Here, reprinted with permission, is IMBA president Mike Van Abel’s full response to the Human Powered Travel in Wilderness Areas Act proposed by two Utah Senators. As the comments on that post suggest, there’s more to meets the eye. On the surface, the proposal seems to be a win for mountain bikers as it would reshape the language of the Wilderness designation to allow “non-motorized” vehicle use, which is a better descriptor than the current “non-mechanized” verbiage that has led to inconsistent rules being applied from one area to another (but mostly just banning bikes altogether).
The letter is posted on IMBA’s website and directed to IMBA chapter leaders throughout the U.S…
FROM IMBA: This past week, U.S. Senators Mike Lee and Orrin Hatch, both from Utah, introduced Senate Bill 3205, titled The Human-Powered Travel in Wilderness Act. For some mountain bikers, especially those in the western states, this Bill could be seen as a dream come true. But for just as many mountain bikers, especially those that are current IMBA members, it also elicits some concerns. And if you are a committed wilderness advocate, the prospect of opening up and amending the 1964 Wilderness Act in any way is your nightmare.
The prospect of people traveling by bicycle in Congressionally designated wilderness is a polarizing issue. And we know empirically, from our recently completed IMBA member survey, that our membership is split nearly right down the middle on this issue. Further, this issue is creating an unproductive divide (where there should be more common ground based on shared values of conservation of our public lands) between the mountain bike community and the longstanding community of wilderness advocates.
It’s plausible that this Bill is the fruit of the cumulative effect of the frustrating loss of access to trails and their landscapes that mountain bikers have enjoyed and cared for as volunteer stewards for decades. And as time marches forward from the original 1964 Wilderness acreage of 9 million to today’s 109 million acres of Congressionally designated Wilderness, the risks of any additional loss of access to mountain biking is sadly a win-lose scenario if the primary tool utilized for conservation of our public lands is Congressionally designated Wilderness.
The good news is there are other conservation tools for which a win-win can be accomplished. These have been pursued by mountain biking advocates and successfully legislated so that mountain biking access is preserved and public land protected in a manner that’s equal to, and often superior to, a Wilderness designation (“superior” in a political/legislative viability sense).
IMBA is pleased to see the issue of access by mountain bike on trails on our public lands rise to this level of a much-needed national conversation. For that, we are grateful to Senators Lee and Hatch for their engagement. However, IMBA is also on record with the strong belief that amending the Wilderness Act comes not only with a risk of unintended consequences, especially political consequences and further polarization of the stewardship and outdoor recreation community, and is unnecessary to preserve mountain bike access while also achieving landscape level conservation. While we commend Senators Lee and Hatch for their interest, we also have deep concerns that there are other agendas that this Bill could facilitate, especially a public land seizure agenda.
As to the merits of S.3205, which was in large part drafted by the Sustainable Trails Coalition, IMBA’s team of government relations staff and advisors will continue to monitor the legislative process, as we do with any draft legislation that has the potential to impact public lands and mountain biking access. This is not new territory for IMBA and our members should rest assured that we will seek the best win-win solutions to preserve mountain biking access while also keeping in mind what’s best for the long term conservation of our nation’s public lands. As with any legislative effort at the federal level, this will likely be a long process and thus the current Bill language will likely change and be amended if, in fact, it gets traction. And getting traction and moving a Bill in the last half of an election year is highly unlikely.
Finally, the current language of S.3205 seeks to redefine bicycling as a “non-motorized” form of transportation. We applaud this. The “mechanized transport” language codified in regulations written for the 1964 Wilderness Act is ill-defined and unnecessarily confusing to many public land managers. The effect of this “mechanized” definition is human-powered bicycles being managed in the same manner as motorized forms of travel. And this land management approach to bicycling on trails has crept beyond wilderness landscapes.
Let me conclude with this reminder – as a chapter leader, you know that mountain biking is no longer some fringe, niche outdoor activity. The romanticized and hyped image of a rider hucking off a cliff, with anti-gravity like flight is not to be misconstrued with the more popular and mainstream activity which is akin to hiking or backpacking, snowshoeing or backcountry skiing, climbing or mountaineering, canoeing, kayaking or rafting. Mountain biking is a low-impact, human-powered, healthy outdoor recreational activity that relies upon access to natural surface trails by people seeking a nature-based experience. Mountain biking helps immerse people in nature and inevitably strengthens their appreciation for and desire to protect wild places. In an increasingly wired and online society, mountain biking is a rapidly growing outdoor activity that provides a vital wellness benefit to an ever more urbanized society. In addition, the sport has become an increasingly important part of the outdoor recreation economy. It is vital to many rural economies that have transitioned from resource extractive industries to one of tourism and a quality of life that attracts residents and “clean” industries. Federal land management agencies such as the Bureau of Land Management, USDA Forest Service and the US Army Corps of Engineers have developed sustainable mountain bike trails nationwide and welcome both local residents and out-of-town guests. Finally, advocates for public lands conservation increasingly understand and recognize the sustainability and environmentally low impact of mountain biking and cooperate with IMBA’s efforts to create, enhance and preserve trail access.