Frequently Asked Questions
Frequently Asked Questions
No. You won’t see us advocating for bicycles on trails like the John Muir Trail and many others. We think local land managers should be empowered to do what works for a trail based on various factors, including current usage, the resources available for trail maintenance, and the possibility of repairing a neglected trail.
No. This bill, the Human-Powered Travel in Wilderness Areas Act, will not open a single mile of trail. In fact, many trails are unlikely to ever be open to bicycles. If the bill becomes law, it will only reverse the total ban on bicycles, enacted by the USFS many years ago and copied by other agencies, that blocks bicycling on every Wilderness trail in the United States and the Pacific Crest Trail. Instead, it will allow local land managers to do what’s in the best interest of each trail. That’s the system the Forest Service had in place for Wilderness from 1981–1984.
This article was written by John Fisch on Singletracks.com, and we like it so much that we're just going to link to the article:
The chainsaw provision isn’t about cutting down live trees; it’s about responsible and necessary trail maintenance to remove dead trees lying across trails.
Since its enactment in 1964, the Wilderness Act has allowed the Forest Service to use chainsaws to efficiently clear tree blowdowns. There is evidence that the Forest Service disliked Wilderness designations in the 1970s, and it’s rumored it wanted to hamper new ones by making it too difficult to maintain Wilderness. One way to do this was to ignore the Act and require the impossible task of maintaining thousands of miles of Wilderness trails with primitive tools only.
Senator Frank Church, one of the great conservationists in American history, detected that the Forest Service was doing this. In 1977 he warned, “the Forest Service with its purist doctrine is trying to scuttle the Wilderness Act.”
The Forest Service’s refusal to use chainsaws to clear debris has, as Senator Church worried about, caused many trails to be abandoned. A Government Accountability Office report concluded in 2013 that the Forest Service could sustain only 25% of its trail mileage. This bill will nudge it to use its resources more efficiently. Yet if it persists in refusing, the bill won’t force it to do so.
As Mount Whitney hikers know, federal land managers currently require permits for some Wilderness trails. If it is in a trail’s best interest, a manager could also require permits to control bicycle traffic. (And no, we don’t envision mountain bikers being allowed to carry a bike to the top of Mount Whitney, or wanting to try.)
No. The bill is narrowly written to give on-scene federal land managers the authority to determine what types of human-powered travel, if any, are allowed on local trails, and to use modern handheld tools to maintain those trails. It stops there. There are no hidden agendas, loopholes, or other possible negative repercussions from this bill. Please take the time to read the text and you can see that it is very focused on those two issues and carefully written.
The “and for other purposes” language merely means that not all of the information about the bill can fit into the title. To know what is in the bill, just read the bill itself. These words are not part of the bill and do not create an open-ended law, and are commonly used when bills are introduced. “And for other purposes” is simply a way to shorten the title or description of what the bill does.
Senators Lee and Hatch, both from Utah, deserve congratulations for doing the right thing for Wilderness and Wilderness visitors. The senators introduced the bill courageously, knowing that not everyone would agree with all aspects of it.
Doing the right thing for trails has nothing to do with being Republican or Democrat. The bill will benefit mountain bikers by returning access that should not have been revoked. The bill will benefit hikers, equestrians and other trail users by improving trail maintenance and sustainability. The bill isn’t partisan, which will become even more apparent when Democrats co-sponsor it and eventually vote for it. Supporters of all political viewpoints need to let every Senator and Representative know they should co-sponsor the bill and vote to reverse the blanket ban.
The Human-Powered Travel in Wilderness Areas Act is written in such a way that a U.S. Forest Service ranger who runs an area as small as a ranger district can set up a meeting with local interested parties, perhaps via e-mail and a newspaper ad or article. Then the ranger and interested people will sit down at a table with maps and work out where mountain biking and baby-strollers are likely to be problem-free.
The bill does not require long, expensive public hearings with lawyers in attendance, followed by the national forest issuing a 200-page report five years later, followed by a decade of appeals. Such overkill is completely unnecessary for so minor a decision, i.e., where bicycles, baby strollers, and hunters’ hand-walked game carriers can go. All of these devices have a minimal environmental impact. Any social impact will be manageable, or the ranger won’t permit the use (or can revoke it if a problem arises).
So the bill envisions a relatively informal pilot program with a government employee having a lot of flexibility.
If the forest ranger fails to act in two years then the pilot program would begin automatically. But even then, the ranger would retain full authority to decide on allowed uses, just as he or she did before the two-year period expired. He or she could say no mountain biking and that would be that, whether before or after two years.
Without a deadline, there’s no enforcement mechanism to get federal agencies to take any action. Years could go by in which agencies prepare elaborate and needless plans to decide on trail access, only to arrive at a stalemate and do nothing to implement them. The years-long failure to reroute the Continental Divide Trail at Lujan Pass in Colorado is a perfect example of what can happen—i.e., nothing, despite (and because of) endless and unproductive wrangling and arguing. See, e.g., http://www.americantrails.org/resources/volunteer/Colorado-Trail-Lujan-reroute.html
Some have argued that the two year time limit is too short. With 765 Wilderness areas, 765 different people can quickly and easily make these determinations - it need not progress sequentially. Additionally, with the recent White Clouds & Hemingway-Boulders Wilderness areas, they had a three year time limit to create an entire 'wilderness management plan'. If USFS can create an entire wilderness plan in 3 years, they can make a simple determination whether a trail is appropriate for bike travel in two years.
One could ask the same question of the opponents of relaxing human-powered travel bans in Wilderness. The answer, of course, is that much Wilderness is beautiful, scenic, remote, challenging country, far from the noise and hubbub of civilization. We would like to visit it by bicycle for the same reasons our opponents don’t want us to do that—at its best, it’s iconic.
Denying mountain bikers access to Wilderness on the ground that it’s relatively little land overlooks that much, probably most, public land is vast, trackless terrain with little scenic appeal. Few mountain bikers desire to struggle over thousands of square miles of arid, treeless BLM land in Nevada, Arizona, and Wyoming with no trails and lots of sagebrush. Nor would hikers or equestrians want to do that.
STC seeks to restore Congress’s vision for Wilderness travel, not undermine it. In the Wilderness Act of 1964, Congress said visitors are not allowed to operate “motor vehicles” or “motorized equipment.” E-bikes fall into one or both of these categories, so STC would oppose any legislative effort to introduce them into Wilderness. (We don’t know of any such effort and think it’s unlikely one will be made.)
More information on STC’s position is available here.
Please send us an email at email@example.com.
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"
"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…”
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."
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 . . . .”
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."
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"
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)."
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.
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.
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.
The Sustainable Trails Coalition forms to try and fix this situation.
Congress's Intent in Banning Mechanical Transport in the Wilderness Act of 1964. by Theodore J. Stroll. For the Sustainable Trails Coalition, we believe that this is the most important document because Congress's intent is ultimately why the Act was created.
Natural Resource Impacts of Mountain Biking - A summary of scientific studies that compare mountain biking to other forms of trail travel by IMBA.
Assessing and Understanding Trail Degradation - U.S. Department of the Interior Final Research Report, 2006.
The Trouble with Preservation, or, Getting Back to the Wrong Term for Wilderness Protection - Academic research paper that raises questions about the interplay between considerations of ecological functioning, recreation demands, and simple aesthetics in defining managed wilderness.
Impacts of Experimentally Applied Mountain Biking and Hiking on Vegetation and Soil of a Deciduous Forest - Environmental Management Journal, 2001.
As the map shows, there are far more Wilderness areas in the West.
As the maps show, very large areas of our western states are designated as Wilderness areas. Does it make sense to ban bikes in all that land?
In the News
In the News
The concept of biking in Wilderness areas has been covered for a number of years, and our recent efforts have generated considerable coverage. Here is most of what we've seen.