Not all bikers against wilderness proposal |

Not all bikers against wilderness proposal

Jeff Dempsey
The Park Record
A mountain biker rides through the Boulder-White Clouds Wilderness Area in Idaho before it received that designation. The area was a popular spot for MTB.
Courtesy of IMBA

In an interview last week with The Park Record, Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance Executive Director Scott Groene said it was his understanding that the mountain biking community is united against the Human-Powered Travel in Wilderness Act. The bill, introduced by Utah senators Mike Lee and Orrin Hatch, would allow local land managers the discretion to allow mountain bikes and motorized trail cutting equipment into designated wilderness areas. Bruce Alt, International Mountain Bicycling Association’s vice president of government relations, said IMBA is not, as Groene said, against the bill. Their official position, he said, is more nuanced.

“The prospect of people traveling by bicycle in Congressionally designated wilderness is a polarizing issue,” Alt said. “And we know empirically, from our recently completed IMBA member survey, that our membership is split nearly right down the middle on this issue. Further, this issue is creating an unproductive divide (where there should be more common ground based on shared values of conservation of our public lands) between the mountain bike community and the longstanding community of wilderness advocates.”

Alt said IMBA is pleased to see a national conversation take place on the issue of mountain bikes on wilderness trails, but he said one of the organization’s core principles is to be good stewards of the land, and that means being cautious when amending the Wilderness Act is being discussed.

“IMBA is… on record with the strong belief that amending the Wilderness Act comes not only with a risk of unintended consequences, especially political consequences and further polarization of the stewardship and outdoor recreation community, and is unnecessary to preserve mountain bike access while also achieving landscape level conservation,” he said. “While we commend Senators Lee and Hatch for their interest, we also have deep concerns that there are other agendas that this Bill could facilitate, especially a public land seizure agenda.”

IMBA released a joint statement May 18 with the Sustainable Trails Coalition wherein IMBA stated its position: they respect STC’s approach and do not oppose it, however IMBA chooses not to support STC’s legislative reform efforts.

“IMBA’s team of government relations staff and advisors will continue to monitor the legislative process, as we do with any draft legislation that has the potential to impact public lands and mountain biking access,” Alt said. “In fact, we are currently monitoring a number of bills in Congress that deal with mountain bike access, both in current Wilderness and proposed wilderness.

“This is not new territory for IMBA and our members should rest assured that we will seek the best win-win solutions to preserve mountain biking access while also keeping in mind what’s best for the long term conservation of our nation’s public lands.”

Alt said IMBA works with its members across the country to help shape new wilderness proposals that take into account outdoor recreators and land preservation. He said the perception that mountain bikes have a negative impact on the environment is one IMBA continues to fight against.

“Mountain biking is a low-impact, human-powered, healthy outdoor recreational activity that relies upon access to natural surface trails by people seeking a nature-based experience,” he said. “Advocates for public lands conservation increasingly understand and recognize the sustainability and environmentally low impact of mountain biking and cooperate with IMBA’s efforts to create, enhance and preserve trail access.”

One thing about Lee’s bill Alt said IMBA is firmly in support of is the redefinition of mountain biking from “mechanized transport” to “non-motorized.”

“The ‘mechanized transport’ language codified in regulations written for the 1964 Wilderness Act is ill-defined and unnecessarily confusing to many public land managers in the U.S. Forest Service and other federal land management agencies,” Alt said. “The effect of this ‘mechanized’ definition is human-powered bicycles being managed in the same manner as motorized forms of travel.”

Local biker offers support

Alex Deckard started the website in 2013 as a way to share his trail photography and love of mountain biking with the community. Like many mountain bikers, he said his initial reaction to Lee’s bill announcement was skeptical, at best.

“I definitely believe people are prejudiced against the bill because of who introduced it,” he said. “I think that’s been a prominent theme in this debate. Hatch and Lee and the whole ‘Trojan horse’ aspect of it. Initially that was my thought as well. To be honest, I’m not politically aligned with our two senators.”

It was after reading the bill through himself, Deckard said, that he came to support the bill.

“I’m a big proponent of bikes in select wilderness areas,” he said. “I think often wilderness is used not necessarily as it was intended but as a kind of heavy-handed approach to preservation of land that isn’t necessarily worthy of wilderness designation, and as such bikes kind of get shunned.”

Deckard said he appreciates that the bill would allow local land managers discretion to allow mountain bikes in wilderness areas, and he cited a case from last year as a reason why.

“Trails that mountain bikers have had a hand in building and historically ridden are often off limits,” he said. “We saw this last year at Boulder-White Clouds in Idaho. That was historically a mountain bike area. People who are not even attached to this land in any way are making decisions about its use. And as a result, many in the local community are locked out of their own backyard lands.

“So I think this bill is a good opportunity for local land managers to have a say in what is appropriate and what is not appropriate in terms of user access to wilderness.”

The bill would be applied on a case-by-case basis, Deckard said, and he also believes it is written narrowly enough that there is no room for exploitation.

“There’s no room for this bill to be used to exploit public lands for resource extraction, which I know is a concern for everyone, mountain bikers and conservationists alike,” he said. “I would encourage everyone to read through the bill before they make a decision. Don’t just read Facebook comments and draw your conclusions from there. Read the bill yourself.”

To read the Human-Powered Travel in Wilderness Act proposal, visit

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