Mountains Without Handrails: Wilderness Without Bikes

Mountains Without Handrails; Wilderness Without Bikes
Sandi Zellmer, April 25 2017

H.R.1349—a bill to ensure that the use of bicycles, wheelchairs, strollers, and game carts is not prohibited in Wilderness Areas—was introduced in the 115th Congress by Rep. Tom McClintock (R-CA) in March and referred to the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Federal Lands. It is co-sponsored by Duncan Hunter (R-CA), Bruce Westerman (R-AR), and Stevan Pearce (R.-NM).

The bill, which is similar to one that died last session, would lift a longstanding national ban on biking in federally designated wilderness areas. Mountain bike advocates argue that lifting the ban wouldn’t harm wilderness because federal land managers in charge of specific wilderness areas would retain the authority to limit access on a case by case basis. Bike advocates also believe that access equates to support for wilderness from mountain bike groups that build and maintain trails, and that wilderness rules should adapt to a generational shift in how people engage in outdoor recreation.

The issue boils down to humility, and to putting nature first.

The opening lines of the Wilderness Act declare the congressional purpose “to assure that an increasing population, accompanied by expanding settlement and growing mechanization, does not occupy and modify all areas within the United States.”  “Wilderness” is defined in the Act as something quite different than the vast majority of land in the United States: “an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man,” where people experience “outstanding opportunities for solitude or a primitive and unconfined type of recreation.” The Act achieves its goals by prohibiting mechanical transport, motorized vehicles and equipment, roads, structures, and installations. Bikes are prohibited in wilderness under the express terms of the Act—they are mechanical transport, with gears, gear shifts, derailleurs, cables, chains, tires, spokes, pedals, and other machine parts. Bikes are also antithetical to the very idea of wilderness—untrammeled, unconfined places where something other than human occupation takes precedence.

The McClintock bill would authorize not only mountain bikes but also wheelchairs, strollers, and game carts. Presumably, the inclusion of these devices is intended to garner support from diverse constituencies. But wheelchairs are already allowed pursuant to the terms of the Americans with Disabilities Act, which provides, “nothing in the Wilderness Act prohibits wheelchair use in a wilderness area by an individual whose disability requires its use.” The reference to game carts is a nod to hunting advocates and State Game & Fish Departments, for whom enhanced hunting opportunities mean enhanced revenues. As for strollers, many a hiker has enjoyed wilderness with babies in backpacks; wheels may make it easier in some places, but rocks, roots, gullies, and downed logs serve as natural deterrents—that is, unless we pave and regularly clear the trails, which would be trammeling to an extreme.

Preventing trammeling has two facets: preventing adverse physical impacts on wilderness resources and preventing adverse spiritual and psychological impacts on those who choose to be present in wilderness rather than a national or state park, devoted to all sorts of motorized and mechanized recreation (hence Joseph Sax’s plea for leaving at least some “Mountains Without Handrails”). Since the Act’s passage in 1964, wilderness was always intended to be something different, something uniquely wild and not subject to human manipulation and human comfort and convenience. Recreation? Yes, absolutely. Motorized or mechanized transport or equipment? Considering that only two percent of the lower 48 states is in wilderness status, saying no is not too much to ask.

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The Society for Wilderness Stewardship is a non-profit, charitable organization under the 501 (c)(3) section of the Internal Revenue Code.