Senate bills would allow bikes in wilderness, Izembek road
Phil Taylor, E&E reporter
Published: Friday, July 15, 2016
A new bill by Utah senators would let federal land managers allow bicycles in designated wilderness.
The 1964 Wilderness Act currently bans mechanized transportation in more than 100 million acres, seeking to preserve lands in their "untrammeled" state while maintaining a primitive experience for visitors.
H.R. 3205, by Utah Republican Sens. Mike Lee and Orrin Hatch, would make exceptions for mountain bikes in hopes of opening wilderness to a greater number of users.
"Our National Wilderness Preservation System was created so that the American people could enjoy the solitude and recreational opportunities of this continent's priceless natural areas," Lee said in a statement. "This bill would enrich [Americans'] enjoyment of the outdoors."
The legislation was endorsed by the Sustainable Trails Coalition, a bicycle advocacy organization.
The coalition argued that the Forest Service in 1984 overturned "a good regulation" that allowed its employees to permit bicycles in wilderness areas and that other lands agencies followed suit.
"The result of these mistakes is an American public increasingly disconnected from wild places, the opposite of Congress's intent in passing the Wilderness Act in 1964," the group said in a media release. "Many wilderness trails have disappeared or have deteriorated to the point that few try to use them."
But wilderness groups took exception to the bill.
"We see this for what it is -- an assault on the very idea of wilderness and the values of the Wilderness Act," said George Nickas, executive director of Wilderness Watch, a national group based in Missoula, Mont.
Nickas cited a March 22 letter signed by 115 organizations to members of Congress urging them not to amend the Wilderness Act to allow bicycles. Despite the Sustainable Trails Coalition's claims, the law never gave federal lands agencies discretion to allow bicycles in wilderness, the letter said. Bicycle access would violate the law's purpose of preventing "expanding settlement and growing mechanization," the groups wrote.
Paul Spitler, director of wilderness campaigns at the Wilderness Society, said the bill "threatens to undermine the National Wilderness Preservation System by allowing bikes and other vehicles in wilderness."
Murkowski introduces stand-alone King Cove bill
Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) this week also introduced H.R. 3204, a bill to permit a land exchange and a road to be built through Alaska's Izembek National Wildlife Refuge.
Murkowski has made construction of the 10-mile gravel road a central plank of her public lands platform, calling it a critical lifeline for residents in the remote community of King Cove, Alaska, to access medical care in emergencies.
Interior Secretary Sally Jewell officially rejected the proposal in December 2013, saying there are better transportation solutions than slicing a road through designated wilderness that provides key habitat for migratory birds.
Murkowski, who chairs the Appropriations Committee panel that funds the Fish and Wildlife Service, which oversees the refuge, has inserted language in the past two spending bills authorizing the road, but she has yet to get the language to the president's desk.
"It has now been more than 30 months since Secretary Jewell callously rejected a life-saving road for King Cove, and local residents have been forced to endure medevac after medevac since then," Murkowski said in a statement. "The Obama administration clearly has no intention of ever helping this community, but we cannot simply leave the health and safety of nearly 1,000 Alaskans to chance."