Bill seeks to remove bike ban in wilderness areas

Claire McArthur
Tahoe Daily Tribune

Biking the entirety of the Tahoe Rim Trail’s 165 miles, which currently traverses areas where cyclists aren’t allowed, could be a possibility in the future if a bill amending the Wilderness Act makes its way through Congress.

A bill in Congress could make biking possible in wilderness areas. Provided / Claire McArthur

The Human-Powered Travel in Wilderness Areas Act, introduced by Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), seeks to remove the blanket ban of bicycles in wilderness areas by inserting language to ensure that the rules restricting “mechanical transport” does not include forms of non-motorized, human-propelled travel.

At present, the Wilderness Act prohibits roads, permanent structures or use of any mechanized machines in its lands but allows hiking, camping and horseback riding. Rangers must monitor the land on foot or horseback and use hand saws instead of chainsaws to clear trails. There are 757 wilderness areas encompassing nearly 110 million acres of federally-owned land in 44 states and Puerto Rico — roughly 5% of the land in the United States.

In its original form, the 1964 act actually allowed bicycles, but it was revised in 1984 to exclude them. The current bill, introduced in May 2019, seeks to remove the ban and allow local land managers the opportunity to decide whether to allow or prohibit bikes.

Most recently, the bill received support from the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management in a Senate subcommittee hearing in November.

“The [United States Department of Agriculture] supports increased access to National Forest System lands, and thus supports the bill’s intent,” said Chris French, deputy chief of National Forest Systems at the U.S. Forest Service.

Michael Nedd, deputy director of operations for the Bureau of Land Management, echoed these comments.

French added, however, that he did have some concerns “regarding implementation of the bill,” which would require agencies to take action within two years of the bill’s passing.

In the Tahoe Basin, the U.S. Forest Service Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit manages (or co-manages) Desolation, Granite Chief and Mt. Rose wilderness areas. The agency is currently reviewing the proposed bill and did not offer comment on what wilderness areas might allow bikes should the bill pass.

It’s an exciting prospect for the Tahoe Area Mountain Biking Association, a nonprofit that builds, maintains and advocates for multi-use trails in the basin.

“If this bill did pass Congress (and that’s a big if) and the LTBMU was looking at changing non-motorized uses in wilderness areas, we would certainly look forward to contributing to that process and identifying areas where that might make sense and where it might not,” said Patrick Parsel, TAMBA trails director. “That being said, there would be no drastic changes to uses in the Tahoe Basin as these processes happen slowly and deliberately.

“Many of the proponents of this current bill are from areas that have seen this happen to their trails in recent years, and we certainly understand their frustration with access being taken away from an area where mountain biking has been a historic use,” added Parsel.

Most notably, the creation of Idaho’s Boulder-White Cloud Wilderness in 2015 resulted in the loss of a number of popular backcountry rides. Soon after, Montana lost 178 miles of singletrack in the Bitterroot Mountains, only intensifying the debate over mountain biking in wilderness areas.

For Mark Larabee, spokesman for the Pacific Crest Trail Association, a nonprofit devoted to protecting the 2,650-mile trail stretching from Southern California to Canada, allowing bikes in wilderness areas is akin to opening Pandora’s box.

Though the PCT is closed to bikes even on the portions that don’t run through wilderness areas, Larabee says there still are issues with people biking on the trail. Potentially allowing bikes in wilderness areas could intensify the problem.

“The Wilderness Act is our seminal land protection law. It’s the highest form of protection we have in this country for federal land,” noted Larabee. “Once you open it up to one form of mechanized travel and you change the very nature of the Wilderness Act, the other groups will be getting in line. What’s next?”

And while the Tahoe Rim Trail Association’s official stance on the bill is neutral, deputy director Chris Binder does have concerns about the pressure it would put on land managers to decide whether or not to allow bikes in their jurisdictions.

“One of the problems with that approach is that while it gives opportunities to the land managers to make local decisions, which is great, most of our land management agencies don’t have the money, capacity or staff to undertake really thorough, detailed analyses that they would need to do to figure out, in a fair way, if bikes would be appropriate on certain trails,” explained Binder. “Any bill that passes without some sort of funding mechanism to make sure that there is a proper analysis to fairly weigh public opinion, physical impacts on the trail, environment effects and user conflict effects is not going to be very effective.”

Similar bills have been attempted in the past with short lifespans in the Senate, so it is unclear how the Human-Powered Travel in Wilderness Areas Act will fare.

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