No Bikes in Wilderness. Period.


Dear High Country News:

You can’t read the Wilderness Act of 1964 and think that it would ever allow mountain bikers into wilderness. The language is unambiguous: Section 4 (c) states that there shall be…no use of motor vehicles, motorized equipment”…and “no other form of mechanical transport…

The mention of those prohibitions in the same sentence of the Wilderness Act demonstrates that Congress clearly understood the difference between “motorized” use and “mechanical transport.” It banned both. Clearly, a mountain bike is a “form of mechanical transport.” 

When Ted Stroll and his California-based, mountain bike group, the Sustainable Trails Coalition (Writers on the Range op ed), argue that the “original vision” of the Wilderness Act allows mountain bikes, they indulge in wishful thinking. As a young staffer working for Arizona Rep. Mo Udall and Ohio Rep. John Seiberling around 1980, I vividly recall the Chief of the U.S. Forest Service, Max Peterson, meeting with us to discuss a new threat to wilderness.

The Forest Service Chief visited with Udall, Chair of the House Interior Committee on Public lands, and Seiberling, Chair of the House Public lands Subcommittee, because a new type of bicycle – one that could be ridden off-road – was beginning to be ridden through the Point Reyes Wilderness in California, as well as elsewhere. Peterson sought Udall and Seiberling’s confirmation that the words “no other form of mechanical transport” in the Wilderness Act meant no off-road bicycles in wilderness.

Both Chairmen quickly and emphatically agreed that that was the intent of the law. Thus, the current ban on mountain bikes in wilderness is not some outmoded decision by a Federal agency that “became frozen into place by lethargy and inertia,” as Ted Stroll and the Sustainable Trails Coalition insist. Rather, it is a carefully considered position based on the plain language of the Wilderness Act itself. 

I am not a mountain biker, but have many friends who are. They are great people who engage in a clean powered sport.  Many also hike and ride horses. To my knowledge, about 80 percent of our public lands is open to bikers, so there’s no shortage of beautiful terrain for their sport. But while mountain bikes are appropriate in many places, they are able to penetrate into wildlands much faster than people on horse or foot can ever do. That would mean many more people penetrating deeper inside wilderness where they would threaten the very “opportunities for solitude” and “primitive recreation” that the Wilderness System was specifically designed to protect.

It is unfortunate that there’s lobbying in Congress to change the Wilderness Act to accommodate mountain bikes – to beat this dead horse once again. My answer to this push is simple:  Not everyone needs to be able to use every acre of our public lands as they see fit. The Wilderness System as set forth in Section 2(a) of the Wilderness Act was specifically established by Congress to  “assure that increasing population accompanied by expanding settlement and  growing mechanizationdoes not occupy and modify, all areas within the United Statesleaving no lands for preservation and protection in their natural condition.

I believe that reference to “growing mechanization,” is more pertinent today than it was when the Wilderness Act was hammered out in 1964. In most Wilderness Areas, even today, once you travel more than a few hours from a trailhead, you are blessed with peace and quiet, and perhaps most of all, freedom from other people. 

And if I feel that way, imagine how wildlife feels.  It shouldn’t be all about us humans and our machines, cell phones and Go Pros. Wilderness is an escape from all that, and was intended to promote a slower, more reflective way of life.

The framers of the Wilderness Act were wise. They knew exactly what they were doing when they banned both motorized travel and other “forms of mechanical transport” in Wilderness Areas. With more and more people moving to the West every year, putting increasing use pressure on our public lands, the last thing we need is to open the sanctuaries of our Wilderness System to ever-greater human intrusion.

Andy Wiessner was a staff advisor and counsel to the U.S. House Interior Committee from 1975-1985. He worked on the congressional designation of approximately 400 new Wilderness Areas during that period. He has been a board member of High Country News for 30 years.

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