Legislative History of Bicycles in Wilderness

The Sustainable Trails Coalition believes that the legislative history of the Wilderness Act of 1964 shows that Congress would have wanted to allow bikes in wilderness if mountain bikes had existed or they had thought about them. Everything points to Congress wanting human-powered travel generally.

But the Forest Service has gone back and forth on its understandings of what Congress intended. Allowing bicycles, then banning them, then allowing them unless a local manager banned them, and finally reaffirming a prior blanket ban shows that the question has been revisited numerous times.

We contend that federal land management agencies are interpreting the Wilderness Act inaccurately. In 1977 two of the key backers of the Wilderness Act came to the same conclusion.


"In some areas, the use of this type of equipment has already become established.  To exclude this type of equipment, which to me is compatible with the wilderness concept, would in effect to 'tie' our own hands in administering the areas"

George W. Tourtillot, Division of Legislative Reporting and Liason
In response to query by Gordon Hammon, Division of Recreation and Land Uses regarding bikes


"The forgotten outdoorsmen of today are those who like to walk, hike, ride horseback or bicycle. For them we must have trails as well as highways. Nor should motor vehicles be permitted to tyrannize the more leisurely human traffic."

President Lyndon Johnson
Trails for America, Report on the Nationwide Trails Study


The United States Forest Service defines mechanical transport so as to allow human-powered travel in Wilderness.  Since this is the first regulation implemented to support the Wilderness Act, and since it was implemented within years of the passage of the Act, it seems obvious that this interpretation was to what Congress intended.

"Mechanical transport, as herein used, shall include any contrivance which travels over ground, snow, or water, on wheels, tracks, skids, or by floatation and is propelled by a nonliving power source contained or carried on or within the device."  

36 CFR § 293.6(a) (1973), formerly 36 CFR § 251.75 (1966)


Senator Frank Church (Democrat from Idaho) and Rep. Morris K. Udall (Democrat from Arizona), key backers of the Wilderness Act of 1964, caution that the Forest Service is interpreting the Act too strictly.

Rep. Udall wrote:

"The latter concept of wilderness, the so-called ‘purity’ issue, has involved extensive debate.... that the Forest Service has been unduly restrictive in setting wilderness evaluation criteria which relied solely on the most stringent possible interpretation…”

95th Congress - Report No. 95-540

Senator Frank Church said:

"My final comments tonight concern the issue of wilderness purity. Time after time, when we discuss Wilderness, questions are raised about how developed an area can be and still qualify as wilderness, or what kinds of activities within a wilderness are consistent with the purposes of the Wilderness Act. I believe, and many citizens agree with me, that the agencies are applying provisions of the Wilderness Act too strictly and misconstruing the intent of Congress as to how these areas should be managed."

Wilderness in a Balanced Land Use Framework

The U.S. Forest Service issues a new regulation that prohibits bicycles:

"The following are prohibited in a National Forest Wilderness:... (b) Possessing or using a hang glider or bicycle."

36 CFR § 261.16 (1977), now numbered 36 CFR § 261.18.


When Congress created the Rattlesnake Wilderness in Montana with the Rattlesnake National Recreation Area and Wilderness Act of 1980, 16 USC 460ll, Congress found that cycling is considered “primitive recreation” and would be allowed in the Rattlesnake Wilderness. Congress declared that the Lolo National Forest, in which the Rattlesnake is situated,

“has long been used as a wilderness by Montanans and by people throughout the Nation who value it as a source of solitude, wildlife, clean, free-flowing waters stored and used for municipal purposes for over a century, and primitive recreation, to include such activities as hiking, camping, backpacking, hunting, fishing, horse riding, and bicycling . . . .”

Public Law 96-476


The United States Forest Service issues a third regulation. It is inconsistent with both the 1966 regulation (which permitted bikes) and the 1977 regulation (which prohibited bikes). This new regulation provides for conditional allowance. Bicycles are allowed unless expressly prohibited:

"When provided by an order, the following are prohibited:... (h) possessing or using a bicycle, wagon, cart or other vehicle."

36 CFR § 261.57(h)


In a March 1982 memorandum, the Forest Service calls the 1977 no-bicycles regulation an "editorial error" and "an inconsistency" and says:

"36 CFR 261.16(b) states : 'Possessing or using a hang glider or bicycle.’ During the last CFR Revisions we intended to remove ‘or bicycle’ but the change did not get effected."

"It was our intent to provide for the prohibition of bicycles only where their presence created a conflict or problem and implement the prohibition by use of an order for a specific wilderness."

March 9, 1982 Memo from United States Department of Agriculture

In a June 1982 memorandum, the Forest Service States:

"Previously we have directed that mechanical transport conveyances such as bicycles, wagons, wheelbarrows or deer carriers were not appropriate for wilderness. This may have been unduly restrictive"

June 11, 1982 Memo from United States Department of Agriculture


In a November memorandum, the Forest  Service announces that it has changed its mind and will enforce the 1977 bicycle prohibition.

"Previous discussions and direction on this were confusing because of the ambiguity between the direction provided by the Wilderness Act, the definition of mechanical transport, and the prohibitions in the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR)."

November 21, 1983 Memo from United States Department of Agriculture


On June 21, 1984, the Forest Service announces that the 1977 bicycle prohibition "was supposed to be retained." This final decision to exclude bicycles from Wilderness may have been made on the basis of a single public comment.

36 CFR Parts 251 and 261


On April 21, 1986, the Forest Service announces that the 1966 regulation, which allows for Wilderness travel by living power sources, is to be read as prohibiting Wilderness travel by certain living power sources, including bicycles.

51 FR 13835


On August 4, 1989, H.R.3172 was introduced in the House "To amend the Wilderness Act to allow the use of bicycles in wilderness areas."   The bill was referred to the Subcommittee on National Parks and Public Lands without further action.



The National Parks Service amends current regulations and authorizes park superintendents to open trails to bike use when they determine they are appropriate.  This is really the exact same legislation that Sustainable Trails Coalition seeks for Wilderness areas.

36 CFR Part 4


The Sustainable Trails Coalition forms to try and fix this situation.