“Wheels over Wilderness” Bill Gets First Congressional Hearing

A bill that would amend the 1964 Wilderness Act to allow mountain bikes in wilderness had its first hearing Thursday on Capitol Hill.

The House Natural Resources Committee’s Subcommittee on Federal Lands did not vote on H.R. 1349, but it’s clear that conservation groups have a sustained fight on their hands to defend the character of America’s 109 million acres of wilderness. The full Natural Resources Committee has scheduled a mark-up of the bill for Tuesday or Wednesday, a process in which committee members can debate and amend the legislation.

The Pacific Crest Trail Association and dozens of other groups representing hikers, horseback riders, backcountry hunters and anglers and conservation interests are opposed. If passed in its current form, H.R. 1349 would open trails in wilderness to bicycles and other non-motorized wheeled vehicles such as strollers and wheelbarrows. We believe this is in direct contrast to the intent of the Wilderness Act.


Horse packers in the Norse Peak Wilderness. Photo by Eric Valentine.

“By opening our nation’s treasured wilderness areas to mechanized uses, most notably bicycles, this bill would effectively redefine wilderness—and forever change the iconic experience provided on the Pacific Crest Trail,” said Liz Bergeron, PCTA executive director and CEO, in her written testimony to Congress. “The Wilderness Act is a rule we’ve made for ourselves and should not be broken. It balances our recreational desires with our conservation values.”

The Federal Lands Subcommittee is chaired by Rep. Tom McClintock of California. McClintock, who often comments on the federal government’s overreach concerning land management, is sponsoring the bill on behalf of the Sustainable Trails Coalition.

For 53 years, Congress has used the Wilderness Act to set aside America’s most sensitive landscapes for clean air and water, plant and wildlife diversity and peaceful recreation away from the noise and machines of the city. The act states:

“…there shall be no temporary road, no use of motor vehicles, motorized equipment or motorboats, no landing of aircraft, no other form of mechanical transport…” [emphasis added]

Here’s how it defines wilderness:

A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain. An area of wilderness is further defined to mean in this Act an area of undeveloped Federal land retaining its primeval character and influence, without permanent improvements or human habitation, which is protected and managed so as to preserve its natural conditions…”

H.R. 1349 was one of four bills in a short hearing before the subcommittee, so only one witness was allowed to testify: Ted Stroll, president of the Sustainable Trails Coalition. Requests to testify by opponents of the bill were rejected. This drew a complaint from Rep. Alan Lowenthal of California, who requested another hearing for the wide range of the bill’s opponents to explain their positions.

“The language in the Wilderness Act clearly prohibits motorized and mechanized modes of travel,” Lowenthal said. “There is no uncertainty.”

Then he made reference to the decision earlier in the week by the Trump Administration to significantly reduce the size of two national monuments. “Here we go again,” he said. “Our nation’s public lands are facing greater threats every day.”

While they often have cited a lack of access for bicycles on public lands, one of the stated goals of the Sustainable Trails Coalition is to ride mountain bikes on the Pacific Crest Trail. The PCT crosses 48 congressionally-designated wilderness areas—about half of the trail’s 2,650-mile total length. The U.S. Forest Service closed the entire trail to bikes in 1988 and reaffirmed the decision in 2013 after the Sustainable Trails Coalition pressed the agency to reconsider the bikes issue. Stroll then turned to Congress and has found champions in those who wish to reduce regulation of federal land.

Members of the Backcountry Horsemen of Washington on a PCT project in the Goat Rocks Wilderness. Photo by Bri Leahy.

It’s noteworthy that less than 3 percent of public land in the lower 48 states is protected as wilderness; much of the rest is open to motorized and mechanized recreation. The U.S. Forest Service says that 98 percent of non-wilderness trails on its properties are open to bicycles.

Stroll said the bill would “restore” bicycle access to wilderness and that federal agency interpretation of the Wilderness Act was “off kilter” because “federal agencies misunderstood the law” and have not adapted to changes in the way people recreate.

“Agency interpretations of the wilderness act are simply frozen in stone,” Stroll said. “We’re running wilderness as though people are basically confined to traveling by means that were available in biblical times, and that’s it.”

He called himself a conservationist and said he thought the bill would impose a “modest, cautious reform” in the way federal agencies manage wilderness lands. He said he envisioned a process in which local federal land managers would have full discretion to simply sit down with maps and stakeholders and hammer out agreements on wilderness trails where bikes might be allowed and where they would be excluded, without the lengthy environmental reviews as required by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).

The downhill side of the trail is a dangerous place for the horseback rider to pass illegal bikes on the PCT, especially if the horse spooks. Photo by John Lyons.

Dozens of groups from across the country—including The Backcountry Horsemen of America, The Wilderness Society, The Washington Trails Association, the Sierra Club and the Center for Biological Diversity—oppose the bill and signed letters that were entered into the official record.

Notably, the International Mountain Bicycling Association (IMBA), the world’s largest mountain biking advocacy group, also is opposed to the measure. The group’s website states that it has been working collaboratively on wilderness and other forms of public land protections for decades. The result has been that trails important to mountain bikers have been protected.

“IMBA’s 30 years of on-the-ground collaboration and leadership have earned mountain bikers access to tens of thousands of miles of trail on public land,” said Dave Wiens, IMBA executive director, in a news release posted on the group’s website. “We’ve made incredible progress for mountain biking through partnerships, and we’re going to continue gaining ground by raising the profile of mountain biking all across America.

“Mountain bikers and the recreation community depend on public lands and thoughtful conservation. Public lands are being threatened at an unprecedented level right now, and it’s imperative that public land users come together to protect these cherished places and offer our voices in this critical dialogue,” said Wiens. “We know wilderness hits some mountain bikers’ backyards, and we understand why those riders support this legislation. To continue elevating mountain biking nationally, IMBA must remain focused on its long-term strategy for the bigger picture of our sport.”

Mountain bikers are allowed on some non-wilderness sections of the Pacific Northwest National Scenic Trail. Photo courtesy of the U.S. Forest Service.

The PCTA applauds IMBA’s collaborative spirit and dedication to finding common ground. We will continue to participate in the fight to ensure that the PCT and other wilderness trails are protected.

You can help by contacting your representative in Congress and ask them to oppose this legislation. And you can donate to the PCTA. We are putting your gifts to work on behalf of the trail.

Author: Mark Larabee

Mark Larabee is the PCTA's Advocacy Director. He is the former editor of the "PCT Communicator" magazine and co-author of "The Pacific Crest Trail: Exploring America's Wilderness Trail" published in 2016. Larabee is a journalist, part of a team who won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for breaking news for The Oregonian newspaper. He hiked the PCT across Oregon for a 2005 series for the paper and has been with PCTA since 2010. He lives in Portland.