November 3, 2017 — The language in the 1964 Wilderness Act seems clear enough. In designated wilderness areas, “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.”
But in the latest effort in a long campaign to nibble away at the act, a movement is afoot to open wilderness areas to mountain bikes. Members of a group called the Sustainable Trails Coalition argue that if mountain bikes had been around in 1964, the authors of the Wilderness Act would have been fine with allowing them in wilderness areas.
Nonsense. The same argument could be made of any number of gizmos that became popular in the past half century. The authors of the Wilderness Act knew full well what they were doing—they were protecting the nation’s last, wildest places from excessive human intrusions, present and future.
That language is clear: No form of mechanical transport in wilderness areas. That means no bicycles, mountain or otherwise.
It’s not as if mountain bikers don’t have anywhere else to pursue their passion. There are more than 600 million acres of federally managed land in the United States, much of it open to mountain biking. Designated wilderness areas cover 109 million acres. There are also many areas managed by state and local governments that are open to mountain biking.
Yet Utah’s two Republican senators—Mike Lee and Orrin Hatch—have sponsored the “Human-Powered Travel in Wilderness Areas Act.” The bill would give federal land managers two years to decide whether mountain bikes should be allowed in each of the nation’s 765 wilderness areas. Areas not formally closed to mountain bikes during that window would be deemed open.
The identity of the bill’s sponsors should be reason enough to raise the concerns of conservationists. Lee and Hatch both voice support for efforts to transfer federal land management responsibilities to state and local officials.
There are practical reasons to keep mountain bikes out of wilderness areas. Mountain bikes can tear up trails and fragile soils (although, it must be said, so can horses and hikers). There are conflicts with other users, including hikers and horseback riders. They can spook wildlife.
But there’s a more fundamental reason why Congress should put the kibosh on the proposed legislation.
Two years ago, we marked the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act. “A wilderness,” the authors of the act wrote, “in contrast with those areas where man and his own 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.”
The whole idea of the legislation was to set aside a small slice of a continent dominated by humans and let nature take its course. That ideal is one the most laudable ever conceived by a nation. But it has proven difficult to abide. Do horses belong in wilderness areas? Should cattle be allowed to graze there? Is it proper for state wildlife officials to fly helicopters into wilderness areas?
All of these activities already take place in congressionally designated wilderness areas. Allowing mountain bikes in wilderness areas surely would make this particular slope that much more slippery.
A wilderness, as conceived by those lawmakers more than half a century ago, is a place of solitude and peacefulness, a place offering refuge to all things nonhuman, a place of quiet reflection for our own harried selves. The prospect of mountain bikers bombing down trails atop wheeled, metallic machines (motorized or not) is antithetical to that vision.