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Bill to allow mountain biking in Wilderness areas reintroduced
S.1695 would leave decisions up to local management agencies
Maroon Bells
If a bill recently introduced by Utah Senator Mike Lee were to make its way into law, legally designated Wilderness areas, like the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness outside Aspen, could have mountain bikes added to their already-dense recreational mix. - photo by Jordan Curet

The Roaring Fork Valley is cocooned by legally designated Wilderness. Extending from Independence Pass to the summit of Mount Sopris, you’ve got the Collegiate Peaks, the Hunter-Fryingpan and the Maroon Bells-Snowmass, one of the original areas designated as Wilderness when the Wilderness Act was passed into law in 1964.

It’s an embarrassment of Wilderness — capital “W” — riches equaled by few places in the country and, consequently, Wilderness flows through the Valley’s veins every bit as much as the Roaring Fork, Fryingpan and Crystal rivers.

Of course, there have been issues, most of which are associated with high use numbers. Two years ago, for instance, a backcountry camping permit system had to be instituted in the Conundrum Hot Springs area of the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness to help ease overcrowding at backcountry campsites.

For the most part, however, it’s pretty much been smooth sailing when it comes to the management of those three Wilderness areas.

That could change if a proposal put forth by the California-based Sustainable Trails Coalition makes its way into law.

The STC was founded in 2010 by a man named Ted Stroll, who had tried to get the various federal land-management agencies that administer the Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail to loosen up what he considers to be overbearing regulations regarding mountain biking.

His efforts failed, which led Stroll, an attorney who describes himself as an avid mountain biker, to take a larger view.

“It was obvious that the agencies were never going to do anything to change,” he said. “As more and more Wilderness areas are established, that’s more areas that mountain bikers can’t ride. Some places, we have been riding for years, and, suddenly, it’s declared a Wilderness and we can’t legally ride there anymore.”

Hiking trail
As it stands now, only traditional, non-mechanized means of transport are allowed in legally designated Wilderness areas. Hiking, horseback riding, skiing and snowshoeing are allowed. Mountain bikes and motorized vehicles are not. - photo by Jordan Curet
Stroll is of the opinion that Congress, when it passed the Wilderness Act in 1964, never intended to prohibit bicycles.

He contends that, from 1964 to 1984, bikes were indeed allowed in Wilderness areas — though, of course, mountain bikes as we now know then did not exist during most of that time.

It was only in 1984, according to Stroll, that the Forest Service — which manages most of the country’s legally designated Wilderness areas, including those found in the Roaring Fork Valley — amended its interpretation of the Wilderness Act in such a way that the then-new sport of mountain biking was excluded from the country’s most-protected public lands.

This marks the fourth straight year that the STC has backed — some would say spearheaded — legislation that would, if passed into law, amend the Wilderness Act in such a way that mountain bikes would be allowed in legally designated Wilderness areas. At this juncture, mountain bikes are considered “mechanized transport” and, therefore, are prohibited from entering Wilderness areas.

Stroll points not to the word “mechanized,” but, rather, to the less-confrontative term “human powered.” He is of the staunch opinion that Wilderness areas ought to be open to all self-propelled forms of transportation, including mountain bikes.

And, once again, he has found what some consider an unlikely ally in his efforts: Utah Senator Mike Lee (R), whose lifetime Environmental Scorecard from the League of Conservation ranks dead last — literally 535 out of 535 — among all members of Congress.

On May 23, Lee, chair of the Senate Public Lands, Forest and Mining Subcommittee, introduced his “Human-Powered Travel in Wilderness Act,” which, according to a press release issued on June 12 by the STC, would “give federal agencies additional authority to regulate bicycling and other human-powered travel in federal Wilderness areas.”

Not surprisingly, there are people who believe that Stroll has entered into a Faustian deal that, were it to be etched in legislative stone, would ultimately open a Pandora’s Box that would eventually rip the very heart out of the Wilderness Act.

Stroll thinks that’s a load of caca.

Lee’s bill would grant local federal land management officials in the Forest Service, the National Park Service, the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service “the authority to determine whether, where and when to allow permissible forms of non-motorized travel over particular trails.”

“The National Wilderness Preservation System was created so that the American people could enjoy our country’s priceless natural areas,” Lee said via email. “This bill would enrich Americans’ enjoyment of the outdoors by expanding recreational opportunities in Wilderness areas. The Wilderness Act of 1964 prohibits the use of motor vehicles, motorized equipment, motorboats and other forms of mechanical transport. This bill would insert language to the Wilderness Act to ensure that the rules restricting ‘mechanical transport’ do not include forms of non-motorized travel in which the sole propulsive power is one or more persons.”

Redstone resident Delia Malone, wildlife team chairperson of the Rocky Mountain Chapter of the Sierra Club, thinks that’s a skewed reading of the Wilderness Act.

“The use of mountain bikes in Wilderness undermines both the concept and integrity of Wilderness,” Malone says. “As specified in the Wilderness Act, Wilderness is to be managed to preserve natural conditions. Mountain bike use degrades natural conditions. Further, Wilderness is defined as areas that have been ‘primarily affected by the forces of nature with the imprints of humans substantially unnoticeable.’ Mountain bike impacts substantially and negatively affect both the land and the native wildlife species that are integral to Wilderness.”

“The bill will not open Wilderness trails to mountain biking unless the federal agency in charge of a Wilderness area authorizes it or takes no action within two years,” Stroll said in an interview in early July. “In the latter case, it is presumed that it wishes to run a pilot program, and the bill will allow it to do this, without disallowing additional environmental and social-interaction reviews if the agency thinks they are needed. Trails would open to human-powered travel, letting agency staff monitor the result. They would still be able to restrict or prohibit mountain biking and other human-powered recreational activities.”

The STC’s June 12 press release states: “S.1695 does not require creating trails or modifying existing ones to facilitate bicycling or other human-powered uses, and the character of a Wilderness area is to be preserved. STC trusts Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, and National Park Service rangers to manage their land. The only people who will be opposing this legislation are those who question the skills of USFS, BLM, and NPS employees and think they’re incapable of regulating human-powered travel.”

That statement is something of a red herring according to the man whose job it is to supervise the Wilderness areas found in the Roaring Fork Valley.

Scott Fitzwilliams has been the Supervisor of the White River National Forest — which covers the RFV — for 10 years. His 2.3-million-acre domain, which contains eight Wilderness areas totaling 754,000 acres — is the most-recreationally used national forest in the country. He is adamantly against the notion of allowing mountain bikes into Wilderness areas.

“When Congress passed the Wilderness Act in 1964, they rightfully determined that only non-mechanized, traditional means of travel should be allowed,” Fitzwilliams says. “Only 2.7 percent of the land in the Lower 48 is designated as Wilderness. I think it’s important we continue to manage that small amount of land the way Congress stipulated in 1964.”

Fitzwilliams stresses that he is not anti-mountain bike.

“The mountain bike explosion has been great,” he says. “And I understand how mountain bikers would like to have new opportunities on new trails. But we don’t need to have a trail for every type of use in every place.”

He also is of the opinion that, were Lee’s bill to pass, local opposition would be stiff.

“I don’t think the public would tolerate it,” he says.

The process as mandated by Lee’s bill would be an administrative pain in the posterior, according to Fitzwilliams.

“We would have two years to study this, and we do not  have the manpower,” he says. “Would we have to go through the NEPA process to determine whether certain trails in the Wilderness are appropriate for mountain bike use? Would we have to go through NEPA to determine that no Wilderness trails are appropriate for mountain bike use? If Congress changes the law, we will abide by their decision, but it would be massively difficult and would present many administrative challenges.”

Forest sign
Scott Fitzwilliams, who has been the supervisor of the White River National Forest for 10 years, thinks that allowing mountain bikes in Wilderness would be counter to the original intent of the 1964 Wilderness Act. - photo by Jordan Curet
And there is not just opposition to Lee’s Senate Bill 1695 from the local agency that would have to implement its components were it to pass into law.

The mountain bike community itself is not on board with it. 

Two years ago, the Boulder-based International Mountain Biking Association (IMBA) issued a statement in opposition to HR 1349 — a House of Representatives precursor to Lee’s S.1695.

“IMBA is not supporting this legislation and has submitted its testimony to the House Natural Resources Committee,” the statement read. “IMBA’s mission does not include amending the Wilderness Act and never has. In 2016, IMBA’s board of directors reaffirmed our position on this issue, which is to respect both the Act and the federal land agency regulations that bicycles are not allowed in existing, Congressionally designated Wilderness areas.”

“Believe me, I would like to see mountain bikers regain access to some Wilderness trails as much as anyone,” Dave Wiens, IMBA executive director, wrote in a Dec. 9, 2017, blog. “However, we feel strongly that HR 1349, while addressing an important aspect of land protection reform (bicycles in Wilderness) is not in the best interest of mountain biking long-term.”

Mike Pritchard, who has been the executive director of the Roaring Fork Mountain Bike Association for the past five-and-a-half years, says his group, which has about 400 members, has chosen to “not engage in this topic.”

“It is a divisive issue that is not likely to succeed,” Pritchard says. “It is not a good use of our time. We have gotten few if any comments from local mountain bikers indicating we should support it. Even if it were to pass, it would likely get caught up in the courts because the conservation movement would battle any watering down of the Wilderness Act.

“On the local level, if it were to pass, the process would have to determine if any Wilderness trails were even rideable,” Pritchard continues. “A lot of them are already overcrowded and being loved to death. Only a limited number of people would even be able to ride our Wilderness trails. I think Ted’s a nice fellow, but I don’t think he will be successful.”

Pritchard says the RFMTA is focused on measures such as the passage of the Colorado Outdoor Recreation and Economy (CORE) Act, introduced in January by Colorado Senator Michael Bennet and Second District Colorado Congressman Joe Neguse.

According to a joint press release issued by Bennet and Neguse, the CORE Act would “protect approximately 400,000 acres of public land in Colorado, establishing new wilderness areas and safeguarding existing outdoor recreation opportunities to boost the economy for future generations” — that last clause meaning the Act will include plenty of areas that will remain open to mountain biking.

Stroll thinks such efforts, though laudable, do not go far enough.

“As it stands now, you can’t ride into the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness over to Crested Butte on a mountain bike,” Stroll says. “We just want those decisions to be made on a local level so that interested parties can more easily be part of the decision-making process. I get it that the Maroon Bells are way overused, but most of that use is between Memorial Day and Labor Day. Maybe, with local input, we can make it so mountain bikes are allowed in on Tuesdays after Labor Day but not on rainy days. Something like that.”

One of the biggest concerns expressed by opponents of Stroll’s efforts is that S.1695 would be the first step in the eventual watering down of the Wilderness Act. Today mountain bikes, tomorrow chainsaws, the day after that, dirt bikes and ATVs, the next week, oil and gas exploration.

Stroll calls accusations that Lee’s bill would eventually lead to further compromises of the Wilderness Act a “classic slippery slope logical fallacy.”

Hunter fryingpan
The Roaring Fork Valley is home to three legally designated Wilderness areas — the Hunter-Fryingpan, the Maroon Bells-Snowmass and the Collegiate Peaks. - photo by Jordan Curet
“It’s the same perspective that said, if we don’t stop the communists in South Vietnam, next, they’ll take over Honolulu,” Stroll said. “It’s the same logic that said, if states raised their speed limits over 55 miles per hour, the death toll on our highways would rise. Well, they did, and it didn’t. The death rate on our highways keeps dropping. Just because mountain biking gets allowed on some trails in some Wilderness areas does not mean the Wilderness Act will be gutted.”

Will Roush, conservation director for the Carbondale-based Wilderness Workshop, fears that is exactly what will happen.

“The bill’s sponsor is an anti-public-lands extremist who wants to gut one of the country’s most significant public lands bills,” said Roush, who counts himself as a mountain biker. “I have numerous concerns, including its precedential nature, that, by making one change to the Wilderness Act, it will eventually open up Wilderness areas to motorized use.

“S.1695, was introduced in May by one of the Senate’s most anti-public land and anti-wilderness Senators in the Country,” Roush continued. “It would significantly undermine and harm the original intent, spirit and management of Wilderness areas across the country. Mountain biking is one of the best ways to enjoy public lands, not to mention a personal favorite of mine, but it’s an activity that doesn’t belong in designated Wilderness, which comprises only a small fraction of all public lands.”

Karin Teague, an attorney who serves as executive director of the Independence Pass Foundation, expresses similar sentiment.

“I think the Wilderness Act is one of the most elegant, prescient and effective pieces of legislation ever written, one for which I and millions of Americans are grateful every day,” Teague says. “I say if it ain't broke, don't fix it. And don’t let cynical, manipulative legislators open up our children’s and grandchildren’s natural heritage to oil & gas drilling, logging, mining, road-building, and everything else that is guaranteed to follow under the subterfuge of opening up Wilderness ‘just to mountain biking.’”

Conn Carroll, Senator Lee’s communications director, calls that assertion preposterous.

“It’s nothing more than fearmongering,” Carroll says. “This has nothing to do with opening Wilderness areas to motorized anything. This is about maintaining the pristineness of Wilderness areas while allowing as much human enjoyment of those areas as possible. It’s about allowing local land management agencies to make the decisions.”

Thing is, the chances of Lee’s “Human-Powered Travel in Wilderness Areas Act” getting passed are next to nil with the House of Representatives now being controlled by the Democrats. Hell, its three previous incarnations couldn’t make it through a Congress with both chambers controlled by the Republicans.

“Given the lack of support from organizations like the International Mountain Biking Association and Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, I’m confident S.1695 will not be signed into law,” Roush says.

So, why then are Lee and Stroll putting forth this effort yet again with little hope of the proposed law getting passed?

Stroll says that, if S.1695 can make its way out of the Senate Public Lands, Forests and Mining Subcommittee to its parent Energy and Natural Resources Committee, then maybe a new law won’t be needed.

“If S.1695 goes before the full committee, then there will be hearings,” Stroll says. “And then people like me will be called to testify. I have testified before in support of the bills introduced in the past three years. Maybe we can convince the land management agencies to administratively change their interpretation of the Wilderness Act. They can do that.

“Or,” he continues, “maybe the language of this bill can get incorporated into another bill and passed that way.”

Implicit in Stroll’s statements is this: With an administration in power that, with the stroke of a presidential pen, significantly cut the acreage included in two national monuments — Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante (both located in Sen. Lee’s home state) — anything is possible.

At this point, according to Carroll, S.1695 has been assigned to the Energy and Natural Resources Committee. It is not yet scheduled for a hearing. There is no guarantee it will be heard by that committee.