A bill that, if passed, would allow access for mountain bikes into legally designated wilderness areas will be heard by the House Federal Lands Subcommittee Thursday morning in Washington, D.C.
House Bill 1349 is the latest attempt spearheaded by a California-based group called the Sustainable Trails Coalition (STC) to get Congress to amend the 1964 Wilderness Act, which prohibits any form of mechanized transportation in the country’s 756 legally designated Wilderness Areas.
Similar bills have been introduced over the course of the past few years, and, not surprisingly, wilderness advocates are opposed to the measure.
The bill is the brainchild of Ted Stroll, an attorney who founded STC in 2010 to try to get the various federal land-management agencies that administer the Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail to loosen up what he considers to be overbearing regulations regarding mountain biking.
His efforts failed, which led Stroll, an attorney who describes himself as an avid mountain biker, to take a larger view.
“It was obvious that the agencies were never going to do anything to change,” he said.” As more and more wilderness areas are established, that’s more area that mountain bikers can’t ride. Some places, we have been riding for years, and, suddenly, it’s declared a wilderness and we can’t legally ride there anymore.”
Stroll is of the opinion that Congress, when it passed the Wilderness Act in 1964, never intended to prohibit bicycles.
He contends that, from 1964 to 1984, bikes were indeed allowed in wilderness areas — though, of course, mountain bikes as we now know then did not exist during most of that time.
It was only in 1984, according to Stroll, that the Forest Service amended its interpretation of the Wilderness Act in such a way that the new sport of mountain biking was excluded from the country’s most-protected public lands.
He feels it is time for a change. This is the second time that STC is trying to get Congress to amend the Wilderness Act. This is the first time under the Trump administration.
Stroll will be one of the witnesses testifying Thursday in front of the House Federal Lands Subcommittee, of which Scott Tipton, who represents Colorado’s Third Congressional District — which includes the Roaring Fork Valley, is a member.
“As it stands now, you can’t ride into the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness over to Crested Butte on a mountain bike,” Stroll said. “We just want those decisions to be made on a local level so that interested parties can more easily be part of the decision-making process. I get it that the Maroon Bells are way overused, but most of that use is between Memorial Day and Labor Day. Maybe, with local input, we can make it so mountain bikes are allowed in on Tuesdays after Labor Day but not on rainy days. Something like that.”
Not surprisingly, not everyone is in agreement with Stroll’s perspective.
Will Roush, conservation director for the Carbondale-based Wilderness workshop, is particularly adamant in his opposition to HB 1349.
“They are anti-public-lands extremists who want to gut one of the country’s most significant public lands bills,” Roush, who counts himself as a mountain biker, said of the bill's congressional sponsors. “I have numerous concerns, including its precedential nature, that, by making one change to the Wilderness Act, it will eventually open up wilderness areas to motorized use.”
Stroll calls that perspective a logical fallacy.
“Congressmen are in the business of getting their bills passed into law,” he said. “If they were to add ATVs to the measure, it would be defeated. This is like the argument that, if the federal government raises the national speed limit to 55 miles per hour, some states might raise it to 105 miles per hour and a lot of people would get killed. Or that, if we don’t stop the communists at the North Vietnamese border, they will invade Japan. That argument is a non-starter.”
George Nickas, executive director of Missoula-based Wilderness Watch, disagrees.
“We are in uncharted territory here with this administration,” he said. “We do not know what might make its way as a rider to another bill. These are the guys who just resized two national monuments. This would set a terrible precedent. More than 133 prominent conservation groups have signed onto a letter opposing HB 1349. Groups like the Wilderness Society, the Sierra Club and the Defenders of Wildlife. Look at the Sustainable Trails Coalition’s website to see who their partners are.”
For the record, according to the STC’s website, its supporters include The Angry Singlespeeder from MTBR.com, singletracks.com, the New England Mountain Bike Association, Mount Hood Mountain Bikers, Folsom-Auburn Trail Riders Action Committee, Access4Bikes, CORBA and Ride Salmon.
“They have made a pact with the devil,” Nickas said. “Both times they have tried to get this bill passed, they have solicited sponsorship from some of the virulent anti-public lands elected officials in the country. They just want this bill passed so they can ride their bikes into wilderness areas. This has nothing to do with local control and local input. I find it heartening that the International Mountain Bike Association is not supporting this bill.”
That last statement is mostly true.
According to Mike Pritchard, executive director of the Roaring Fork Mountain Bike Association, a chapter of IMBA, the group does not support HB 1349 or the efforts of Stroll’s STC. But neither are they actively opposed.
“I would guess that IMBA’s membership is relatively split when it comes to support for opening wilderness areas to mountain bikes,” Pritchard said. “But HB 1349 is not something we are working on. It’s easier for IMBA to take a non-position. I don’t think the mountain bikers who support opening up existing wilderness areas to mountain bike use really understand the issue. Most mountain bikers are also hikers who believe in wilderness values. If we were to support that bill, it could result in a significant backlash on the part of some of our partners.
“Even if this bill passes, I think it will be subject to a lot of lawsuits, and we do not want to be part of that,” Pritchard continued.
If HB 1349 makes its way through the labyrinthine halls of Congress and gets signed into law by Trump, the management onus will fall on the agencies like the U.S. Forest Service, an agency whose employees are generally very tight-lipped about legislation that is under Congressional consideration, even legislation that could have a direct effect on their vocational lives.
“As you know, the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness is one of the most highly visited Congressional designated Wilderness areas in the country, and our newly adopted Visitor Use Management Plan only addresses overnight use,” said Karen Schroyer, district ranger of the Aspen/Sopris Ranger District of the White River National Forest. “Any additional use in that wilderness, regardless of the activity or mode of transportation, creates challenges for us. If a law were to pass, allowing mountain bikes in wilderness, we’d have to adjust how we manage all our wilderness areas, not just MBSW, but it would be irresponsible to speculate at this point on how we would adapt our management.”
Tipton, who will participate in the House Federal Lands Subcommittee hearing on Thursday, did not exactly tip his hand.
“At this point the Congressman has not taken a position and looks forward to questioning the panel of witnesses about the bill,” Tipton said through press liaison Kelsey Mix. “He supports recreation on public lands but does not believe a one-size-fits-all approach is appropriate for any management plan.”
“Right now, wilderness is pretty much a country club for people rich in time, money or both,” Stroll said. “They have the luxury of time to take a week to backpack into the wilderness. I know some people day hike, but they are a rarity. A lot of people access wilderness on horseback as part of a guided trip, where they get camp set up for them.
“The idea of mountain bikers in the wilderness is threatening to wilderness advocacy groups,” he continued. “They fear that, if mountain bikers are allowed into wilderness areas and none of the horrible things they say will happen as a result, it will negatively impact their standing and their fundraising efforts. They are against the democratization of wilderness.”
“Mountain bikes cover a lot more distance than hikers, so that means their impacts will extend further into wilderness areas,” Nickas said. “Mountain bikers argue that they are denied access to wilderness areas. They are not. They can walk or ride a horse into the wilderness. We only have a small percentage of lands in this country that are protected from mechanical contrivances. Those lands should be left as they are.”
“They want it so the only access to wilderness is by means that are from biblical times,” Stroll said. “Wilderness areas now cover an area larger than the state of California. Groups that oppose opening wilderness areas to mountain bikes are trying to scare gullible people. House Bill 1349 would have a very modest and narrow effect on wilderness areas.”