Wildly Silly Ideas

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 McGee Lake
A handful of biking enthusiasts have drafted a bill to open some federal wilderness areas to mountain bike use. Photo by Jonathan Fox.

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 govtrack.us, 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.”

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