For most environmentalists, nothing is more sacred than America’s wilderness: 109 million acres of land in 44 states protected by Congress and “untrammeled by man,” where only hikers and horseback riders are allowed.
But many of the nation’s mountain bikers want in, too.
“Let’s talk about the science here for a second: A mountain bike tire is essentially as much damage as a bunch of hikers going up a trail with all their hiking poles, and it’s less damage than equestrian use,” said Eric Brown, trail director for the Whatcom Mountain Bike Coalition in Bellingham.
While a bill in Congress would scrap the 32-year-old ban against mountain biking, it’s proving to be a difficult sell in Washington, one of the country’s top wilderness states, trailing only Alaska, California, Idaho and Arizona in total acreage.
Even Brown opposes the legislation, saying decisions of access should be made at the local level, not on Capitol Hill.
Both of the state’s Democratic senators, Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell, said through their press offices that they would oppose making the proposed change to the federal Wilderness Act of 1964. While neither offered a reason, their stances align with Washington Wild and Conservation Northwest, two of the state’s top environmental groups.
But perhaps the biggest surprise is the opposition from both the Whatcom Mountain Bike Coalition and the Seattle-based Evergreen Mountain Bike Alliance, the largest mountain bike organization in Washington state.
Leaders of the biking groups say there’s a simple reason to oppose the bill: They’ve got a long history of working with environmental groups to negotiate access to the wilderness, and they don’t want to jeopardize the relationship.
“There’s no doubt that at least half of my membership would be very happy to get access to wilderness in Washington state,” said Yvonne Kraus, executive director of the Evergreen Mountain Bike Alliance, which has 3,100 members.
“But if we were to endorse this bill in full right now, I would lose that partnership and the environmental groups would be very upset with us, and we would actually in the end I believe lose access to trails,” she said.
There’s an obvious political reality, too, with conservation groups holding much more clout, she said.
“It’s a very, very tough argument to win for the mountain bikers,” Kraus said. “The only way you can change it is if you do it in harmony with the environmental groups.”
Mitch Friedman, executive director of Conservation Northwest, said that mountain bikers represent “a growing use of back country” in Washington state and are helping more people connect with nature.
“That’s a very good thing,” he said. “Mountain biking has been a phenomenal economic benefit to a number of communities, from Bellingham to Ogden, Utah, to many others. And there’s definitely a place for it, but designated wilderness is not the place for it.”
But with demand for outdoor recreation growing in Washington state, Friedman said the challenge will be to provide more public access near cities and towns to preserve the wilderness. And he said the pressures will only grow as technology advances.
“I saw a video the other day of somebody being pulled on a surfboard by a drone,” Friedman said. “If it were just mountain bikes being ridden just by careful, courteous wilderness-loving people, maybe that’s okay, but it’s a slippery slope: What’s the difference between a mountain bike and an electric-assisted mountain bike? And then what’s the difference between an electric-assisted mountain bike and an electric-assisted dirt bike or motorcycle?”
Utah Republican Sens. Orrin Hatch and Mike Lee introduced the Human-Powered Travel in Wilderness Areas Act in July. Lee said the bill, which has yet to receive a hearing, would “enrich Americans’ enjoyment of the outdoors by making it easier to mountain bike in wilderness areas.” And Hatch called the proposed change “a reasonable approach” that would remove the blanket ban on mountain biking approved in 1984.
Critics say the ban took effect with little input from the public.
“If you look at who was advocating for mountain bikers at that point in time, no one was,” said Brown. “There was no one invited to that table – it was all conservationists.”
The bill would give federal agencies two years to decide whether to allow bikes in each wilderness area. If no decision was made by then, the ban would be lifted in that area.
Tom Uniack, executive director of Washington Wild, said it’s unlikely that federal land managers could get the entire job done within two years and that bans in many wilderness areas would likely come to an automatic halt as a result.
“It’s not as modest as some folks might indicate,” he said. “There are too many people that would have an incentive to gut the Wilderness Act by opening it up. It’s a Pandora’s Box.”
Uniack said environmentalists and bikers have worked together well over the past 10 years. One example: When Congress approved an addition to the Alpine Lakes Wilderness in the state’s Central Cascades region, the two sides agreed to adjust boundaries to preserve access for mountain biking on the popular Middle Fork Snoqualmie Trail.
“This isn’t just talk – in Washington state, we have a unique perspective and a different pathway that we’ve actually proven that works, which is not really the case in the rest of the country,” Uniack said.
Friedman said he fears that older mountain bikers in their 60s and 70s could make the case for electric-assisted bikes in the wilderness if any changes are made now. At 53, he spent $1,800 to buy an electric-assist bike that gets him up hills without pedaling, but he said it’s not a mountain bike and that he would never want to ride it in the wilderness anyway.
“That’s not how I grew up,” Friedman said.
Brown called the debate “a timely discussion” but said Congress shouldn’t meddle in local decisions.
“No one knows better than the people on the ground,” he said. “I would never say that we get a blank check to be able to ride our bikes everywhere in the wilderness. I’m a pragmatist. But we have proven over the last 30 years that mountain bikers are good stewards of the land.”
10 STATES WITH THE MOST WILDERNESS
State … Acres … Percent of Total Wilderness Acres …
Alaska … 56,575,848 … 52% …
California … 14,965,768 … 14% …
Idaho … 4,792,969 … 4% …
Arizona … 4,512,367 … 4% …
Washington … 4,482,269 … 4% …
Colorado … 3,734,996 … 3% …
Montana … 3,502,407 … 3% …
Nevada … 3,440,641 … 3% …
Wyoming … 3,067,687 … 3% …
Oregon … 2,475,098 … 2% …
Source: University of Montana