Ground Truth: Sound Off

Ride Your Mountain Bike Somewhere Else

November 3, 2017 — The language in the 1964 Wilderness Act seems clear enough. In designated wilderness areas, “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.”

But in the latest effort in a long campaign to nibble away at the act, a movement is afoot to open wilderness areas to mountain bikes. Members of a group called the Sustainable Trails Coalition argue that if mountain bikes had been around in 1964, the authors of the Wilderness Act would have been fine with allowing them in wilderness areas.


Nonsense. The same argument could be made of any number of gizmos that became popular in the past half century. The authors of the Wilderness Act knew full well what they were doing—they were protecting the nation’s last, wildest places from excessive human intrusions, present and future.

That language is clear: No form of mechanical transport in wilderness areas. That means no bicycles, mountain or otherwise.

It’s not as if mountain bikers don’t have anywhere else to pursue their passion. There are more than 600 million acres of federally managed land in the United States, much of it open to mountain biking. Designated wilderness areas cover 109 million acres. There are also many areas managed by state and local governments that are open to mountain biking.

Yet Utah’s two Republican senators—Mike Lee and Orrin Hatch—have sponsored the “Human-Powered Travel in Wilderness Areas Act.” The bill would give federal land managers two years to decide whether mountain bikes should be allowed in each of the nation’s 765 wilderness areas. Areas not formally closed to mountain bikes during that window would be deemed open.

The identity of the bill’s sponsors should be reason enough to raise the concerns of conservationists. Lee and Hatch both voice support for efforts to transfer federal land management responsibilities to state and local officials.

There are practical reasons to keep mountain bikes out of wilderness areas. Mountain bikes can tear up trails and fragile soils (although, it must be said, so can horses and hikers). There are conflicts with other users, including hikers and horseback riders. They can spook wildlife.

But there’s a more fundamental reason why Congress should put the kibosh on the proposed legislation.

Two years ago, we marked the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act. “A wilderness,” the authors of the act wrote, “in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”

The whole idea of the legislation was to set aside a small slice of a continent dominated by humans and let nature take its course. That ideal is one the most laudable ever conceived by a nation. But it has proven difficult to abide. Do horses belong in wilderness areas? Should cattle be allowed to graze there? Is it proper for state wildlife officials to fly helicopters into wilderness areas?

All of these activities already take place in congressionally designated wilderness areas. Allowing mountain bikes in wilderness areas surely would make this particular slope that much more slippery.

A wilderness, as conceived by those lawmakers more than half a century ago, is a place of solitude and peacefulness, a place offering refuge to all things nonhuman, a place of quiet reflection for our own harried selves. The prospect of mountain bikers bombing down trails atop wheeled, metallic machines (motorized or not) is antithetical to that vision.


17 comments on this post

  1. atannerii says:

    If mountain bikes are so clearly against the 1964 Wilderness Act, why were they allowed until new regulations in 1984 banned them?

    Lost interest in the article after it missed this very important fact…

    1. Keith says:

      Because there were no mountain bikes until 1981!

      1. Dave says:

        Wikipedia is wrong.

        Mountain bikes were used by the German Army in WWI. They were not called mountain bikes and were not made of carbon fiber and titanium like modern bikes, but they were very similar to today’s MTBs.

  2. Will Scheel says:

    I’m disappointed in your argument against allowing mountain bikes in Wilderness areas. Your argument cannot be taken seriously due to your given logical fallicies. A slippery slope argument? A fallacious appeal to tradition? An ad hominem argument? Embarrassing.
    The Sustainable Trails Coalition aren’t saying that mountain bikers should have access to all wilderness trails. If you would kindly do your research about exactly what the act says, I feel it would save you the embarrassment of publishing and article such as this.
    If you’re truly interested in trail erosion and keeping nature untouched by man, I highly suggest you look into the currently legal equestrian access to wilderness. Allowing a 1500lb invasive species that damage and erode trails into wilderness areas, and not bicycles that have equal trail impact as hikers, seems misguided.
    As for the user conflicts you allude to, what studies are you referring to, or are you making the assumption that different user groups will be malicious towards each other?
    I look forward to your response.

    1. Keith says:

      Why can’t we have wilderness as wilderness – as the wilderness act intended!?
      Why can we not allow a space to be left as it is?
      Where are we supposed to go to witness the wild as untouched as we can leave it?

      The website lists mountain bike trails by state:

      Just the first page lists 2298 miles of trails for mt bikes at an average length of 30 miles! and that’s ONLY Coloardo. There’s 535 miles to ride on the Colorado Trail alone!

      How many more areas to ride are required before you’re satisfied?
      How much less wilderness must there be before you’re done?
      Why can’t we see that untouched wilderness is nearly a thing of the past? Gone forever! Even without the addition of Mt Bikes, areas of “wilderness” are becoming so beaten and abused and so decimated by the traffic there is talk about taking the section out of the wilderness boundary or CLOSING IT ENTIRELY! During this, wilderness areas are continually attacked by the insistence that we must allow greater access/ impact without regard to what this land was meant to be.

      I ask you to answer this one question; Why must this continue?

  3. Chris Walker says:

    Human powered transportation for temporary visits to these wild places should be allowed. Shame on you for trying to block use by the next generation of those who will appreciate and protect our nation’s wilderness. Get a grip and see some trail.

  4. Sandy says:

    What a pathetic misrepresentation of the facts. I would argue why you are wrong, but clearly you have no grasp of the issues involved in this bill or the drafting of the Wilderness Act.

  5. Lee says:

    Factually incorrect, and just plain stingy.

    1. Keith says:

      I would ask all of you to read my reply to Will Scheel.

      I’m not going to try and defend this article, but I will ask you to reconsider your position to open wilderness to Mt Bikes.
      I like to Mt Bike. I’m sure that all of you could ride circles around me, but I see the impact Mt Bikes have on an area. I also see the impact Hikers and horses have also. Can we please allow an area to be free of another source of wear? The result of all this use, in all it’s forms, changes an area for a longer time than any of us will be around.
      Like demanding that we allow Mt Biking in the Botanical Gardens…Is it really necessary? Can we not allow areas to remain as untrammeled as we can, only allowing a minimum of impact in order that we may visit these places?

      1. Ray says:

        The 3 main trails that cross the country; the Appalachian, Continental Divide, and Pacific Crest are all open in their entirety. In Montana alone in the last several years over 1000 miles of trail have been closed to bikes, and some of that is not even in Wilderness, but in recommended Wilderness or Wilderness Study areas. Some of these areas are fading away due to lack of use and/or maintenance. If more sources of wear were really the issue, shouldn’t we trade access to some of these areas? Or, we could do as the legislation suggests and make common sense decisions for usage based on what the land managers believe the trails can handle? Instead of having trails fade away, and overcrowding others, leave access to those areas as is.

  6. John Fisch says:

    This article is disingenuous in its best places and deliberately false in the rest.

    More than once, the claim is mad that no mechanical aids to transport have ever been allowed according to the act. Yet boats with mechanical oarlocks and skis with pivoting bindings, both of which provide tremendous mechanical advantage to the user, are by their very nature and definition, “mechanical transport.” And they are allowed.

    The article implies that if mountain bikes had been around in 1964, surely Congress would have banned them then. But a study of the genesis of the Act confirms that their concern was precluding motorized vehicles and the infrastructure which support them, not low-impact, human-powered travel (again the USFS is okay with the mechanical items mentioned above). But to bring the ultimate proof is to look at how Congress acted when mountain biking did become a thing. In the Rattlesnake Wilderness Act of 1980, Congress listed cycling right alongside hiking and horseback riding as a wilderness activity, and specifically called it a form of “primitive recreation” in accordance with the verbiage in the original act, thus removing any doubt about original intent.

    They then go for the ad hominem attack against the bill’s sponsors. However, according to the League of Conservation Voters, the sponsors of the act that created new Wilderness in Idaho’s Boulder White Clouds, had even worse environmental records than the sponsors of this bill. Yet this organization did not use that as ground to object then.

    They then use the already thoroughly debunked impact argument. Multiple independent scientific studies show cycling impact on trails to be similar to hiking and far less than equestrian use. The same goes for wildlife impact. In fact, some studies have concluded that hikers may have an even greater impact than cyclists as hikers are more likely to go off trail, more likely to approach wildlife, and wildlife are more conditioned to be wary of humans on foot since that’s who carries guns.

    They then quote the Act, but can make no link to that and a ban exclusive to cyclists. “in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”
    1. A bike trammels no more than a foot or hoof
    2. A bike just passes through and does not remain. It is the backpacker who sets up camp and remains. It is the string of packhorses that allow anybody to penetrate as deeply as they want into the wilderness and remain indefinitely, leaving a significant impact.

    The slippery sloop fallacy is particularly egregious. For the first 20 years of the act, cycling was allowed. This legislation would only return to the USFS the ability to administer the act exactly as they did during its first 20 years. The USFS would still have complete authority to close those trails to bikes which may not be suitable for cycling, just as they always have throughout all their portfolio.

    These forest service employees probably have a variety of reasons for opposing this bill, but none of them have anything to do with “environmental ethics.”

  7. Greg Thatcher says:

    The article is correct on nearly all points but fails to recognize that the Wilderness Act didn’t go far enough – the discussion shouldn’t be whether mountain bikes are permitted (they represent no greater impact than any of the other allowable activities), but whether humans should be allowed in Wilderness at all. Hiking, camping, fishing, hunting… these are all tremendously disruptive to wildlife and just encourage more people to trample the few natural areas where wildlife can live and thrive unfettered by human contact.

  8. Richard Johnson says:

    I hiked most of the trails around Lake Tahoe in the 70’s/90’s and saw the ever increasing damage done by Mountain Bikers. Starting from walking paths and changing to wide rutted troughs and eroding short cuts, the paths were dangerous if the bikers didn’t announce their approach by shouting ” Here I come”, NO bikes in the wilderness, period!

  9. Dominic Cope says:

    Well, no matter what your ultimate goals are, you have to start with the basics. Whether you mountain bike for fitness or just to enjoy the outdoors, having good bike-handling skills and trail confidence will make it a much better experience. Thanks for sharing this article!

  10. Mountain bikes are invented for uphill climbing. It is invented so that the nature lovers can explore the beauty of mountains or remote areas though is very challenging however you can gain so much skills. Thanks for posting.

  11. P. Hogan says:

    Hikers have had exclusive access to this land for the last 50+ years. I am saddened by how little effort they put into maintaining those trails. It’s time to ban them from the trails and make them exclusive to mountain bikers for the next 50 years. The mountain biking community routinely performs trail maintenance and has proven they are better stewards of the land.

  12. Michael H David says:

    Just hiked in the back country of the bighorns this weekend.
    Horse trails four wide, crap everywhere, ruts cut deep into the scenery.

    How about hundreds of cows, wandering around, screwing up the water sources, but cheap for farmers to let graze in our “wilderness area”.

    To heck with banning mountain bikes, if rich folks can ride horses and farmers graze cows, there is no legit argument to stop bicyclists.

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