Why the wildest places in America should stay free of mountain biking  

A mountain biker rides down a trail in Crusted Butte, Colorado.

Crusted Butte, Colorado

Zach Dischner

Vast majority of public lands  are or can be made available for mountain biking

Mountain biking is a popular outdoor  pastime  with a community of conservation-minded advocate.  But a  new, radical bill would  establish a troubling precedent by allowing this activity into federally designated  wilderness.  

The Human-Powered Travel in Wilderness Areas Act, introduced by Sens. Mike Lee and Orrin Hatch, would press the National Park Service and other federal land management agencies to decide within two years whether to allow mountain biking and other transportation in federal wilderness areas. If the agencies don't make a decision, routes and trails in wilderness will automatically become open to mountain biking. 

The bill would overturn 50  years of wilderness management practice and dovetails with "public land takeover" legislation creeping into state  legislatures and the U.S. Congress in undermining core conservation values. This bill would lead to a management nightmare for already cash-strapped (and often shorthanded) land agencies.   

Some radical mountain biking groups are clamoring to support this legislation, but it would be both  bad policy and a bad precedent for American public lands. Read on to see why.

FACT: The Wilderness Act sets aside places for non-mechanical recreation   

The Wilderness Act of 1964 established the framework of the modern National Wilderness Preservation System as a network of  lands both “untrammeled” and essentially unchanged by man. From the very beginning, that meant no mechanical transportation; leaders at The Wilderness Society, in Congress, and across the country championed quiet and "primitive" recreation  in these very select  areas.  Modern mountain bikes did not exist at the time of the law's passage, but the legislation was written in broad terms to guard against such  inventions.  Wilderness historian Douglas Scott has explained that  mountain bikes are “exactly the sort of mechanical transport  the law intended to prohibit in wilderness.”   

Even the president of the International Mountain Bicycling Association (IMBA), which supports  increased access for mountain bikes, notes that  changing the Wilderness Act may bring "unintended consequences." The group’s official position is to “continue to respect both the Wilderness Act and the federal land agencies' regulations that  bicycles are not allowed in existing Wilderness areas.”

Northern Red Desert, Wyoming.

Northern Red Desert, WY

Kathy Lichtendahl

FACT: The vast majority of public lands are still open to mountain biking

Of the  more than 630 million acres of federally managed public lands  in the U.S., only  about 17 percent is designated wilderness. While regulations vary from place to place, that means hundreds of millions of acres of national parks, forests, wildlife refuges, trails and other wildlands  are or can be made available for mountain biking. These places tend to be closer and more accessible to communities, and a better bet for trail construction and maintenance that helps the most people possible.  

Mountain bikers do need more trails and guaranteed access to the outdoors, but allowing potentially damaging recreation in America’s wildest places is not the answer. 

We should instead be finding common ground and working together to increase funding for trails maintenance and new trail construction in the 97 percent of the country that is not federally designated wilderness. 

FACT: New mountain biking bill could set a dangerous precedent   

It is no surprise that this legislation was introduced by Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT). He has worked for years to undermine our nation's conservation laws, and is now one of the putative leaders of the "land takeover" movement to hand over our national public lands to the states. 

Even beyond undermining the intent of the Wilderness Act, Sen. Lee's proposed bill would have major consequences.  If mountain biking is allowed in wilderness, it would  pave the way for other previously forbidden activities. No less than IMBA, which praises elements of Lee’s bill, still  expresses concern about  how it could facilitate “a public land seizure agenda.” At the very least, this represents a similar assault on cherished conservation values. 

FACT: Mountain bikers and conservationists are not at odds—they are partners

The Wilderness Society supports sustainable outdoor recreation.  When managed properly, there is a place for all forms of recreation on public lands, from off-road vehicle use to hiking, mountain biking and horse packing.  We work across the U.S. to ensure people have access to wildlands so that they can enjoy them.   Unfortunately, this new legislation would prioritize one form of recreation over all others and effectively eliminate some of the diverse recreational choices we have today.

In places like Colorado’s Hermosa Creek Watershed and New Mexico’s Columbine Hondo Wilderness, public lands advocates and mountain bikers have worked together to craft plans that keep open access to biking trails while still protecting nearby land as wilderness. We must follow those examples, using existing legislative tools to find common ground—not overhauling a bedrock conservation law to open up the few wildlands that belong in a special category.

Policy specifics aside, mountain bikers and conservationists are often one and the same group—people with a vested interest in preserving wild places. Try as they may, no politician can change that.