COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — Proposed federal legislation that would amend the Wilderness Act is setting off alarms within the mountain biking and conservation communities.
HR 1349 and its sister amendment in the Senate come at a time when public lands are under attack by those seeking to reduce their size and open them to grazing, mining and drilling.
If passed, it would lift the blanket ban on bicycles, wheelchairs, strollers and other forms of mechanized transport in designated wilderness areas in place since 1984. Land managers in each area then would decide whether to open access or keep trails closed to bicyclists.
The amendment was approved 22-18 by the House Committee on Natural Resources, moving it to the full House.
‘RESTORING’ THE WILDERNESS ACT
In Colorado, 40 wilderness areas cover over 3.7 million acres, including the Lost Creek Wilderness in Park and Jefferson counties. These areas generally are remote, removed from urban traffic and the quiet, backcountry experience many Coloradans seek.
The Colorado Trail runs through six of them, forcing mountain bikers to leave the trail and use major roads – some of which don’t have bike lanes – to detour around the restricted area.
These types of landscapes are ones that Ted Stroll, president of the Sustainable Trails Coalition, hopes land managers can open. Others, like the Maroon Bells during peak summertime, might be better off closed, he said.
The Sustainable Trails Coalition, a nonprofit formed in 2015 aimed at pushing the bill through Congress, argues that the amendment restores the original intent of the 1964 Wilderness Act.
“Wilderness is about rugged and self-reliant recreation,” said Stroll. “Backcountry biking is just that, so we see this as restoring rather than amending the act.”
Some members of the outdoors community think otherwise, arguing that bicyclists’ fast pace disrupts hikers’ quiet solitude, they degrade the trails and natural environment, and the overall aesthetic of a wilderness area does not include mountain bicyclists, especially since bicyclists already have plenty of ridable acreage.
Sustainable Trails Coalition has countered each of these in a blog post for Singletracks.com. First, unlike those riding downhill, those bicycling in the backcountry move at a moderate pace – usually 4 to 6 mph in comparison to a hiker’s 1 to 3 mph.
Second, Sustainable Trails Coalition board member and Colorado Springs resident John Fisch pointed to peer-reviewed papers in recreational ecology that repeatedly have shown that a bike’s impact on trails is equal to a hiker’s and less than horses. Aaron Teasdale, an author for Sierra Club Magazine, has advocated against the amendment, but also noted that some studies showed that slower-moving trail users, like hikers and cross-country skiers, can be more disruptive to wildlife than faster-moving trail users, who leave an area more quickly.
That leaves the argument over aesthetics, one that cannot be resolved with a scientific study.
“This debate is best described with the German word kultkurkampf, which is a cultural struggle or dispute,” said Stroll. “In this case, it boils down to a dispute over the aesthetic of how to travel through wild places. The difference between us and conservationists fighting against us is that they regard our aesthetic as illegitimate, whereas we’re happy to share.”
A ‘BEDROCK’ CONSERVATION LAW
Opposing Sustainable Trail Coalition’s initiative is a major player in the mountain biking community: the International Mountain Bicycling Association. Founded in 1988, IMBA has more than 40,000 members worldwide, advocates for mountain bicyclist rights and access across the country, and testified against the amendment before the House committee.
Their opposition to the bill seemingly is contradictory – if their mission is to “create, enhance and protect great places to ride mountain bikes, why not jump at the chance at an assortment of new trails in remote places?
In a statement published before the House committee vote, Executive Director Dave Wiens wrote, “…we simply do not think the answer to our challenges is to change a bedrock conservation law, especially right now. Public lands are being threatened at an unprecedented level, and it’s imperative that public land users come together to protect these cherished places and offer our voices in this critical decision.”
The amendment also would injure long-standing relationships IMBA has with federal land management agencies, which Wiens said were critical to agreements that simultaneously opened new trails and protected critical ecosystems.
A notable agreement in Colorado was the Hermosa Creek Watershed Protection Act. The 2012 legislation protected 70,650 acres of San Juan National Forest near Durango, 38,000 of which would be set aside and managed as wilderness. The rest would be open to mountain biking, motorized and selective timber harvesting in accordance with Forest Service protocol.
The bill satisfied preservationists eager to protect vulnerable areas, recreationists and industry.
Despite IMBA’s stance and national reputation, some local chapters have broken with their parent organization.
The New England Mountain Biking Association and San Diego Mountain Biking Association created a change.org campaign urging IMBA to retract its opposition to the bill. Nearly 7,000 people have signed the online petition and aligned themselves with the mission of the Sustainable Trails Coalition.
The board of the Colorado Springs IMBA chapter, Medicine Wheel Trail Advocates, has yet to review the legislation and take an official stance. Chapter President Cory Sutela is in favor of opening portions of wilderness areas that, for example, overlap with the Colorado Trail. He worries, though, what other stakeholders – ones that have a much larger environmental impact – might push their way into these protected areas with successive legislation.
“Our mission is all about riding experiences and giving people access to great trails,” he said, “but if you give local land managers control of wilderness, there’s a chance you have a manager that is more friendly to mining and other extractive industry.
“I don’t know if the floodgates would open because it depends on who is at the gates.”
AN UNLIKELY ALLY
The congressman at the forefront of the House bill is sponsor Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Calif., while two Utah Republicans, Sens. Mike Lee and co-sponsor Orrin Hatch, have led the charge on the Senate bill.
Although Stroll said he and his team tried to work with both political parties, Democrats shied away from supporting the bill.
“We have gotten the cold shoulder from Democrats afraid of hurting organizations like the Sierra Club and Wilderness Society,” Stroll said, specifically mentioning Rep. Jared Polis, whose district includes IMBA’s headquarters in Boulder. “The people who will champion the amendment are libertarian Republicans who see the unfairness that the Forest Service and other agencies have imposed on mountain bikers.”
The House Committee on Natural Resources’ vote was divided along party lines, except for Sen. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., who voted against the bill.
The libertarian Republicans pushing forward this bill have constituents other than mountain bicyclists in mind, said Athan Manuel, director of Lands Protection Program for the Sierra Club.
All three congressmen advocated for reducing of the Size of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante monuments and voted for opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas drilling.
“You don’t ask what the bill does, you ask about who the sponsors are, and I don’t think certain members of the mountain bike community understand who they are aligning themselves with,” said Manuel. “They don’t care about getting more bikers outside. They care about weakening specific public lands protections.”
Manuel expects four-wheeler and ATV advocates “to be next in line at the toll booth” to secure access to wilderness areas if HR 1349 passes.
“With this current Congress, we need to take these threats seriously,” he said.
With the blanket ban, the conservation community is excluding 8.5 million mountain bicyclists in the U.S. from voting in favor of public lands or volunteering to do backlogged trail maintenance.
Teasdale agrees: “Simply put,” he wrote, “it will be harder in the future to designate new wilderness or complete large-scale conservation initiatives without the support of mountain bikers.”