It’s inevitable. There will be bikes in wilderness.

 

It hasn’t happened yet, but one day, bicycles and baby strollers will be welcome in wilderness. That’s the goal of the nonprofit Sustainable Trails Coalition, which seeks to permit other forms of human-powered trail travel in wilderness areas, besides just walking.

Congress never prohibited biking or pushing a baby carriage. Both are banned by outmoded decisions that federal agencies made in the 1970s and 1980s. Over time, those decisions became frozen into place by lethargy and inertia.

It is true that the Wilderness Act forbids “mechanical transport.” By this, however, Congress meant people being moved around by machines, not people moving themselves with mechanical assistance. Now that wilderness acreage is larger than California and Maryland combined – vastly larger than when the walk-only rules were imposed – there is a pressing need to restore Congress’ original vision. 

Ted Stroll bikes on Willson Peak Trail at Henry Willard Coe State Park, Gilroy, California in 2014.
Courtesy Ted Stroll

In 1977, renowned conservationists Sen. Frank Church of Idaho and Arizona Rep. Morris Udall explained what they thought Congress’ intentions were. Church said, “Agencies are applying provisions of the Wilderness Act too strictly and thus misconstruing the intent of Congress as to how these areas should be managed.” Udall warned against “stringent ‘purity’ criteria” that have “led to public opposition to wilderness proposals based on what is, and what is not, perceived to be … permissible in wilderness areas. …” As early as 1964, some Forest Service staff wanted to ban even rowboats.

The Sustainable Trails Coalition’s proposal is modest. It would not permit mountain biking or walking with a baby stroller everywhere. Instead, local land managers would be given the discretion to allow forms of human-powered travel where they believe it’s appropriate. The United States has 765 wilderness areas, each one managed by officials who know the terrain.

Opposition to the coalition’s proposed bill apparently rests partly on unjustified fears that federal employees can’t manage their land. Another argument is that where bicycles go, motorcycles and ATVs will soon follow. But members of the coalition have talked with staffers at many congressional offices, and none of them show any interest in using our proposed bill as a stalking-horse for motorized uses that, unlike bicycles, have never been allowed in wilderness.

We suspect that our opponents’ real fear is not that reform will fail, but that it will succeed. If we cease limiting wilderness travel to methods available in biblical times and thereby achieve better-managed wilderness – with more volunteers maintaining trails and cycling visits that keep trails accessible to everyone – the previous cries of “wolf” will look foolish.

Some opponents accuse us of being pawns of giant bicycle companies with large cash reserves and a thirst to get bicycles back into wilderness. But the coalition is a grassroots effort, funded by individuals and a few small businesses.

Opponents of biking in wilderness are like pen-and-ink types opposing manual typewriters. It might be comical if the effects weren’t so grave, disconnecting more people from the outdoors and increasing their indifference to conservation.

Some people also worry that bicycles would “shrink” wilderness, and argue that we already have enough places to ride. But backpacking technology allows for more invasive intrusions into wilderness than bicycles. Most bicyclists leave the wilderness at dusk and don’t camp. 

As for the call for us to “go somewhere else,” we would never patronize these critics by saying they’re not welcome in wilderness unless they travel by bicycle. We prefer to bicycle, but we don’t insist that everyone else has to ride. Bicycling is clean, environmentally benign, and has that wonderful quality of “flow,” which the human psyche rejoices in experiencing. Mountain biking may be richer in flow than any other recreational endeavor — that’s one reason so many of us prize it.

There’s a grim backdrop to the struggle over wilderness that this quarrel only worsens. In the 52 years since Congress passed the Wilderness Act of 1964, national forest wilderness has fallen victim to a number of contradictions that have warped the original vision. Some areas are overrun and loved to death, like the Maroon Bells in Colorado. Others are no longer managed and seldom visited, and marijuana growers reportedly have filled the vacuum, as in California’s Yolla Bolly. Still others, including the Pasayten in Washington, are despoiled by pack outfitters, whose abuses are ignored by many wilderness activists and the government.

Fixing these problems will take a generation, lots of money, and new leadership. Cyclists can’t do it alone, but we can help, if we’re accepted as partners, not treated as interlopers into the wilderness private club.

The Sustainable Trails Coalition loves wilderness and thinks Congress got the law right in 1964. Now, we seek restoration of the original vision. There is nothing to fear about granting federal employees the discretionary authority the coalition proposes. 

Ted Stroll is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News. He is an attorney and president of the Sustainable Trails Coalition in California.

High Country News Classifieds
  • GRAND CANYON DIRECTOR
    The Grand Canyon director, with the Grand Canyon manager, conservation director, and other staff, envisions, prioritizes, and implements strategies for the Grand Canyon Trust's work...
  • ADMINISTRATIVE ASSISTANT
    Great Old Broads for Wilderness seeks a part-time Administrative Assistant to support the organization's general operations. This includes phone and email communications, office correspondence and...
  • HISTORIC LODGE AND RESTAURANT - FULLY EQUIPPED
    Built in 1901, The Crazy Mountain Inn has 11 guest rooms in a town-center building on 7 city lots (.58 acres). The inn and restaurant...
  • ONE WILL: THREE WIVES
    by Edith Tarbescu. "One Will: Three Wives" is packed with a large array of interesting suspects, all of whom could be a murderer ... a...
  • PROGRAM DIRECTOR, SALAZAR CENTER FOR NORTH AMERICAN CONSERVATION
    The Program Director will oversee the programmatic initiatives of The Salazar Center, working closely with the Center's Director and staff to engage the world's leading...
  • WILDEARTH GUARDIANS - WILD PLACES PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Salary Range: $70,000-$80,000. Location: Denver, CO, Portland, OR, Seattle, WA, Missoula, MT or potentially elsewhere for the right person. Application Review: on a rolling basis....
  • RIVER EDUCATOR/GUIDE + TRIP LEADER
    Position Description: Full-time seasonal positions (mid-March through October) Organizational Background: Colorado Canyons Association (CCA) is a 10 year old nonprofit organization fostering community stewardship of...
  • BOOKKEEPER/ADMINISTRATIVE ASSISTANT
    Position Description: Part-time, year-round bookkeeping and administration position (12 - 16 hours/week) $16 - $18/hour DOE Organizational Background: Colorado Canyons Association (CCA) is a 10...
  • LAND STEWARD
    San Isabel Land Protection Trust seeks a full-time Land Steward to manage and oversee its conservation easement monitoring and stewardship program for 42,437 acres in...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Ventana Wilderness Alliance is seeking an experienced forward-facing public land conservation leader to serve as its Executive Director. The mission of the Ventana Wilderness Alliance...
  • COMMUNICATIONS AND DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    The Quivira Coalition (www.quiviracoaltion.org) is a Santa Fe-based nonprofit that builds resilience on arid working lands. We foster ecological, economic, and social health through education,...
  • GRANT WRITER
    "We all love this place we call Montana. We believe that land and water and air are not ours to despoil, but ours to steward...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    The Development Director is responsible for organizing and launching a coherent set of development activities to build support for the Natural History Institute's programs and...
  • WILDLIFE PROJECT COORDINATOR
    Founded in 1936, the National Wildlife Federation (NWF or Federation) is America's largest and most trusted grassroots conservation organization with 53 state/territorial affiliates and more...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Cinnabar Foundation helps protect and conserve water, wildlife and wild lands in Montana and the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem by supporting organizations and people who...
  • TRUSTEE AND PHILANTHROPY RELATIONS MANGER,
    Come experience Work You Can Believe In! The Nature Conservancy in Alaska is seeking a Trustee and Philanthropy Relations Manager. This position is critical to...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR AT FRIENDS OF CEDAR MESA
    -The Land, History, and People of the Bears Ears Region- The Bears Ears and Cedar Mesa region is one of the most beautiful, complex, diverse,...
  • CONSERVATION SPECIALIST
    Position will remain open until January 31, 2021 Join Our Team! The New Mexico Land Conservancy (NMLC) is a non-profit land trust organization dedicated to...
  • OLIVERBRANCH CONSULTING
    Non-Profit Management Professional specializing in Transitional Leadership, Strategic Collaborations, Communications and Grant Management/Writing.
  • GREAT VIEWS, SMALL FOOTPRINT
    Close to town but with a secluded feel, this eco-friendly home includes solar panels, a graywater reuse system, tankless hot water, solar tubes, and rainwater...