With the tagline of Fix America’s Trail System, the Sustainable Trails Coalition has been working to reawaken debate on trail access in designated Wilderness areas. It seems that they are gathering steam, raising awareness, and getting more press with a draft bill they’ve authored to update the Wilderness Act of 1964, which has been interpreted since the 1970s to institute a blanket ban on all bikes in Wilderness areas, arguably contrary to the original intent of the legislation. Their newly proposed draft bill is currently being shopped around in D.C., looking for a congressional sponsor to put it up for discussion. Read past the break for the Coalition’s thoughts and why some like IMBA won’t be getting onboard…

photo by Irmo Keizer

The issue at the heart of the matter is that bikes are now lumped in with other mechanized forms of movement, and the creation of a federal Wilderness designation was to protect those areas from development and being overrun by vehicles. The goal had been to preserve the wild beauty of nature in the US (particularly the undeveloped west) and provide a place for Americans to experience an environment unspoiled by development. Unfortunately, being considered a mechanical vehicle (together with the likes of jeeps and motorcycles) bikes got locked out, while others who might be equally hard on trails were allowed access.


The most important point to understand about the Sustainable Trails Coalition and their proposed Human-Powered Wildlands Travel Management Act of 2015 is that they are NOT seeking to open up all Wilderness areas for unfettered bicycle access. They just want to get rid of the defacto blanket ban, so that individual land management organizations have the ability to make decisions that make sense for their specific Wilderness area.

What the STC wants to do is reestablish the classification of use as human-powered versus mechanically-powered travel. Their idea is keeping with the supposed original intentions of the 1964 legislation that meant to preserve the natural environment for people to be able to go out under their own power and explore.

That being said, Wilderness areas like Maroon Bells, Eagle Cap, Bridger, Desolation, and Indian Peaks that are already overused by backpackers and horseback riders aren’t likely to have proposed cycling use anytime soon. But there are plenty of Wilderness areas (in fact a total of 762, covering more area than the entire state of California) and many that get so few visitors each year that their existing trails are disappearing due to nonuse. These are the areas where trail advocacy groups like IMBA and their local member organizations could work together with the land managers on the ground to develop responsible, sustainable trail access, once the blanket ban goes away.


Another aspect of the legislation is to better allow the land managers to maintain these wild areas. The current law even prevents workers in the Wilderness areas from using mechanized means to maintain the popular trails that everyone is using. While it makes sense that park and forest service workers shouldn’t be driving trucks in to repair trails, it also stops them from using a chainsaw or even a wheelbarrow. The draft update would permit federal employees and authorized volunteers to use modern equipment to keep the existing trails open for Wilderness users.

There is lots more info about their movement on the Sustainable Trails Coalition’s website, especially their FAQ page that outlines a lot of why they are pushing for change. What they are doing is good for everyone. It means better maintained trails in areas suffering from overuse, and the opportunity to open up (and reopen) trail access for cyclists to explore more of America’s wilds. But to do so requires lobbying, and thus funding. If this sounds like something important to you, consider supporting the initiative, and hopefully they can help broaden trail access for cyclists.

If interested, the most recent version of the draft legislation we’ve seen was hosted over in the MTBR forums.

Wilderness_Aspens Wilderness_Rothrock

Now on the topic of IMBA, they have some good reasons why they aren’t really onboard (but are actually praising the dialogue.) Partly, it is a result of IMBA having so many broad stakeholders and needing to be diplomatic. IMBA’s methods are more inclusive, and they do their best work by working on compromises with everyone leaving the bargaining table happy. But it is also because IMBA is successfully working in other ways to protect and restore trail access in and around Wilderness areas. Certainly not to be discounted, IMBA has done great work in working with land managers to slightly modify Wilderness boundaries so that mountain biking can continue and even grow adjacent to these preserves. While they share some end goals with the STC, they will continue with their separate approach to access.



  1. Let’s hope for some reform. My local wilderness areas allow free range cattle and sheep as well as horses. It makes no sense to ban bikes and chainsaws, but allow those things. Human power only; native animals only. Doesn’t seem that complicated to me.

  2. We must keep the trails free for the seven Sierra Club members who use them. In the 12 years I’ve poached the Pacific Crest Trail in California, I’ve seen a total of 3 hikers on it and about 153 cyclists. Go figure.

  3. Tired of the U.S. Forestry Service holding the wilderness hostage for groups like Sierra Clubbers only. These trails are for everyone non-motorized but limited to only a few. Horse packing destroys trails when we go backpacking w/ crap everywhere and smashing the trails making them super wide. Agree that not all trails should be open to bikes. I go bikepacking and definitely poach PCT trails when I need to get to certain areas. Most PCT trails are fine but many are too rocky for bikepacking or the switchback is too sharp. Either way, I just stop w/ zero skidding, pick the bike up and go to the next switchback. In my opinion if hikers need a permit for multi day on the PCT, then so will bikers in certain areas, etc…

  4. “it also stops them from using a chainsaw or even a wheelbarrow.” Well that seems kinda silly. Do they put out fires with a bucket brigade too? Are rangers not allowed to carry guns? What if they use a rope and pulley to move a rock? How about a lever?

    On the underuse point, seems like opening up underused trails to cyclists to promote their use and availability, and keeping horses and cyclist separate might alleviate some these problems. Seems like a blanket ban or allowance might not balance competing interests well enough.

  5. Really sad to hear cyclists still feel free to routinely poach trails, and talk about it matter-of-factly. That’s a shame. IF I was a land manager, that would definitely put me off. More bikes in sensitive areas = more crimes of opportunity. IMO there needs to be stronger norms in the bike community against poaching. I know equestrians and pack trains create more damage than cyclists (as is), but I think in the minds of land managers, they already know and are managing for their impact. The impact of admitting cyclists to wilderness is a big unknown. So it would be beneficial to reassure them that bikers would actually follow the rules, and make them feel that they could effectively manage us as a user group.

  6. If not everyone is aware about a mountain bikers mindset, then let me remind you. MTB trails in the majority where a lot of us have lived would be classified as illegal trails if scrutinized. Private owners own most of the land but look the other way (Tapia Canyon for example). Trails are constantly being developed so we look for new trails. MTB riding for the most part is about being a rebel, whether you realize it or not. There are constant trail access issues for MTB riding because government agencies, land owners, etc… do not think MTB riders should be on their land… so we poach. I have always jumped fences, reclaimed old over-grown abandoned trails, gone through private property, golf courses, animal trails, PCT, the list goes on. Life is not easy for MTB riders to have real access so we create our own. Anybody else think this is true on some level where they ride, or am I the only rebel? Doubt it.

  7. Was really happy to see this group highlighted as I believe the USA needs better access for MTBers for the sport to grow in healthy ways.

    I’ve seen for years (as a hiker) the immense damage from horses, and simply have not encountered anything on the same level from bikers (though I’m sure someone else has probably seen the opposite).

    Happy to give my $ to the group, and am likely to make regular donations to keep up the lobbying.

  8. Charles is the man.

    I agree and also do many high adventure backpacking trips a year. Just wish I could bikepack as well in these locations. People do not realize bikepackers are a lot slower, do not skid and understand a lot about backpacking and the environmental issues at stake in taking care of the trails and nature. We also push and walk a lot of sections as needed since it gets steep, fallen trees, mud or just too tired to ride.

  9. @Von Kruiser

    …spot on! …growing up we had NO legal singletrack …started riding in 1989, and were it not for hopping fences, riding game trails, building trails in unwanted (i.e. trashed, abandoned, dumped) corners of town, and poaching scant available trails, we would not have had any place to ride. We also helped maintain trails, contributed time/money to trails, picked up trash, learned about natural plants/animals, and respected those open spaces …but none of the singletrack we rode was legal

  10. imba seems out of touch on this, understand their view but I think it presents our group as not on the same page. this is a case where it is time to grab the bull by the horns. I don’t see what we have to lose, besides looking like we don’t agree on a topic that we all do…we want to ride in wilderness areas.

  11. We (riders in my area which I’ll keep secret) have been riding the PCT for years. We were told by our local head ranger that the PCT, although posted as “no bikes” is actually not closed to bikes because there was not a environmental impact study and no open forum to users before the closure. From what we were told, imba threaten a lawsuit based on the aforementioned facts, and the USFS, knowing they were in the wrong, agreed to keep the signs posted, but cannot enforce the no bikes closure.
    If anyone has more info that isn’t heresay, please comment in regards to this post.
    We have ridden past rangers on the trail and they never said anything but a greeting.

  12. Also, a lawsuit was threatened by a disabled persons rights group, who were offended by the the “non mechanical ” use, since wheelchairs are a mechanical device.

  13. I’m much more of a backpacker than a bikepacker, but a blanket prohibition makes no sense. I’m in favor of opening a subset of wilderness trails to cyclists where existing closures are impacting thru trail continuity or preventing reasonable access to the hut system. Downhill bombing, jumping, and skidding are verboten, however: save it for the ski resorts.

  14. Hey IMBA, (deleted). First support for ebikes and then not supporting access. Forget it, I will be giving your money to local groups now.

    As for riding illegal trails. I am good with. Civil disobedience is the American way. The vast majority of trails that exclude bikes are not because of safety or environmental concerns, it’s because hikers don’t want to share their precious dirt.

  15. I stopped being an IMBA member because of positions like this a long time ago. IMHO, the needle will continue to move in the direction of the STC, and I think that a part of this will be due to better science on trail erosion and also that the hiking only community will begin to ‘age out’ and a new generation of people who hike and bike will come in. It’s only a matter of time for both.

  16. Great news. At first, I thought I was done with IMBA. After speaking with them directly, I realize that their approach makes sense.

    IMBA is the go along, get along “boots on the ground” group that deals with the various land management agencies day in and day out with a cheery whistle and a smile. We need that.

    STC is the HAMMER.

    Which we need now, more than ever, especially with the unilateral land grab and bike ban being perpetrated by the USFS in Wilderness “management” areas.

  17. IMBA’s goal is to grow the sport, which is contrary to the goals of maintaining access and developing mutual respect among trail users. Time and again, IMBA comes to the table with other users and accepts the “bad boy” tag given to MTBs, and caves on what access MTBs should be given.

    Growing the sport isn’t the same as securing respect for those who presently participate in the sport. More MTB riders doesn’t mean more trail access, it’s actually inclined to result in less trail access. Why? Trail user conflicts, in which IMBA will always agree that MTBs are the bad boy and in need of reprimand.

    You can try to persuade me with IMBA PR copy that this isn’t IMBA’s angle, but their track record speaks for itself, and is pretty much what I’ve described above: whipping boy resulting on MTBs being persona non grata as time goes by.

    Moreover, IMBA refuses to challenge USFS decisions, even when they are arbitrary.

    More should be done to reverse the loss of access and to argue that mechanized is not motorized. Wilderness Act only bans motor vehicles. It doesn’t ban mechanical assist. If it did, you’d have to ride your horse bareback and you’d have to go into wilderness stark naked. It would clearly ban XC skis, AT skis, backpacks, belts, zippers, shoelaces, velcro, portable stoves, and any other mechanical device or component you might use in the terrain labelled as Wilderness.

  18. Donated yesterday to the STC. If you have the ability do the same. I want to bikepack in wilderness like many others… tired of the governments exclusionary trail policy which is not even legal (tired of hearing old hikers comments, “those darn MTBers are going to ruin my outdoor experience”).

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