By Kevin Proescholdt
On Dec. 13, the U.S. House Natural Resources Committee passed HR 1349 [i], the Mountain Bikes in Wilderness bill sponsored by Rep. Tom McClintock (R-CA). This bill weakens the 1964 Wilderness Act [ii] to allow mountain bikes and other wheeled contraptions into every wilderness in the nation.
The bill passed 22-18, but initially failed 15-19. Committee Chair Rob Bishop (R-UT) brought the bill back up again after more Republicans had arrived at the committee markup session. All Democratic members of the committee opposed the bill, and one Republican (Liz Cheney, R-WY) also voted against it. The bill will now go to the House floor for a vote.
A mountain biking splinter group, the Sustainable Trails Coalition, has joined forces with the worst anti-wilderness Republicans to promote this attack on wilderness. And sadly, the Sustainable Trails Coalition and the Republican promoters in Congress rely on a number of outright falsehoods and deliberate distortions to advance the bill.
Not surprisingly, the Republican committee leadership corrupted the hearing process and refused to allow testimony on the bill but for the Sustainable Trails Coalition. Not one of the 133 conservation organizations that co-signed a letter of opposition to the bill [iii], no wilderness experts from academia or the legal profession, and no wilderness specialists from any of the four federal land management agencies that administer wilderness were allowed to testify or correct the falsehoods.
Here are some of their most common misrepresentations and falsehoods:
- The Wilderness Act doesn't ban bikes in wilderness. Not true. The 1964 Wilderness Act specifically prohibits "mechanical transport" in wilderness, and the law also mentions the threat of "growing mechanization." Bikes are mechanical machines. A recent Los Angeles Times article [iv] quoted Ed Zahniser, a retired National Park Service official whose father (Howard) wrote the Wilderness Act, "The Wilderness Act clearly says no mechanized uses. How could they possibly say the original act allows this? They are just making it up."
- The U.S. Forest Service unilaterally banned bikes in 1984. Not true. It was the Wilderness Act that banned bikes, not the Forest Service. And none of the other three federal agencies that oversee wilderness has ever interpreted the Wilderness Act as allowing bicycles. Though the initial Forest Service regulations were confusing, the agency's regulations were made more explicit in 1977 to specifically mention bikes. Biking bill proponents claim that because the agency's original regulations mentioned "mechanical transport" but didn't explicitly name bikes, it means bikes were allowed. By that measure, snowmobiles, ATVs, and helicopters should also have been allowed because the regulations mentioned only "motor vehicles."
- Mechanical transport in the Wilderness Act only means motorized vehicles. Not true. The Wilderness Act specifically bans "mechanical transport" and "motor vehicles."
- Wheelchairs are prohibited in Wilderness. Not true. The 1990 amendments to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) allow both motorized and nonmotorized wheelchairs in Wilderness with reasonable safeguards to avoid abuse of the exception. And many people with disabilities want to and do enjoy nonmechanized and nonmotorized experiences in Wilderness.
- Mountain bikers are prohibited from visiting wilderness. Not true. Only the machines that mountain bikers ride are prohibited in wilderness; mountain bikers are free to hike, paddle, or horseback ride like other wilderness visitors.
- Mountain bikes don't do as much trail damage as horses in wilderness. Horses certainly create impacts, as do hikers, but the test of whether something is appropriate in wilderness goes beyond physical impacts. Mountain bikes destroy wilderness character by the mere presence of these modern machines, by their speed, by their penetration of remote areas, by their destruction of solitude, by their disruption of wildlife, and much more.
Beyond these examples, the bill's promoters use even more untruths and distortions.
Make no mistake, HR 1349 is a dangerous attempt to weaken the Wilderness Act and crack open the National Wilderness Preservation System to bikes and other machines, and who knows what else afterward. It would be extraordinarily sad if this bill becomes law, but it would be even worse because it is based on falsehoods and deliberate distortions.
Kevin Proescholdt of Minneapolis is the conservation director of Wilderness Watch [vii], a national wilderness conservation organization based in Missoula that is organizing conservationists to oppose HR 1349.