Biking bill is a smokescreen for opening up wilderness

 

Are you ready for mechanized vehicles on every wilderness trail in the United States? That's what you'll get if a deceptive piece of federal legislation becomes law. Portrayed as a “modest” proposal for mountain bike access, the legislation is a Trojan horse that would throw open all designated wilderness areas to bikes and prevent federal land managers from later excluding them.

The "Human-Powered Travel in Wilderness Areas Act" was introduced into Congress by Utah Republican Sens. Orrin Hatch and Mike Lee, both known for their efforts to roll back environmental protection.  You can read it online.

Hatch calls the legislation "a reasonable approach to allowing the use of mountain bikes on trails." Lee says it would allow local land managers to decide whether to allow mountain biking in wilderness areas. Both statements are smokescreens designed to hide what’s really going on.

A new bill could mean increased access to wilderness for mountain bikers.
Bureau of Land Management

How would this legislation open all wilderness areas to bikes? It would give federal land managers a two-year deadline to determine whether bikes should be allowed on wilderness trails. If the deadline passes without formal decisions, bikes automatically would be allowed. 

Problem is, the deadline is rigged for failure. The two-year window would be consumed with federal agencies developing rules to guide the process, not with land managers rendering decisions. Federal actions can't be arbitrary. Decision criteria would need to be established and a lengthy rule-making process would ensue to figure out what makes one wilderness trail acceptable to bikes and another one off-limits.

Even assuming an unrealistic timeframe of one year for establishing criteria, the environmental review process required by federal law for the decisions would devour the second year, and most likely take longer. 

With the deadline blown and all wilderness areas automatically opened to bikes, federal land managers then would be in the position of deciding whether to remove mountain bikes from wilderness areas, rather than determining if they should be allowed in the first place.  

Here, the legislation contains another trap: It predetermines a decision in favor of mountain bike use by making mountain bikes “rebuttably presumed to be in accordance with the preservation and maintenance of the wilderness character of a wilderness area.” In other words, the legislation would not only open wilderness areas to mountain bikes, it would lock in their use.

Further, in a reality-warping maneuver that reads like something from an Orwell novel, the bill would enable mountain bikes to sidestep the 52-year-old prohibition on mechanized transportation in wilderness areas by declaring bikes a non-mechanized form of travel. The bill states: “The term ‘mechanical transport’ does not include any form of human-powered travel, regardless of whether the travel is mechanically assisted, in which the sole propulsive power source is one or more persons.”

It escapes comprehension that a machine with gears, derailleurs, wheels, bearings, disc brakes, cables, gear shifts, a whirling chain and pedals does not add up to “mechanical transport.”

Also worth noting: The legislation’s contortion of “mechanical transport” would leave wilderness areas open to whatever pedal-powered contraptions emerge in the future. Seem far-fetched? Fifty years ago, who would have imagined bikes could penetrate the farthest reaches of nation’s wildest lands?  

And what if there are “undue conflicts” (in the words of the bill) on trails between people biking and people walking? The legislation would allow federal land managers to separate the two uses by day, time of day or season. For example, bikes in your favorite wilderness area from 8 a.m.–2 p.m.; hiking from 2 p.m.–8 p.m. Or, bikes on Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays; hiking on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. Or: Summer’s for biking! Fall’s for hiking. 

Is anyone looking forward to all this?

The Human-Powered Travel in Wilderness Areas Act is a sham. It would undermine one of the most farsighted conservation laws in the world, the 1964 Wilderness Act, which was enacted to protect the nation’s wild areas from the “growing mechanization” – to quote the law – of American culture. And if there's a symptom of growing mechanization on public lands, it's mountain bikes. 

The bike industry may frame the activity as “human-powered” in an effort to obfuscate any difference between walking and riding. Advocates may employ the dark arts of modern politics.  

But deception and sly tricks shouldn’t deprive the American people of a uniquely American heritage: The opportunity to wander through the nation’s most highly protected lands at a truly human-powered pace, step-by-step, free from the machines and speed of an ever-urbanizing, ever-industrializing society. 

John Kelley is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News. He is a former legislative policy analyst and lives in Sun Valley, Idaho.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].

High Country News Classifieds
  • WRITING SKILLS TUTOR FOR HIRE!
    Fort Collins, CO college students welcome. Meet on your college campus!
  • CANYONLANDS FIELD INSTITUTE
    Colorado Plateau Natural & Human History Field Seminars. Lodge, river, hiking options. Small groups, guest experts.
  • NATURE EDUCATION DIRECTOR
    Our mission is to inspire a life-long connection to nature and community through creative exploration of the outdoors. We are seeking an educational leader who...
  • DEVELOPMENT AND MARKETING DIRECTOR
    The Development and Marketing Director is a senior position responsible for the execution of all development and marketing strategies to raise funds and increase public...
  • DEVELOPMENT COORDINATOR
    Coordinates all Wyoming Wildlife Federation philanthropic activities. Tasks include identification, recruitment, and retention of donors, organizing fundraising events, and assisting with grant writing.
  • REALTOR NEEDS A REMOTE ASSISTANT
    This is a business assistant position, The working hours are flexible and you can chose to work from anywhere of your choice, the pay is...
  • CORPORATE & GRANTS PARTNER MANAGER
    Forever Our Rivers Foundation Corporate Partnerships Manager February 2020 www.ForeverOurRivers.org Forever Our Rivers Foundation, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, was formed in late 2016 with the mission...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Central Oregon LandWatch is seeking an Executive Director to advance our mission and oversee the development of the organization. Job Description: The Executive Director oversees...
  • WESTERN NATIVE SEED
    Specializing in native seeds and seed mixes for western states.
  • MEDIA DIRECTOR
    Love working with the media? Shine a spotlight on passionate, bold activists fighting for wild lands, endangered species, wild rivers and protecting the climate.
  • STAFF ATTORNEY - NEVADA
    The Center for Biological Diversity is seeking an attorney to expand our litigation portfolio in Nevada. Come join our hard-hitting team as we fight for...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Montana Wildlife Federation seeks an energetic leader to advance our mission, sustain our operations, and grow our grassroots power. For a full position description,...
  • HISTORIC COMMERCIAL OPPORTUNITY IN DOWNTOWN NOGALES
    Nogales. 3 active lower spaces and upper floor with lots of potential. 520-245-9000 [email protected]
  • CHUCK BURR'S CULTUREQUAKE.COM BLOG
    Change will happen when we see a new way of living. Thinking to save the world.
  • COMING TO TUCSON?
    Popular vacation house, furnished, 2 bed/1 bath, yard, dog-friendly. Lee at [email protected] or 520-791-9246.
  • DIRECTOR, TEXAS WATER PROGRAMS
    The National Wildlife Federation seeks a Director to lead our water-related policy and program work in Texas, with a primary focus on NWF's signature Texas...
  • SPLIT CREEK RANCH
    Spectacular country home on 48 acres with Wallowa River running through it! 541-398-1148 www.RubyPeakRealty.com
  • OJO CALIENTE COMMERCIAL VENTURE
    Outstanding location near the world famous Ojo Caliente Mineral Spring Resort. Classic adobe Mercantile complete w/living quarters, separate 6 unit B&B, metal building and spacious...
  • NEW MEXICO GILA NATIONAL FOREST HORSE RANCH
    43 acres in the Gila National Forest. Horse facility, custom home. Year-round outdoor living. REDUCED to $999,000, 575-536-3109.
  • EVERLAND MOUNTAIN RETREAT
    Everland Mountain Retreat includes 318 mountaintop acres with a 3,200 square foot lodge and two smaller homes. Endless vistas of the Appalachian mountains, open skies,...