When the Columbine Hondo Wilderness was designated near Taos two years ago, conservationists celebrated the addition of 45,000 acres to the nation’s fiercely protective and rarely used category of conservation, and bicyclists mourned their subsequent ban from 75 miles of trails. The issue has carved a rift between the mountain biking community and wilderness conservation advocates—but advocates on both sides seem to be sharing some reservations with recently proposed legislation that would allow bikes within the bounds of wilderness areas all over the US.
The proposed Human-Powered Travel in Wilderness Areas Act would grant local officials with federal land management agencies authority to decide which forms of non-motorized transportation (one that "does not use a propulsive internal or external motor with a nonliving power source") to allow into an area. No decision on the issue within two years defaults to granting access, including the use of small equipment such as chainsaws and wheelbarrows for trail maintenance.
The International Mountain Biking Association survey of members shows that they're split over the issue of allowing bikes in wilderness, and has been striving to balance wilderness designations with other wins for mountain bikers. When the Columbine Hondo Wilderness was approved, for example, it restored mountain biking access to a 20-mile loop on the boundary of the Wheeler Peak Wilderness.
In response to the proposal, the organization has stated that amending the Wilderness Act could come with unintended consequences, especially those that further polarize the conservation and mountain biking communities, and that this bill could somehow further the agenda of public lands seizure.
That concern has been echoed by The Wilderness Society, which sees the proposed legislation as pairing with the public lands takeover efforts that call for returning federally run land to states. The bill was introduced by Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), a longtime supporter of that movement.
"This bill would lead to a management nightmare for already cash-strapped (and often shorthanded) land agencies," reads a blog published by The Wilderness Society. "Some radical mountain biking groups are clamoring to support this legislation, but it would be both bad policy and a bad precedent for American public lands."
Although the legislation creating wilderness areas predates the invention of mountain bikes, they argue, it was written broadly to apply to those kinds of inventions, and that making this kind of exception could lead others to follow.
Whether the drafters truly meant "mechanized" or "motorized" has been a point of debate, and led some advocates to point to the mechanization in something like snowshoes as justification for allowing human-powered bikes into wilderness.
About 17 percent of the 630 million acres of federally managed public lands, and just 3 percent of land in the nation, are designated wilderness areas, according to The Wilderness Society. Other public lands designations, including national monuments and national parks, already allow land managers flexibility to determine whether and where to allow mountain bikes.
"Mountain bikers do need more trails and guaranteed access to the outdoors, but allowing potentially damaging recreation in America's wildest places is not the answer," the Wilderness Society blog continues.
Talks currently underway about the proposal to include another 120,000 acres of roadless areas in the Pecos Wilderness bring the question of how to balance these interests home again to New Mexico.