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US House proposes bill to allow mountain bikes in wilderness areas

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Sand to Snow was one of three desert areas designated as national monuments on Friday, February 12, 2016.
Mason Cummings, The Wilderness Society
Sand to Snow was one of three desert areas designated as national monuments on Friday, February 12, 2016.

The bill would open up the country's 109 million acres of protected wilderness. However, it also has the potential to put mountain bikers and conservationists at odds.

The U.S. House of Representatives is considering a bill that would allow bicycles in designated wilderness areas. And that's pitting groups that have typically been allies against one another.

Can conservation and recreation coexist? KPCC's Meghan McCarty Carino spoke with Outside magazine contributing editor Christopher Solomon about the Wilderness Act and what, exactly, the new legislation is proposing.

Interview Highlights

The Wilderness Act of 1964 and the proposed bill to alter it

It is the highest level of land protection that we offer in the United States, and it has very strict rules about what can and can not happen on a parcel of land. Wilderness designation is applied to about 109 million acres of the public estate in the U.S. Right now, there is a bill in the House that would alter the Wilderness Act to allow bicycling, which sounds modest but has all sorts of interesting and problematic implications.

Can conservationists and mountain bikers coexist?

That's one of the things that's intriguing about this and also perhaps kind of nefarious is that it is pitting some historic allies against each other. There are some schisms in the recreation community at the moment which are pretty unhealthy. Some mountain bikers, a small but vocal minority, are very interested in cracking open the Wilderness Act to be able to bicycle in the wilderness preservation system. The International Mountain Bike Assn. has come out against it, but there's a very vocal minority pushed by the Sustainable Trails Coalition.

Why hikers object to mountain bikes on these trails

Some people who are hikers have a beef with mountain bikes generally. Mountain bikes go fast, they can come seemingly out of nowhere. Some people feel like they do things like erode the trails more, but the jury's still out if mountain bikes are that much worse for trails than say horses which are allowed in wilderness.

The debate over the future of public lands under the Republication administration

These mountain bikers who want access to wilderness are being co-opted in this larger war over public lands right now, and this desire to get what they want, which is access to wilderness on bikes, they're becoming a pawn in this struggle to weaken environmental laws; 2017 has been one of the worst for the environment in the U.S. in modern American history. Mountain bikers who want access to wilderness are very reluctant to acknowledge that.

The future of the Wilderness Act if bicycles are allowed

It is the camel's nose under the tent. There's the bill itself, which is only about four sentences long, and the bill just says without qualification that bikes will be allowed in the wilderness preservation system. Proponents say it will give land mangers a chance to pick and choose where they go, but the bill doesn't say that. There's a question of once you start tinkering with some of the most bedrock laws that protect our environment, what does that open for the future. Bikes are not mentioned in the Wilderness Act of 1964 per se. The prospect of people biking 35, 40 miles deep into back country on trails was not thought of then. So they say, 'We want in.' The founders of the Wilderness Act drew a line, and you may not like where the line was drawn, but that's where they drew it. They tried to hold it for the future to keep these places as they were, and we can't keep moving that line for every generation's entertainment.

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