D-ID) and I were very close friends and worked closely together for many years on wilderness issues—those in Idaho (where I testified before his subcommittee) and in Washington (where I also testified). Our friendship was such that Frank phone and asked me to come visit as he was on his deathbed in his home in Bethesda, Maryland—which I did.  He wanted to talk about his legacy of working for wilderness protection in Idaho.

FACT:  The bit the STC leaders quote from Frank is not about anything to do with the management of wilderness areas or what uses are allowed within them.  Nothing.  They were about his opposition to the policy insisted on by the leaders of the Forest Service in the years immediately after the Wilderness Act became law—the “purity policy.”  The agency leaders wanted to stop citizen groups then working for designation of wilderness areas in the eastern half of the country. They argued that such lands, having felt the imprint of man’s activities historically, could never qualify under the definition in the Wilderness Act.

FACT:  If this were not enough documented truth for any reader, consider this.  During the work on this legislation, the chairman of
the Senate committee which approved this bipartisan bill, Senator Henry M. Jackson (D-WA), explained to his Senate colleagues: “…a most serious question of interpretation involving the integrity of the Wilderness Act …has recently gained some credence, thus creating a real danger to the objective of securing a truly national wilderness preservation system. It is my hope to correct this false so-called “purity theory” which threatens the strength and broad application of the Wilderness Act.” [Congressional Record, January 11, 1973, page 754].

FACT:  It was at his hearing on this bill that Frank suddenly figured out (I did not have to send him a note) that this Forest Service policy was really about what lands quality in the West.  If they could only nail down the purity policy, many lands below timberline would not qualify.

FACT:  Frank worked tirelessly to put an end to this error.  And did.  He was behind the law that give Congress the means to reverse the Forest Service error: the bipartisan Eastern Wilderness Areas Act of 1975.  I helped in the drafting of this law and led the lobbying drive for its successful enactment.

FACT:  We now have scores of fine national forest wilderness areas east of the Front Range of the Rockies.

FACT:  The STC leaders have now lifted an excerpt from a speech Senator Church gave in Idaho years after the Wilderness Act had been in effect—not anything he said in the Senate. His remarks were about something else—the work to correct various policy errors being pursued by the leaders of the U.S. Forest Service.

FACT:  Far from offering sympathetic words, Frank would not tolerate the interpretation of the Wilderness Act in the way the STC leaders now attempt.  After all, he had be the Floor Manager to lead Senate debate on behalf of the Wilderness Act when it first passed the Senate in 1961 … and again in 1963, as the legislation was on its way to becoming law.  He was deeply steeped in the meaning of every word of the law he loved.

FACT:  Senator Church loved the Wilderness Act, cosponsored it, and stood proudly behind President Johnson as he signed the Wilderness Act in the Rose Garden on September 3, 1964.
About Representative Morris K. Udall:

FACT:  My close friend Representative Morris K. Udall (D-Tucson district) and I worked close—sometimes in nearly daily meetings in his office or off the House floor for many years Same point here. The very partial quote the STC leaders lifted here has nothing with what uses are allowed in wilderness areas—nothing.

FACT:  In the quote from Mo that the STC leaders give you, he was discussing the Endangered American Wilderness Act of 1978.  I helped him draft this law.  I testified on it before Sen. Church’s committee and was chief lobbyist for the coalition that worked to pass it.

FACT:  Who were its lead sponsors of the Endangered American Wilderness Act?  Frank Church and Mo Udall. Get it?

FACT:  Oh, and I as proud to have been invited by President Jimmy Carter to the Cabinet Room when he signed this law—with Frank and Mo standing right behind the president—and I stood right behind Mo.  The official White House photograph hangs on my apartment wall.

This should be obvious:

History is about the record of the past. I quote searchable and Congressional Record information, giving my readers everything they need to go to my source and see if I cheated by lifting quotes out of context. The STC leaders are careful to avoid such full references.

FACT:  The STC leaders first tried to argue to the Forest Service leaders that their regulation was in error. That got nowhere—the agencies leaders, regional directors, local supervisors,
These are the facts.  Check every one.

About the Alternative: Collaboration

FACT:  Collaboration works. Check out the Virginia Wilderness Act of 2009, Public Law 111-11, March 30, 2009, scroll down here to section SEC. 1104, Seng Mountain and Bear Creek Scenic Areas, Jefferson National Forest.

FACT: This section is part of a separately labeled Title in this massive Public Lands Act of 2009.  Adjacent language designates some wilderness areas. The language in this section establishes two scenic areas.  No roads—ever.  No motorized recreation—ever.

FACT:  Read this statutory language for yourselves:  Scroll down to read subsection 1104(a)—the language establishing these two scenic areas.  By federal law—every bit as strong as the Wilderness Act itself. Scroll down to read subsection 1014(b)—the language expressing the purposes for which Congress established these scenic areas.  Scroll down to subsection 1104(c)—the administrative language:  No roads.  No motor vehicles.  No logging (except when necessary in fighting fires). 

You simply cannot argue this with fact. It happened because people of good will from the mountain biking community sat down with people of good will from the Virginia Wilderness Committee.  They got out on the land together.  The came up with boundary maps and I helped them draft this language.  They enlisted the support of their senators and representative—who loved having this otherwise contentious issue handed to them in a nice negotiated package. So, it is law.

FACT:  There are many other examples, some about other questions, some about wilderness and mountain bicycle use.

FACT:  And similar collaborative work is now underway elsewhere, in some cases at the behest and with the guidance of the local representative.

About Your Choice:

FACT:  Your can’t meet a single one of my completely documented arguments [in a larger paper I will soon be posting on my webpage … I’ll post the link right here.  Late this week, after I’ve incorporated edits by my friend, Ed Zahniser, Howard Zahniser’s youngest son—Zahniser was the leader who drafted the bill that became the Wilderness Act. Ed literally grew up it the legislation.

FACT:  The wording of subsection (4)(c)—the language about “no other form of mechanical transport—was never change.  Not by Zahniser.  Not by Congress.

FACT:  The members of Congress who championed the Wilderness Act saw no need to refine the wording of this subsection.  It said that bicycles and certain other items used in mechanical transport are prohibited wilderness areas.  Were prohibited when the bill was introduced in 1956.  Were prohibited in 1964. Still are.

FACT: So, time to choose.  Do you continue conflict—with the certain result that the STC legislation (if it ever introduced) will never reach the president’s desk (and would be vetoed if it did)?  Or do you try this better, proven route?

FACT:  Those are the facts. You choose.  Dialogue?  Or getting boundaries down and legislation passed to protect wild landscapes where you can happily pursue your fine sport?

FACT:  I know what I am talking about.  And I know the members of Congress who will lead the campaign to block the STC legislation.  I will testify, in the House hearings and in the Senate hearings.  As a qualified expert witness.  Every assertion in my written testimony will be documents in footnotes.  I will happily answer questions put to me by members of these committees.

A Final Question:

Why do the STC leaders only discuss the Forest Service and its once-erroneous regulations.  We have four federal conservation agencies which administer those the 756 wilderness areas (and counting).  I know the chief well and I know the directors of the Bureau of Land Management, the Fish and Wildlife Service, and the National Park Service.
FACT:  The other three agencies never made the regulatory error the Forest Service leaders made so long ago.  Their regulations for administering wilderness areas have always prohibited bicycles.  Odd that the STC leaders don’t tell you that.

By Doug Scott on Mon, March 28, 2016 at 11:35 pm

Doug Scott writes: “Ignore what is irrelevant, such as the exchanges of memos between mid-level Forest Service employees.”

Ok, so I guess we should ignore George Tourtillott in 1964 when he suggests that maybe we should exclude bicycles from Wilderness, which, in the end, they chose NOT to do by NOT adopting language that would have excluded bicycles.

By StillWild on Mon, March 28, 2016 at 7:05 pm


Have you even read the document you posted?
Here is an excerpt

“In General, the use of motor boats, airplanes, trail bikes, 4 wheel drive vehicles, snowmobiles and the like is prohibited in Wilderness areas.”

So, it expressly says “trail bikes,” are prohibited.

By Todd on Mon, March 28, 2016 at 4:51 pm

Doug Scott writes: “There is not a single shred of documentary evidence that Congress intended—as it was actually working on, debating, and passing the Wilderness Act—to allow mechanical contrivances such as bicycles within wilderness areas.”

Similarly, we might observe that there is no documentary evidence that they intended to exclude bicycles either. You can claim that “mechanical transport” means bicycles, but then you have to accept the hypocrisy of allowing mechanical boats and skis. Every historical reference we find to “mechanical transport” points to motorized vehicles and the infrastructure to support them.

And while I see how critically important it is to your argument that you include the caveat, “—as it was actually working on, debating, and passing the Wilderness Act—,” what we do have are some 1977 reflections by the very folks you say we should be looking to for clarity. Here are Church and Udall saying, among other concerns about the Wilderness Act being implemented too strictly, that “Such policies are misguided. If Congress had intended that Wilderness be administered in so stringent a manner, we would never have written the law as we did.”

I’m not so sure those guys are on your side.;

By StillWild on Mon, March 28, 2016 at 2:07 pm

Everyone is well aware of the power and money of the National Environmental movement; not to mention their propensity to sue when they don’t get their way. 

It is a bit of a David and Goliath scenario to be sure, but as has been pointed out twice now, the collaborative efforts (while there have been some successes) by and large have ended in frustration. 

So, if this movement fails, we really haven’t lost anything, but at least it’s bringing more awareness to the ban, which I know you don’t agree, is pretty ridiculous.

By Ray on Mon, March 28, 2016 at 2:01 pm


You are not paying attention to the accurate history. Ted Stroll and the other guys behind the STC are a small dissident group.

FACT:  I’ve met with them at length and given them all my documented research.

FACT: They hold this belief in the face of every fact to the contrary ... but the have never taken my challenge: if you are so sure of your case (Stroll is a lawyer, after all), file suit and let a federal judge explain the plan words of the Wilderness Act to you.

FACT: So now, they hope Congress will life the edge of the tent to let bikes in wilderness areas.

Not going to happen.  It is that context—years of frustrating and utterly unsuccessful complaining and false arguments that convince no one—not me, not the Forest Service—that they are now wasting your time and that of so many others with this false hope.

You are surely aware of the power of the national environmental movement.  Our record speaks for itself in tens of millions of acres of new national parks (Alaska, California Desert, etc.), National Wildlife Refuges (Alaska), and wilderness areas (all over the place, as recently as last year, with many bills now introduced, and more to come, in Congress).

We will NOT allow this bill—if it even materializes—to succeed.  We have altered every member of Congress.  We have champions who are powerfully placed to help ... and they are Republicans and Democrats.

Waste of time = hopes dashed = continued frustration.

In that context, why not try collaboration?

By Doug Scott on Mon, March 28, 2016 at 12:44 pm


I don’t think Ray is saying that collaborate efforts never work, but he is absolutely correct, by definition, when he says, “If that were the case, then a group like the STC wouldn’t have been formed in the first place.”

Pointing to examples of successful collaboration, which is NOT the norm, is not very informative. Of course cyclists are happy to work with other stakeholders and they will continue to do so, but you have to be wearing a blindfold if you think cyclists are not severely restricted on public lands. Anti-sharing stakeholders have seldom offered cyclists anything but begrudging accommodation. There are exceptions, of course, where conservationists with more clear, long-term vision genuinely recognize the benefit - and essentially zero cost - of including cyclists on the land, but those folks are often shamed and chastised by their peers for being anything but religiously anti-bicycle.

By RealityChick on Mon, March 28, 2016 at 12:20 pm

Ray, you can remain in ignorance of what is going on to resolve these issues into outcomes that work for wilderness advocates, members of Congress, the federal agencies, AND mountain bikers.

Or you could actually try what I suggest.

I am not making this up. Look up Public Law 111-11 online. That was a massive public lands law covering many subjects enacted in 2009 ... but the work was all completed very late in 2008.

Scroll down to the provisions about Virginia. Your will find this:


(a) ESTABLISHMENT.—There are designated as National Scenic Areas—

(1) certain National Forest System land in the Jefferson National Forest, comprising approximately 5,192 acres, as gen- really depicted on the map entitled ‘‘Seng Mountain and Racoon Branch’’ and dated April 28, 2008, which shall be known as the ‘‘Seng Mountain National Scenic Area’’; and

(2) certain National Forest System land in the Jefferson National Forest, comprising approximately 5,128 acres, as generally depicted on the map entitled ‘‘Bear Creek’’ and dated April 28, 2008, which shall be known as the ‘‘Bear Creek National Scenic Area’’.

These areas remain roadless—by law—and are closed to all motor vehicle use. But they allow mountain bikes.

This was the work of just exactly the kind of process of collaboration I describe.

You can keep your head firmly buried in the sand if you choose, Ray.  But more constructive people are out solving these conflicts on the land.  You and there who are skeptical ought to give it a try.

Or, because you default on your rights of citizenship to help shape laws, you will be completely ineffectual.  Places you like may end up in wilderness areas ... and you and those others will have no right to complain.

By Doug Scott on Sat, March 26, 2016 at 3:59 pm

“Then get together will local wilderness advocates and work out a compromise that the local members of Congress will love to champion and work through Congress.

It works.  Proven.  Productive.  Win-Win ...”

If that were the case, then a group like the STC wouldn’t have been formed in the first place.

By Ray on Thu, March 24, 2016 at 1:36 pm

Todd is correct.

There is not a single shred of documentary evidence that Congress intended—as it was actually working on, debating, and passing the Wilderness Act—to allow mechanical contrivances such as bicycles within wilderness areas.

To the contrary, there are many contemporaneous statements by members of Congress that evidence just the opposite intent: “... no other form of mechanical transport.”

Look at the words themselves.

Look at the actual legislative history ... of which I document only a couple in my article.

Ignore what is irrelevant, such as the exchanges of memos between mid-level Forest Service employees.

As for after-1964, examine the statements of the key members of Congress who processed and enacted many of the laws adding wilderness areas to the National Wilderness Preservation System.  This includes particularly my very good friends Sen. Frank Church and Rep. Mo Udall. There views are completely misstated by the selective quotes in the Sustainable Trails Coalition’s materials.

Go to the historical figures whose long line of writings were of direct impact on Howard Zahniser as he draft the Wilderness Act ... these are people he knew and worked with closely: Bob Marshall, Aldo Leopold, Benton MacKaye.  All emphasized nothing mechanical—as well and in addition to nothing motorized>

Continuing this stupid debate is pointless. There will be no legislation enacted that is brewed up by the Sustainable Trail Coalition.  I have far more experience working with Congress than do any of them or their expensive, money-wasting boutique lobbying firm in Washington.

It Will Not Happen.  Take that to the bank!

Spend time more productively:

Go for a great ride on non-wilderness lands

Then get together will local wilderness advocates and work out a compromise that the local members of Congress will love to champion and work through Congress.

It works.  Proven.  Productive.  Win-Win ...

By Doug Scott on Thu, March 24, 2016 at 1:20 am


Let me give you a dose of reality. The historical documents that you mention are pretty much irrelevant to the Bikes in the Wilderness Issue.  Just because the Forest Service was having a little debate on how to interpret the Wilderness Act, that doesn’t change the Wilderness Act itself.  You have to remember that the Forest Service was originally against the Wilderness Act, and even testified against it.  Also, the Forest Service is just one of 4 agencies that manage Wilderness Areas.  The Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service and Fish & Wildlife Service have equal standing with the Forest Service when it comes to managing Wilderness areas.  All of those agencies banned bicycles.  And the Forest Service eventually got it right and banned bicycles in Wilderness Areas.  So, some misguided Forest Service Employee’s memo doesn’t take priority over the Wilderness Act

By Todd on Wed, March 23, 2016 at 8:02 pm

The problem, Doug, is that it’s getting less and less ambiguous every day. Perhaps you haven’t been keeping up with the historical documents being posted by STC. We’re not going to need a dictionary.

By RealityChick on Tue, March 22, 2016 at 9:28 pm

Todd wrote: “Did I misspell something?”

Worse than that, Todd. Considerably worse.

By RealityChick on Tue, March 22, 2016 at 9:23 pm

Point of information:

The Supreme Court specifies that the dictionary to be used in cases where there is any ambiguity about what Congress meant in the words it chose, was to be one in common use at the time the law was being acted upon by the House and Senate.

In this case, this is unnecessary, as there is no ambiguity.  “Mechanical” means now what it meant 51 years ago.  “Mechanized” means now what it meant 51 years ago.

Neither sort of thing is permitted in designated wilderness—weren’t then, aren’t now, never will be.

Win-win is so much more productive the this sort of back and forth, friends.

By Doug Scott on Tue, March 22, 2016 at 5:44 pm

Did I misspell something?

By Todd on Tue, March 22, 2016 at 4:50 pm

Please buy a dictionary.

By RealityChick on Tue, March 22, 2016 at 2:35 pm

A Federal Judge already has ruled that discrimination cannot be based on equipment.  So, cut out the discrimination crap already.  You have the same access to Wilderness Areas as everyone else

By Todd on Mon, March 21, 2016 at 5:52 pm

The interpretation of the word “mechanical” will always be a debate, however, your clear prejudice towards mountain bikers requires no discussion.

Just like there are many types of race, there are many types of cyclists, and grouping everyone as the same is racist. 

Your interpretation of what a wilderness area should be discriminates against others that have their own interpretation.

The people you fear on the trail (downhill, enduro riders) do not venture too far from a car or shuttle ride, therefore, you will not see them in the Wilderness.  People who ride deep into the backcountry do not “run over” people.

I can’t wait to see you on the trail and say hello as I legally ride by.

By Mike on Sat, March 19, 2016 at 5:38 pm

Let’s just assume people with an opinion on this issue have actually experienced a Wilderness Area.
I have, and it’s an experience that is only possible because of the lack of ‘mechanical transport devices’.
It promotes a removed sense of or from civilization. As I’ve reached 60, the idea of being able to use a waist-harnessed sulky for gear instead of a pack would enable we ‘olderfarts’ the continued chance to enjoy WA’s. They aren’t allowed, I understand the reasoning, I do, yet I believe they should.
But bicycles? No.
A ‘line of acceptance and respect’ is important to
have and maintain a variety of dedicated use areas. And that means not everyone will be satisfied, it may seem extreme or unfair, but since when is Life always fair?

By RMR on Thu, February 11, 2016 at 3:00 pm

John, you keep bringing up stuff that has been disproved time and time again. Again, if the word “mechanical” was to mean “motorized” then they could have just used the word motorized. Plus the Wilderness Act upped the ante by saying “no other form of” in front of “mechanical transport.”  I think the phrase “no other form of mechanical transport” makes it quite clear they weren’t just talking about motorized transport.

And again you are using the XC skis and oarlock defense. Well, XC skis and oarlocks have been around since ancient times and originally were made out of wood.  The first commercially made bicycle was made around 1980 and was not made out of wood.  The Wilderness Act says Wilderness Areas must maintain a “primeval character” to them.  The word “primeval” means “of the first ages” or “from ancient times.”  XC skis and oarlocks are primeval devices. Mountain bikes are not.

As far as the Rattlesnake Recreation Area and Wilderness, well, the Wilderness Act takes priority over a lesser law, not the other way around.  It’s obvious that the Public Law for the Rattlesnake is not written the best.  It says that “This national forest area has long been used as a wilderness by Montanans and by people throughout the Nation who value it as a source of solitude, wildlife, clean, free-flowing waters stored and used for municipal purposes for over a century, and primitive recreation, to include such activities as hiking, camping, backpacking, hunting, fishing, horse riding, and bicycling;”  But it did not say that all of those activities would continue after the designation of Wilderness.

Again, you point out that 80% of the roadless areas in Colorado are not open to mountain biking. Well, that’s probably right because most of the roadless areas are probably also wilderness areas.  But what really gets me is that you are implying that if there is a road nearby, then a mountain biking trail is a piece of crap.  You expect hikers to be perfectly happy with mountain bikes roaring down the trail at them. But to mountain bikers, if there is a road within a mile of a certain trail, well it freaks you out.

And if you want exclusive access to a trail, I think that’s perfectly great.  Go out and build such a system.  The Exchequer Mountain Bike Park in Marisopa County, California is building a mountain biking only trail system.  Good for them. Mountain bikes go at a greater rate of speed than hikers.  It’s perfectly okay to have them regulated differently.  Besides only 3% of the population goes mountain biking.

By Todd on Fri, January 29, 2016 at 6:49 pm

I would like to make two points—one to point out the self-serving and misleading premise of the article and one to test the reasonableness of those who would hoard the Wilderness to themselves.

1.  Anti-bike advocates often fall on the “no other form of mechanical transport” argument. However, when the Act was written, it’s architects used the words “mechanical” and “mechanized” synonomously with “motorized.”  If you study the testimony leading to the act, it becomes clear what the architects of the Act wished to preclude in using that term—motorized vehicles and development of the infrastructure required to support them. 

If you don’t believe that, consider that other forms of “mechanical transport” are allowed in the Wilderness (i.e. touring skis with mechanically pivoting bindings, boats with oarlocks, etc).  Clearly, the intent was not to ban all mechanical transport (just motorized transport).

If you still don’t believe that, then look at the one and only time which Congress themselves mentioned cycling in actual Wilderness legislation.  The Rattlesnake Wilderness Act of 1980 reads: 
“The Congress finds that—                         
      (1) certain lands on the Lolo National Forest in Montana have high value for watershed, water storage, wildlife habitat, primitive recreation, historical, scientific, ecological, and educational purposes. This national forest area has long been used as a wilderness by Montanans and by people throughout the Nation   who value it as a source of solitude, wildlife, clean, free-flowing waters stored and used for municipal purposes for over a century,and primitive recreation, to include such activities as hiking,camping, backpacking, hunting, fishing, horse riding, and bicycling;”

Once backcountry cycling began to grow as a recreational pursuit Congress clarified their intent perfectly by listing it as a form of primitive recreation alongside hiking, horseback riding and fishing as a suitable Wilderness activity. 

Now, as for those who would say that there are plenty of other places to ride, consider my home state of Colorado.  Over 80% of Colorado’s roadless areas are designated Wilderness.  That doesn’t count National Parks, National Monuments, and other USFS, BLM and state or local closures.  Moreover, many trails begin and end outside Wilderness, but some portion of them passes through wilderness, rendering the entire route nonviable for cycling.  Cyclists are effectively banned from close to 90% of Colorado’s roadless areas.  In other states, numbers range from 45% - 75%.  Now ask yourself this—if hikers were banned from half - three quarters of their most prized public lands, would they simply say “that’s okay, I have other places to hike”? 

I began backpacking at age 9 and didn’t get my first bike until age 35.  In all those thousands of encounters with cyclists, I never felt like my backcountry experience had been degraded.  They were simply other outdoor enthusiasts enjoying the same trail in an equally low-impact, human-powered way.  But I understand others are offended by a bike on the trail.  So here’s the real acid test for reasonableness.  On many trails which may be overcrowded or contentious in some other way, shared use schedules are applied.  These schedules usually allow hiking always and biking only on odd numbered days.  This is still unfair to cyclists as hikers get 100% access and 50% exclusive access while bikes get 50% access ad 0% exclusive access.  How many of those who oppose bikes because they are worried about encountering one would be willing to accept such an arrangement or do they still demand to have the trails all to themselves 100% of the time?

By John N. Fisch on Fri, January 29, 2016 at 9:38 am

I looked back ... the intellectual poverty of someone who thinks it is a killer argument to say my article is “poop” is just awesome.

Thanks to all who have shared more thoughtful views here, regardless of your position on bicycles and other things mechanical within wilderness ares.


By Doug Scott on Fri, January 01, 2016 at 11:38 pm

First of all, StillWild, Oarlocks, Snowshoes, and XC skis have been around since ancient times. Plus, the early versions of these devices did not use metal.  Basically, an early XC Ski was a piece of wood strapped on to your shoe.  Meanwhile, mountain bikes are not a simple device like the ones I just mentioned, and mountain bikes can go at a very high rate of speed compared to hikers, XC skiers and Snowshoers.  And Ray, I wouldn’t take too much stock in a poll where people can vote as many times as they want. I just voted twice.

By Todd on Fri, January 01, 2016 at 11:34 pm

Anyone watching this issue will probably be very interested in reading the historical record:

By StillWild on Fri, January 01, 2016 at 9:40 pm

Mr. Scott is correct on the origin, history and intent of he wilderness act in 1964.  Major additions were made through out the west in 1984 and there was no discussion or issue about the use of trail bikes that I can recall as it was a non issue.

I too have had close encounters with bikers and there are plenty of public lands and roads open to them. There is no need or reason to open up wilderness areas.

Wilderness areas are established not just for limited public access but for scientific, environmental and spiritual reasons.  In 1960 when advocating for wilderness, the western writer Wallace Stegner, suggested that we need places where the impacts and things of “our civilization are shut out.”  We protect it not for its “usefulness or even for recreation.”  We simply need that wild country available to us, even if we never do more than drive to its edge and look in. for it can be a means of reassuring ourselves of our sanity, a part of the geography of hope.”

By Reber on Wed, December 23, 2015 at 9:06 pm

I am a hiker and a mountain biker.  In pursuing both activities, I do not find that they mix well. And I do not myself want to mountain bike in Wilderness.  There I would much rather hike. In Wilderness the presence of bikes and the scale (distance in a day, movement across an open area) upon which they operate creates disturbances to the sense of solitude and as some studies have shown, to wildlife. 

Mr Scott provides a good summary of the Wilderness Act’s intent and direction, one that has been upheld by public lands managers and the courts. If, as some claim, it’s not valid, then why have there been no successful court challenges? If there were, new legislation not necessay to open up Wilderness areas. 

I believe there is room on the landscape for both conservation areas which allow for mtn bikes and for wilderness area that don’t. Perhaps if new legislation were introduced for a conservation system that was for new conservation areas that did this, it would gain more support from even some Wilderness activists. Rolling back existing protections seems ubnlikely to gain support from grassroots wilderness activists.

In replies to this article and elsewhere I hear that Mountain Bikers are working on conservation, and certainly many I know are conservationists - but they tend to be in the camp that would leave existing Wilerness as is.  What I don’t hear much about are details of conservation initiatives generated by the mountain bike community - except for attempts to change rules to Wilderness and/or trails management that allows for mountain biking.  Where are the grassroots mountain bike proposals for NEW conservation lands?

It seems like an “organic act” that established a conservation lands program which offered new protection to some areas of public lands and allowed for mountain bikes would be the way to go.

By Phil on Wed, December 23, 2015 at 5:58 pm

Joe Walicki makes several points that are very reasonable in principle but very questionable in degree.

First, he wants to preserve places where he doesn’t have to encounter anyone on a bicycle. I agree. And STC’s plan would not prevent us from preserving hiker-only opportunities. But how much is enough? Joe apparently feels that 110 million acres of Wilderness with no bicycles, plus thousands of additional miles of non-Wilderness trails that also exclude bicycles is the right amount. And this is to say nothing of the additional, yet-to-be-designated Wilderness that continues to swallow up trails that cyclists have been sharing for decades.

And that leads to Joe’s second point that cyclists have plenty of places to ride outside of Wilderness. But that’s very untrue in very many places. In many settings, the exclusion of bicycles from Wilderness or from National Scenic Trails or from other local trails means that cyclists have very limited opportunities to experience long-distance singletrack trails. If this weren’t the case, we wouldn’t be having this discussion at all.

Lastly, Joe calls for cyclists to disregard the totally lopsided access restrictions they face and simply support land protection anyway. Cyclists would like nothing more than to throw their full financial, political and sweat equity resources towards greater land conservation, but they are alienated and reluctant for exactly the same reasons that so many non-cyclists would be alienated if they were similarly excluded from so much public land.

By StillWild on Wed, December 23, 2015 at 5:05 pm

It looks like Mr. Scott’s article certainly brings out the passion in some folks.  I for one have some passion about walking along a trail and not being afraid of being run over by a speeding bike person. This has happened to me a number of times on trails but NOT in wilderness areas.  While I certainly understand the thoughts expressed, it seems to me that one would have to look at the amount of land open for bike riders and the amount that is closed. We have thousands of miles of dirt roads and trails in the Northwest open to bikers but much less closed. Unfortunately acres of unprotected wilderness areas disappear every day. We need to save as much as we can for future generations.  I urge the bike community to help in the preservation efforts.

By Joe Walicki on Tue, December 22, 2015 at 12:47 pm

This article is not telling the whole story. MTBers are primarily seeking to restore access to those trails that they had previous maintained and enjoyed, in some instances, for decades before Wilderness designation. This effort will not result in a blanket opening of lands to MTB use.

As usual this is a non-issue that divides the conservation community (yes MTBers are conservationists) and distract us from the real enemies of the land - cooperate interests who plunder the earth at will.

By Eric on Mon, December 21, 2015 at 12:35 pm

We can let Doug Scott and others offer their carefully selected interpretations of the Wilderness act and the intent of its founders (for one alternative view, see link below), but it’s Mr. Scott’s apparent personal prejudice that irks me the most. What’s troubling is not his distaste for bicycles (he is certainly entitled to that view) but instead his insistence that his desires exclusively should dominate policy pertaining to public lands that belong to us all.

While Mr. Scott cannot tolerate the equipment that a cyclist would choose when visiting Wilderness, Mr. Scott apparently has no objection to encountering hikers, skiers, snowshoers, boaters and hunters festooned with the widest array of technologies - mechanical and otherwise - ranging from ski bindings to oar locks to firearms to satellite-based global positioning systems. For me, the Wilderness is no more “marred” by a bicycle than it is by any of those other technologies. I’ve come to realize that it’s the “whine and clank” of Mr. Scott that mostly interferes with my Wilderness experience.

As Mr. Scott correctly points out, “there’s so much bikers and wilderness groups can being [sic] doing together to promote such win-win solutions.” And it would be nice if Mr. Scott would stop promoting a view that interferes with that progress while preserving nothing more than his personal aesthetic.

By StillWild on Mon, December 21, 2015 at 12:00 pm

“I am a great admirer of our Congress, whose members seem to me to be a good cross-section of our society.”

I guarantee if a Congressional Bill passed to open the Wilderness to oil drilling or strip mining, this writer would choke.

At best, this writer has no reason to object to bicycling to be allowed in wilderness areas.

The environmental impact of bicyclists are much lower, than let’s say, a 400hp truck pulling a horse trailer to a wilderness area.

By sanjuro on Sun, December 20, 2015 at 7:02 pm

Looks like most people don’t mind sharing….

By Ray on Thu, December 17, 2015 at 8:47 pm

your article is poop

By td on Wed, December 16, 2015 at 6:15 pm

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