Wilderness is a tough concept to address these days. Very little pristine wilderness exists, and what that term even means is up for discussion. This debate is being given new life in the United States as two conservative senators have proposed opening up official wilderness to mountain bikers.
In July, senators Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) filed the “Human-Powered Travel in Wilderness Areas Act," which would allow local Federal officials to determine whether or not to allow "nonmotorized" vehicles, i.e. human-powered, i.e. bikes, into wilderness areas.
While allowing bikes in wilderness may seem uncontroversial at first thought, the history of these lands, their role in contemporary conservation, and the motives behind the senators' actions are all cause for scrutiny, according to environmental groups.
Michael Carroll, Senior Director of the People Outdoors Program for The Wilderness Society, said the bill "undermines one of our bedrock conservation laws."
"We live in an age in which our lives are heavily influenced by technology and mechanization," he said. "We need to protect wilderness areas as a place of refuge from these influences. We believe our need for wilderness—as described in the original Wilderness Act—is greater now than it ever has been. The Lee-Hatch bill eliminates wilderness."
When the Wilderness Act was passed in 1964, it forbade “mechanical transport” in federal wilderness areas, which now cover about 5% of the entire United States, with slightly more than half of that being in Alaska. The National Park Service, Forest Service, Fish and Wildlife Service, and Bureau of Land Management share the responsibility of administering these 109 million acres of wilderness. Right now they all forbid mountain bikes.
Carroll said it's not surprising that Lee and Hatch are championing the bill.
"The Lee-Hatch proposal is a cynical attempt to drive a wedge between the conservation and recreation communities and use the smoke screen of more mountain bicycling access to eliminate wilderness," he said. "Utah lawmakers have led the charge to eliminate federal public lands and this is just another part of their larger agenda to get rid of the protected public lands that belong to all Americans."
According to the League of Conservation Voters, both Hatch and Lee have a 10% lifetime rating on their environmental scorecards (last year they scored 0% and 4%, respectively). The U.S. Senate average last year was 45%.
Jackson Ratcliffe, one of the co-founders and directors of the Sustainable Trails Coalition, which helped construct the legislation and is leading the effort to pass the bill, said those fearing the bill's repercussions are confused in their logic.
"For those who fear that allowing bicycles will lead to motorized travel, they have it backwards," he said. "When Wilderness defenders won’t embrace reasonable access, they breed hostility and make eventual unreasonable access more likely. Those who talk about fracking or giving land away are just fear-mongering as this very simple bill has nothing to do with those issues."
As for Sen. Lee's motivations, Ratcliffe said STC takes him at his word.
"We believe that Sen. Lee is doing this for one simple reason—it's the right thing to do," said Ratcliffe. "He understands that the intent of Congress with the Wilderness Act included recreation in addition to resource protection."
Ratcliffe also said that Lee might be interested in the economic gains that the bill could bring to rural Utah, saying that "mountain bikers love to travel and spend dollars when visiting rural towns adjacent to great trails."
The issue also breaks down at a local level, depending on the status and quantity of a region's bike trails.
"In states like CA, ID, and MT, where new wilderness designations are being created, or being considered, and mountain bikers are losing more and more trails, the mountain bike community is very much in support of our efforts," Ratcliffe said. "In areas that have little Wilderness areas, or places like CO where there are tons of areas that allow bikes, support has been more muted because the issue is not as acute as it is for us in CA."
The official organization for mountain bikers, the International Mountain Biking Association (IMBA), has remained mostly neutral on the bill, not wanting to create a major rift between mountain bikers and the environmental community.
Eleanor Blick, Communications Manager with the IMBA, told me that "the organization will continue to respect both the Wilderness Act and the federal land agencies' regulations that bicycles are not allowed in existing Wilderness areas."
At the same time, IMBA "respects STC’s approach and does not oppose it, but chooses not to support STC’s legislative reform efforts."
"However, IMBA is also on record with the strong belief that amending the Wilderness Act comes with a risk of unintended consequences and has deep concerns there are other agendas this bill could facilitate, especially a public land seizure agenda," Blick said.
Instead, IMBA is focusing on advocacy efforts where mountain bike trails could be lost and where potential Wilderness areas could be protected under less restrictive designations, such as National Monuments or National Recreation Areas.
In July, Sen. Hatch said in a statement that “Utah is blessed with an abundance of beautiful wilderness, and Americans should be free to enjoy it.”
Abundant wilderness is an oxymoron in the 21st century. Taking it for granted is a good way to make sure it will soon be destroyed. Outdoor enthusiasts of all stripes understand this. It's a matter striking the right balance and passing the right policies.
"We should remember that of the 109 million acres of designated Wilderness, half of this is in Alaska and with the exception of California and Arizona, all other states have less than 10% of their land base in Wilderness," said Carroll. "There are plenty of non-wilderness lands that are open to mountain biking and where additional mountain bike trails and opportunities can be created."
For now, if people don't want to hike through U.S. Wilderness, they can always ride a horse.