A bill that would allow mountain bikes access to legally designated wilderness areas made its way out of the House Committee on Natural Resources Wednesday by a vote of 22-18.
The bill, HR 1349, introduced last March by Congressman Tom McClintock (R-Calif.), specifically states that it would “amend the Wilderness Act to ensure that the use of bicycles, wheelchairs, strollers and game carts is not prohibited in Wilderness Areas.”
Only one Republican member of the Natural Resources Committee – Liz Cheney of Wyoming – voted against HR 1349.
Scott Tipton, whose 3rd Congressional District covers the Roaring Fork Valley, did not vote on the bill due to a scheduling conflict. HR 1349 will now be sent to the full House of Representatives for consideration.
The bill is the brainchild of Ted Stoll, founder and executive director of the California-based Sustainable Trails Coalition.
This is the second time in as many years that Stoll has worked through conservative Republican members of Congress to get the Wilderness Act, passed into law in 1964, amended to allow bicycles, which are now considered forms of mechanized travel and therefore prohibited in all of the country’s 765 legally designated wilderness areas.
Last year, Stoll worked with Utah Senator Mike Lee to introduce Senate Bill 3205 to the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources. The bill did not make it out of committee.
Stoll, who testified last week before the House Natural Resources Committee, said he feels good about the chances of HR 1349 becoming law.
“I am thrilled,” he said. “I thought this might happen in five years. For it to happen so soon leaves me breathless.”
But, according to Adam Sarvana, communications director for the Democratic members of the House Natural Resources Committee, Stoll ought not to be counting any chickens before they hatch. Sarvana said there is a good chance HR 1349 will not ever be placed on the calendar.
“GOP leadership has to decide whether to bring this up for a vote of the full House, which we don’t expect to happen,” Sarvana said. “It’s not a priority for Speaker [Paul] Ryan, as far as we can tell.”
Sarvana said that’s not the only obstacle facing HR 1349.
“If it makes it out of the House it has almost no chance in the Senate,” he said. “There aren’t 60 votes for this as a stand-alone bill, and a Democratic senator would certainly filibuster it.”
Sarvana said a likely candidate to filibuster the bill would be New Mexico Senator Martin Heinrich.
“He hasn’t issued such a threat because we’re nowhere near that point legislatively, but given his record, it’s a safe bet,” Sarvana said.
Sarvana is of the opinion that HR 1349 has more to do with political posturing than it does a desire of any of the Natural Resources Committee’s Republican members to allow bicycles into legally designated wilderness area, such the Maroon Bells-Snowmass and Hunter-Fryingpan Wilderness areas outside Aspen.
“Wheelchairs are already allowed [in wilderness areas],” Sarvana said. “This was a political move to try to put Democrats on the spot by forcing them to vote against allowing wheelchairs in wilderness. It didn’t work because that’s a non-issue. We don’t believe bicycles belong in wilderness areas. That was the crux of the bill.”
Even though it was supported by a majority of the members, HR 1349’s journey through the Natural Resource Committee was somewhat bumpy.
“There was an odd moment early in the hearing, during which Republicans brought up McClintock’s bill, but it failed because there weren’t enough Republicans in attendance,” Sarvana said. “That was purely on Chairman [Rob] Bishop for not knowing what was going on. The Republicans had to ‘reconsider’ the first failed vote on the bill in order to bring it back up for an up-or-down vote. The vote to ‘reconsider’ was a formality, but had to be done before we could actually re-vote on whether to pass the bill itself.”
“Right now, the majority whip needs to place the bill on the calendar,” Stoll said. “It could come up for a vote as early as February.”
Stoll is quick to point out that the bill would not automatically lift the blanket ban on bikes in wilderness areas. He said it would give federal land managers on the local level the ability to determine whether bikes should be allowed in wilderness areas. Still, said land managers would be able to open some trails to bikes or to leave things as they are. The method by which those decisions would be made is not articulated in the HR 1349.
Stoll does not have the support of the country’s largest mountain-biking advocacy group.
Last week, the Boulder-based International Mountain Biking Association (IMBA) — which has a chapter in the Roaring Fork Valley — issued a statement in opposition to HR 1349.
“IMBA is not supporting this legislation and has submitted its testimony to the House Natural Resources Committee,” the statement reads. “IMBA’s mission does not include amending the Wilderness Act and never has. In 2016, IMBA’s board of directors reaffirmed our position on this issue, which is to respect both the act and the federal land agency regulations that bicycles are not allowed in existing, Congressionally designated Wilderness areas.”
“Believe me, I would like to see mountain bikers regain access to some wilderness trails as much as anyone,” Dave Wiens, IMBA executive director, wrote in a Dec. 9 blog. “However, we feel strongly that HR 1349, while addressing an important aspect of land protection reform (bicycles in Wilderness) is not in the best interest of mountain biking long-term.”
According to Sarvana, it is unlikely the bill will even make it to the floor of the House.
“We expect nothing will happen,” he said. “This was not a serious attempt to change the law. It’s a highly partisan bill that wasn’t negotiated with the Senate. It’s DOA.”