A mountain biker on the Tyrolian Trail in Incline Village, Nev., in 2013. Legislation in Congress seek to allow mountain biking in federally designated wilderness areas.(Photo: RGJ file)
RENO — Some of America’s most pristine wild places could be opened to mountain biking under a proposal before Congress.
A bill by Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Calif., would lift a decades-old national ban on biking in federally designated wilderness areas.
It’s similar to a bill that died in the previous session of Congress.
Proponents say it’s an attempt to give people a chance to pedal through serene locales that currently allow hiking, backpacking and horseback riding but not mountain biking.
“This bill is actually going to increase the wilderness experience for all trail users,” said Craig Weaver, 35, a Reno mountain biker in favor of changing the law. “What makes sense for the hiking community should make sense for the mountain biking community.”
Opponents say it is a step down a slippery slope that could erode protections the Wilderness Act of 1964 established for some of the most scenic and sensitive places in America.
“Ultimately wilderness isn’t about us, it is about nature,” said Brian Beffort, director of the Toiyabe Chapter of the Sierra Club. “I think nature needs to feel our impact less, not more.”
The entire text of McClintock’s proposal isn’t yet posted online. But a summary says it would amend the Wilderness Act to “ensure the use of bicycles, wheelchairs, strollers and game carts is not prohibited.”
Many conservationists consider the Wilderness Act of 1964 among the environmental movement’s most cherished accomplishment.
The original act created 54 wilderness areas in 13 states, mostly in the Western U.S. There are now 765 areas covering about 109 million acres or roughly 5% of the country.
The act allows recreation in wilderness areas but prohibits mechanical or motorized equipment, a restriction that covers off-road vehicles, chainsaws, motorboats and bicycles, among other things.
Wilderness advocates say the restrictions are necessary to preserve places where human activity isn’t the dominant force on the land.
That preserves natural features along some of the most iconic hiking trails in the U.S., such as the Pacific Crest and John Muir trails.
The opening line of the Wilderness Act declares an intent to protect natural areas from “expanding settlement and growing mechanization.”
“It forces you to be humble,” Beffort said. “It forces you to put nature first instead of our own entertainment and convenience.”
Jamie Williams, president of The Wilderness Society, has also criticized the idea of allowing mountain bikes in wilderness.
In a 2016 letter opposing the earlier version of the proposal, Williams said it would “completely redefine and threaten wilderness areas nationally.”
Williams also wrote it would prioritize “recreation over other all other wilderness values like protecting sources of clean air and drinking water, habitat for critical wildlife, and opportunities for solitude.”
Mountain bike advocates, however, argue lifting the blanket ban wouldn’t harm wilderness.
They say federal land managers in charge of specific wilderness areas would retain the authority to limit access.
Ted Stroll, a California mountain biker and president of the Sustainable Trails Coalition, the leading group in favor of the bill, said National Park Superintendents could maintain the bicycle ban on the John Muir Trail, a popular hiking route that goes through multiple national parks and wilderness areas.
“I’d be very surprised if a national park superintendent or forest supervisor gave mountain bike access on the John Muir Trail,” Stroll said. “We wouldn’t be pushing for it.”
Stroll also says allowing land managers to open some wilderness to mountain biking would result in more support from mountain bikers for new wilderness or wilderness study areas.
Bikes aren't currently allowed in wilderness areas or on the Pacific Crest Trail. Legislation in Congress could loosen the ban. (Photo: RGJ file)
He said mountain bikers are generally in favor of protecting the environment but fear losing access to trails.
Specifically, he said the creation of the Boulder-White Clouds Wilderness in Idaho in 2015 contributed to much of the growing wariness in the mountain bike community.
Prior to the designation, Idaho wilderness advocates and mountain bikers forged an agreement on plans for a national monument that would incorporate mountain biking.
Congress wound up abandoning the proposal with the agreement, yet the wilderness designation moved forward anyway.
The result was mountain bikers losing access to trails and feeling burned in the process.
“Multi-use trails tend to be the best for everyone because it puts everyone on the same page,” Weaver said.
Advocates for allowing bikes also say access would mean more interest in wilderness from mountain bike groups that build and maintain trails.
Kevin Joell, trail director for the Tahoe Area Mountain Biking Association, said the blanket wilderness ban negatively affects trail connectivity and limits route options.
A mountain biker takes a break by Marlette Lake in Nevada. Legislation in Congress could allow mountain biking in wilderness areas. (Photo: RGJ file)
“Instead of placing the trail in the best location, it sometimes needs to follow a less optimal route to avoid the wilderness boundary,” Joell said. “Sometimes these areas are right next to private property or underneath power lines, which is not really the wilderness experience sought by most outdoor enthusiasts.”
McClintock’s bill is the reincarnation of a bill introduced in 2015 by Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah. Lee could reintroduce a Senate version.
Although the Lee bill didn’t get a hearing, Stroll is hoping McClintock, who is chairman of the House subcommittee on federal lands, which has jurisdiction over the National Park System, forests, public lands and national monuments, will have more success.
“It is not going to just sit there because he is the chairman,” Stroll said.