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
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Seeking passionate full-time Executive to lead the oldest non-profit organization in Idaho. Must have knowledge of environmental issues, excellent organizational, verbal presentation and written skills,...
  • COLORADO PROGRAM MANAGER
    The National Parks Conservation Association, the leading non-profit conservation organization protecting Americas national parks, seeks a Program Manager for its Colorado Field Office located in...
  • CONSERVATION DIRECTOR
    Carbondale based public lands advocate, Wilderness Workshop, seeks a Conservation Director to help direct and shape the future of public land conservation on the West...
  • DEPUTY DIRECTOR FOR WATER PLANNING WITH WRA'S HEALTHY RIVERS PROGRAM
    Founded in 1989, Western Resource Advocates (WRA) is dedicated to protecting the Wests land, air, and water to ensure that vibrant communities exist in balance...
  • TROUT UNLIMITED BIGHORN RIVER BASIN PROJECT MANAGER
    The Bighorn River Basin Project Manager identifies and implements projects to improve streamflows, restore stream and riparian habitat, improve fish passage and rehabilitate or replace...
  • NON-PROFIT OPERATIONS MANAGER
    One of the most renowned community-based collaboratives in the country seeks full-time Operations Manager to oversee administrative, financial, fund development, and board development duties. BS/BA...
  • RUSTIC HORSE PROPERTY
    in NM. 23 acres, off the grid, rustic cabin, organic gardens, fruit trees, fenced, call 505-204-8432 evenings.
  • DIRECTOR OF VISITOR SERVICES & BOOKSTORE OPERATIONS
    The San Juan Mountains Association in Durango, CO is seeking a Director of Visitor Services & Bookstore Operations to lead our visitor information program &...
  • SOLAR POWERED HOME NEAR CAPITOL REEF NATIONAL PARK
    1800 sf home on 4.12 acres surrounded by Natl Forest and recreational opportunities in a beautiful area (Happy Valley) between Torrey and Boulder. [email protected], www.bouldermoutainreality/properties/grover/off-the-grid-in-happy-valley,...
  • 40 ACRE ORGANIC FARM
    potential fruit/hay with house, Hotchkiss, CO, Scott Ellis, 970-420-0472, [email protected]
  • STAFF ATTORNEY
    STAFF ATTORNEY POSITION OPENING www.westernlaw.org/about-us/clinic-interns-careers The Western Environmental Law Center (WELC) is a nonprofit public interest environmental law firm with a 25-year legacy of success...
  • LAND CONSERVATION DIRECTOR
    Manage, develop and implement all stewardship and land management plans and activities on both private and public lands. Guide and direct comprehensive planning efforts, provide...
  • INTERNET-BASED BUSINESS FOR SALE
    Dream of owning your own business, being your own boss, working from home ... this is the one. 928-380-6570, www.testshop.com. More info at https://bit.ly/2Kgi340.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    If you are deeply committed to public service and would like to become part of our high performing, passionate and diverse team, NCAT is looking...
  • TRIPLEX .8 ACRE KANAB, UT
    Create a base in the center of Southern Utah's Grand Circle of National Parks. Multiple residential property with three established rental units and zoning latitude...
  • FORGE & FAB SHOP
    with home on one beautiful acre in Pocatello, ID. Blackrock Forge - retiring after 43 years! Fully equipped 5,500 sf shop including office, gallery and...
  • SMALL FARM AT THE BASE OF MOUNT SHASTA
    Certified organic fruit/berry/veggie/flower farm. Home, barns, garage, separate apt, more. Just under 2 ac, edge of town. Famously pure air and water. Skiing, mountaineering, bike,...
  • FOREST STEWARDSHIP PROJECT DIRECTOR
    Become a force for nature and a healthy planet by joining the Arizona Chapter as Forest Stewardship Project Director. You will play a key role...
  • LIGHTWEIGHT FLY ROD CASES
    4 standard or custom lengths. Rugged protection for backpacking. Affordable pricing.
  • DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT
    will develop and execute Wild Utah Projects fundraising plan. Call, email or check full description of job online for more details: