Letters from the West

Bill would allow cracking open US wilderness to let mountain bikers inside

Rick Lundgren pedals over the pass overlooking Castle Peak, prior to its inclusion in the White Clouds Wilderness in legislation passed in 2015. The trail is now closed to bikers.
Rick Lundgren pedals over the pass overlooking Castle Peak, prior to its inclusion in the White Clouds Wilderness in legislation passed in 2015. The trail is now closed to bikers.

A long-standing debate over what nonmotorized vehicles should be allowed in wilderness areas has reached the floor of the U.S. House, in a bill sponsored by a California congressman who has long spoken out against enlarging wilderness on federal lands.

Some mountain bikers say the bill, approved by the House Resources Committee Wednesday, will expand support for American wilderness. The bill would amend the Wilderness Act of 1964 to empower federal land managers to allow mountain bikes and other wheeled, human-powered vehicles in federally designated wilderness areas if it’s done in a way that protects those areas’ wild values.

“I think this would be a big olive branch to a large group of users, a younger demographic, who want to be supporters of wilderness and all the protections it provides,” said Mark Tate, president of the Southwest Idaho Mountain Bike Association.

His group supports the legislation, which may soon get a House vote. But the International Mountain Biking Association disagrees with the bill by Republican Rep. Tom McClintock.

John Wheaton, a Boise mountain biker, said the bill appeals to “a small group of mountain bikers who feel entitled to do anything they want in the wilderness.

“We don’t want these people’s support,” said Wheaton. “There are so many other places open to mountain bikes.”

The bill would not throw the doors wide open to the more than 100 million acres of wilderness designated since Idaho Sen. Frank Church served as floor manager in the landmark conservation law’s passage. Rather, the Forest Service and other federal agencies would have the option to designate specific wilderness trails open to mountain bikes, wheelchairs, game carts and even strollers.

Wheelchairs are already allowed in wilderness areas under the Americans with Disabilities Act. The Forest Service initially allowed bicycles, despite the Wilderness Act’s ban on mechanized vehicles. It reversed its position in 1977.

Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, voted for the bill in committee.

“He believes that bikers, those who use wheelchairs, and parents accompanied by children in strollers should have equal access to enjoy this public resource,” said Dan Popkey, Labrador’s press secretary.

In the 22-18 vote The only Republican who voted against it was Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney.

“While I believe we need to do all we can to provide access to our public lands, our wilderness areas are special and those who enjoy these pristine lands, including our guides and outfitters, should not have to worry about mountain bikes and other vehicles on our wilderness land and trails,” Cheney said.

The debate over mountain bikes in wilderness hit a fever pitch in 2015 when Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, led the campaign to protect 275,665 acres in three new Central Idaho wilderness areas. In the White Clouds Wilderness, Simpson specifically closed to mountain bikers two trails that had been in a Boulder-White Clouds national monument proposal.

Simpson at the time wrote a letter to mountain bikers defending removing the Castle Divide and Ants Basin trails, saying the issue needs to be resolved at a national level. He wants wilderness advocates and mountain bikers to resolve the issue and won’t oppose the new legislation, said Lindsay Slater, his chief of staff.

That disappoints Craig Gehrke, Wilderness Society regional director in Boise.

“The ball is in Congressman Mike Simpson’s court to protect Idaho’s wilderness areas, including the Boulder-White Clouds,” Gehrke said.

Men’s Journal, in an editorial supporting the legislation, suggested authorities reconsider the Castle Divide trail. Featuring a 15-mile downhill stretch, the trail starts in the shadow of Castle Peak, the defining feature of the White Clouds Wilderness. Tate, the SWIMBA president, said the Ants Basin trail will simply fade away without mountain bikers maintaining it, and he’d like it to be reconsidered as well.

“I recognize it would be an uphill battle to go back into existing wilderness,” Tate said.

The bill likely will face an uphill battle in the U.S. Senate as well, where it may face a Democratic filibuster.

“Allowing mechanized mountain biking in wilderness erodes the concept of wilderness that has stood for over 50 years,” Gehrke said.

An earlier version of this story incorrectly characterized the vote.

Rocky Barker: 208-377-6484, @RockyBarker