Mountain bikes in existing wilderness (redux)

I try to not get too involved in the wilderness debates (there seem to be enough people there already).  But I follow planning, and this started out to be a post on the status of wilderness recommendations on the Salmon-Challis National Forest, as part of their forest plan revision process, but there was also this:

“Two places in particular really stand out,” he said. “One is the north side of the Pioneer Mountains. The southern half is in the Sawtooth National Forest and is already recommended for wilderness, and the area around Borah Peak in the Lost River Range. Those two areas we find to have exceptional wilderness character, a lot of scenic values, great wildlife habitat, opportunities for solitude and other things that fit the definition of wilderness character. These areas have been managed as wilderness areas since 1979.”

I wanted to find out what happened in 1979, because this suggests a policy of excluding mountain bikes to protect potential wilderness areas outside of Region 1 (the Salmon-Challis is in Region 4).  Instead I found a recent law review article discussing the bigger issue including a couple of questions that have been key in recent posts.  It includes the history of the Forest Service policy:

  • In 1966, the Forest Service wrote formal regulations to implement the Wilderness Act, and defined “mechanical transport” to mean a cart, sled, or other wheeled vehicle that is “powered by a non-living power source.

  • The Forest Service later reversed course by issuing a declaration banning bicycles in 1977…

  • The Forest Service flipped one last time in 1984, after various groups, including the Sierra Club and Wilderness Society, successfully convinced the agency to remove the reference to bicycles in the discretionary 1981 regulation.

There is also a good discussion of the legislative intent behind the term “mechanized transport.”  The author buys into the interpretation of a previous author liked by the Sustainable Trails Coalition, “Legislative history informs the mechanical transport issue and reveals that Congress “meant to prohibit mechanical transport, even if not motorized, that (1) required the installation of infrastructure like roads, rail tracks, or docks, or (2) was large enough to have a significant physical or visual impact on the Wilderness landscape.”  But she adds, “Even if the term “mechanical transport” in the Wilderness Act does not include bicycles as a matter of law, the management agencies have the discretion to ban them, as they explicitly have.”  (This includes BLM and the Park Service.)  She favors local discretion.

Wilderness decisions are acutely emotional and political, and what it feels like we’re witnessing is how emotions and politics shift over time, sometimes in response to technology.  I personally would rather not see mountain bikes in wilderness because it makes wilderness smaller by making more remote areas more full of people, which is not a wilderness value.  But maybe people like me are dying out.  But I’m not convinced that bikes (large numbers over time) don’t have “a significant physical or visible impact” either, on at least most trails.

So I don’t know why the Salmon-Challis potential wilderness areas may have excluded bikes since 1979.  But here is the status of planning for wilderness:

“There are groups out there like The Wilderness Society looking at us as the last best place to designate more wilderness area,” Mark said. “I’ve already got two-thirds of the forest as wilderness. I’ve got local folks, range permittees, outfitter guides and others asking ‘Well Chuck, how much more wilderness do you need?’ That’s a good question and I don’t necessarily have an answer.”

I don’t like the implication that he thinks 2/3 is necessarily a lot (especially if there are going to be more people using wilderness areas someday because they can ride their bikes there).

18 thoughts on “Mountain bikes in existing wilderness (redux)”

  1. The idea of limiting the number of people still is not a reason to single out cyclists for exclusion. Solitude is disturbed whether they be on foot, hoof, or wheel.

    Ditto the concern about impact. Independent scientific studies show cycling impact on the land to be similar to hiking and far less than equestrian use.

    Wildlife protection is also no reason to single out cyclists as impact there is also similar. In some cases, hiking impact is actually higher since hikers are far more likely to go off trail, thus further intruding on otherwise undisturbed habitat.

    If we need to limit people to preserve wilderness character, then we do so. And we already do in som Wilderness areas where one my only enter after having obtained one of a limited number of permits. But all low impact, human powered users should have an opportunity to secure said permits where they are necessary to preserve wilderness character, and where not necessary, all low impact, human powered users should have equally free access.

  2. Somehow I left out the legal argument made by “preservationists.”

    “Under the rules of statutory construction, courts must give each term used by Congress a distinct meaning, since Congress would not have spelled out each term separately if it did not intend the terms to have somewhat different meanings. Preservationists look to the
    treatment of aircraft and motorboats to find the intended meaning. Those forms of
    transportation are enumerated as banned devices. Aircraft and motorboats fit within the general term “motor vehicles,” yet Congress saw fit to specifically list aircraft and motorboats. According to preservationists, it follows, then, the term “mechanical transport” logically includes uses that are not motor-powered because Congress treated motor vehicles and motorized equipment separately.”

    And if the statutory terms are unambiguous, courts will not look at legislative history for intent.

  3. I guess I’ll add my anecdotal data point to the “impacts” question. I live next to a trailhead to a national recreation area known for mountain biking, and I have run on the trail regularly for years. I have seen the changes resulting from bikes making passing lanes and avoiding wet areas, which create braided and expanded trails, and other trail damage. As for wildlife – there was the dying snake with the tire-width flattened spot. I have had numerous intense near-encounters with thrill-seeking downhill riders, and I have been run into twice (both fortunately when I was going downhill). The Forest Service has no interest in managing this (I’ve asked), and self-policing and education apparently don’t work. This is the wilderness experience we’re being asked to get used to.

    • Jon,

      Anecdotes are important. They can reveal places or circumstances where specific remedies or restrictions may be the proper management technique. As you note in your writing, however, current agency interpretation of the Wilderness Act precludes the application of any remedies or techniques at all because the policy is an outright ban on bicycles. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could look at the specific problems and locations you report and borrow potential remedies from other locations where similar problems have been mitigated or never developed in the first place?

      If it’s at all informative, I might ask you to think if you believe that TOTAL usage on your local trails has increased and if that, rather than simply the form of usage, may have generated some of the trail damage you’ve observed. Trail braiding, go-arounds, etc. have been hallmarks of exclusively pedestrian (and equestrian) use since the beginning of time. Do you think these impacts would vanish if each mountain bikers were replaced by a hiker or horse in the same numbers?

      Please keep in mind that under the current policy, the Wilderness experience that cyclists are being told to get used to is no Wilderness at all. Backcountry cyclists seem to be getting fed up with their 2nd class status.

      • Yes, I’ve thought about my own impact, and I’m sure some of the trail damage is not the result of bikes. However, what I notice in wet conditions is tire tracks, and I think that the physics of tread incision (more weight on a smaller area) would lead to more concentrated impacts that are more noticeable and long-lasting. I also suspect that the effect of eliminating bikes would mostly be to slow and delay trail damage, but that might mean that land managers could actually keep up with trail maintenance and repairs.

  4. Thanks for finding this, Jon! As for me, I would prefer to be on trails without mountain bikers, for three reasons (1) some of them rush and are not careful around hikers, (2) trails will get busier if mountain bikes are allowed, (3) in some places they can change trail characteristics, e.g., make the soil harder and slipperier (this is a personal observation).

    Around where I used to live in Colorado, there were State Parks and county open spaces. Some park/trails are open to MB’s some not, and some were alternating days on the same trail.I don’t know how they decide those things. On more isolated trails in nearby National Forests, once I am over the initial surprise when they come up behind (eek! someone’s coming up on us fast!), I kind of like them better than hikers because they zoom away, and the quiet returns more quickly.

  5. As it happens the Pahsemeroi Valley and the Lost River Range happen to be one of my favorite places in the Northern Rockies. The answer to why it is not wilderness is the locals don’t want it.

    Personally I think it would make a perfectly wonderful wilderness. Like most rock and ice places concerns about mountain bikes are bit overstated. Having hiked there the vast majority of the trails are bike unfriendly. No one is ever going to ride a bike from the top of Mt. Borah. The rock is this area is in general rotten and the trails too steep and loose to be even remotely enjoyable, except for short sections.

    Of course if it was to be designated I would exclude this route or grandfather it in.

    As far trail impacts. In Bozeman they indentified people with dogs as the cause of double tracks. One for the dog. One for the human. I could easily show you plenty of trails in my neck of the woods where every switchback has been cut with all the foot traffic doing the cutting and bikes staying on the trail. Other trails that have become braided because they closed to bikes and since hikers don’t clear trail (sorry its true) there are trails all over the place since the established trail was too choked by downfall. The issue isn’t whether bikes have an impact they do and it is different from hikers, but but overall when considering all trail conditions the impacts are comparable and the biggest problem being poor design.

    As far as the preservationists argument against bikes, also known as the Doug Scott argument. It has merit, but the fact is there are plenty of other motorized uses that are mechanical, but not motor vehicles for example: trains (I have never heard them called motor vehicles, and motor boats and aircraft are listed separately ((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)) so if they aren’t by normal nomenclature motor vehicles or motorized equipment ((chainsaws)) neither are trains), chairlifts, cog railways, trams, etc. You could even argue jet skis and snowmobiles although they are more clearly vehicles. In the end, just because mechanical transport is distinct from motor vehicles (aka cars, trucks, and jeeps) does not mean it includes bikes.

  6. I’m 72 years old and have been visiting wilderness areas since I was 10 years old. I have a cabin close to the Marble Mountains Wilderness area. I have difficulty hiking to the high lakes, but could visit many of them on a mountain bike. People against bikes in the wilderness want these areas for themselves. They are selfish elitists. These areas are for people to enjoy.

    • Hi Thomas,

      Thanks for sharing your story. Of course, one might argue that perhaps you are a “selfish elitist” for wanting to open up Wilderness areas to bicycles just so you can pursue your own personal recreation pursuits.

      • “Of course, one might argue…” But that would be a very weak argument because Thomas is not trying to exclude others. See the difference?

        • “Others” are not excluded from Wilderness. Motorized and mechanized forms of transport are. See the difference?

          • So if I decide I want to exclude your boots, GPS, Kevlar, carbon fiber, skis, hiking poles, snow shoes, oar locks, or other mechanical technologies that help transport you through the Wilderness, you’re ok with that? See the similarity?

            • If you decide to pursue legal, legislative or administrative action to ban boots in Wilderness areas please let us know and keep this forest policy blog updated on the success of your efforts.

              • But why can’t we rely on YOU to lead that anti-boot/ski/boat/etc legislative effort? You know…as a demonstration of consistency in your opposition to technologies that provide mechanical benefit to Wilderness travelers.

                • Sorry brah, but I don’t believe the Wilderness Act of 1964 banned boots. If you believe otherwise, good for it, dude.

                  • What you’re trying very hard not to say is that you believe oar locks, ski bindings, boots, etc. are not mechanical. You might want to consult an engineer about that. I’ll agree that boots seem like a bit of a stretch. On the other hand, next time you and a friend are out for a hike, have one of you strip down to your bare feet and see which one of you travels further and faster through the Wilderness.


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