Biking bill is a smokescreen for opening up wilderness
High Country News

John Kelley
Opinion
Aug. 17, 2016

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 This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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.

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.
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