At a time when National Monuments are under attack and Congress is considering a number of bills attacking public lands and the health of the environment, the mountain biking community has allied itself with anti-parks Republicans led by Rep. Tom McClintock (R – CA) and Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT) in an attempt to gut a key provision in the landmark 1964 Wilderness Act.

The change targets a clause that prohibits mechanical transport in wilderness areas. The bills designated as HR 1349  in Congress and its Senatorial counterpart introduced by Sen. Lee would allow local agencies to decide whether to permit mountain bikes in wilderness areas where they have historically been forbidden. Rep. McClintock introduced the bill to the House of Representatives in March of 2017, and although it has gone no further than introduction in the House, the Sustainable Trails Coalition (STC) continues to rally support from the mountain biking community with unintentionally divisive consequences.

For those not familiar with the Wilderness Act, the clause in the STC’s crosshairs forbids all forms of mechanical transport:

“There shall be no temporary road, no use of motor vehicles, motorized equipment or motorboats, no landing of aircraft, no other form of mechanical transport, and no structure or installation within any such area.”

For the mountain biking community, this prohibition has denied cycling access to over 110 million acres of public land and as well as millions more acres of Wilderness Study Areas (WSA) (‘Wilderness Study Areas’ are regions set aside by land management agencies for potential designation as Wilderness. Sometimes they become Wilderness by act of Congress, other times they don’t — and in the meantime some places are basically managed as Wilderness areas while others allow for continued non-Wilderness uses like mountain biking – Ed.). In some cases, bikers who have ridden on and cared for pre-wilderness land have suddenly lost access when it receives WSA or wilderness designation. Citing decades of frustration and unfairness, a large portion of the mountain biking community supports the proposed change to the act, and local associations have mobilized to lobby politicians on their behalf. Mountain bikers also assert that they are exceptional trail stewards that will care for the wilderness areas at a time when public agencies are low on cash and struggling to maintain trails without volunteer efforts. 

While all of the above is undoubtedly true — mountain biking groups are responsible the repair of huge swaths of trail in the San Gabriel Mountains damaged in the Station Fire, for instance — and there is definitely a case for empathy with riders who have lost access, the most crucial part of their argument and the basis for everything that they’re doing – that Congress never intended to omit human-powered travel – is flatly false. The wording of the Wilderness Act is crystal clear regarding mechanical transport, whether it’s human-powered or not. It’s so clear in fact that in 1966 when the Forest Service interpreted the Act in their policy manual to allow bicycles in its wilderness areas, the Oregon Law Review pointed out that the Forest Service can’t make its own interpretations when the law is already so clear (scroll down to Page 5).  Even the founders of the Wilderness Society, who began advocating for wilderness protection 30 years before the 1964 act, was explicit with their intentions from the beginning, stating “The dominant attributes of such areas are: first, that visitors to them must depend largely on their own efforts and their own competence for survival; and second, that they be free from all mechanical disturbances.” 

As a result of their controversial assault on the machine-prohibition, the bills have created division in the outdoor community. Conservation groups have come out against HR 1349, and even the International Mountain Biking Association (IMBA) opposes the bill. Local mountain biking associations have begun splintering from IMBA, stating the organization doesn’t represent their interests even though IMBA takes a more pragmatic course of pursuing alternative-use designations such as National Recreation Areas.

The creation of numerous associations at cross-purposes dilutes the mountain biking community’s impressive organizational strength as well as the overall organizational strength of the outdoor community. The conversation surrounding the bill strengthens artificial divides between mountain bikers and other trail users. Social media battles of dueling “whataboutisms” lead to finger-pointing over who uses public land in the most responsible or irresponsible way, with bikers sniping about “hiker privilege” and hikers counting tire tracks on the “Perfect Cycling Trail” (PCT). 

Worst of all, the STC has shown no compunction in allying with some of the politicians leading the attack on public lands.  Rep. McClintock, the original bill’s author, has earned himself a lifetime 4% rating from the League of Conservation Voters, a watchdog group that tracks voting records on environmental issues. McClintock has opposed clean water and air measures, wildlife protections, public input on public land issues, recognition of climate change as a national security threat,  recognition of the cost of climate change, and the ability of the President to designate National Monuments. Sen. Lee isn’t much better, as he has a lifetime 8% rating from the League of Conservation Voters, and he recently lauded Secretary Ryan Zinke’s recommendations to shrink National Monuments within his own state. In the last year, he co-sponsored six anti-parks bills, introduced legislation to weaken the Endangered Species Act, and sponsored four anti-parks amendments to budgets, including some that would sell off public lands, prevent new National Monuments, and block existing parks from access to the Land and Water Conservation Fund — something that was literally created to fund parks and public recreation.

Are these the types of “friends to the outdoors” the STC and associated mountain biking associations want to ally with just to get some single track trails in wilderness areas?

It’s a shame that organizations that have shown so much promise and success advocating for public lands would turn around and weaken them by making a Faustian bargain with anti-parks Republicans to suit their own desires. While it is undoubtedly frustrating to not be able to enjoy all public land in the exact way you want to, wilderness exists for a reason: to spare the last bits of undeveloped land from the unceasing mechanization of mankind. Where else can you leave civilization behind to experience the world in as close to a pristine state as it’s possible to get? Is being able to ride a bike on a previously forbidden trail more important than ensuring we never lose wilderness areas by inadvertently weakening their protection?

Supporting these bills and the drive toward changing the second most important conservation act in human history is the wrong move at the wrong time for the wrong reasons. For anybody concerned about the potential passage of these bills and subsequent erosion of the Wilderness Act, there are steps to take. You can contact your district’s representative and state your opposition to the bill. You can definitely contact Rep. McClintock’s office to share your opposition. 

But most importantly of all, vote. The June 5th election is right around the corner. Research your candidates and vote for the one most likely to value public land (which will probably also go hand in hand with valuing things like the environment). The most effective way to oppose this or any other measure like it is to vote out the anti-park Republicans.


Scott is an L.A. native and San Diego transplant who pulls every trick in the book to get out on the trail. His first book, a revision of Afoot and Afield San Diego County, is now out.


Scott Turner Mar 4, 2019 16:03In reply to: Albert L

The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 allows wheelchairs into wilderness areas.

Also, the belief that "people should be kept out" is misdirection. Everybody, including mountain bikers, is allowed in Wilderness areas. Mountain bikes, however, are not.

Leave a Reply to Scott Turner Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scott Turner Mar 4, 2019 16:03In reply to: Bones

I popped in just to provide an update on the fate of HR 1349 (Died with the last Congress). I saw this comment, and I wanted to point out the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 does make an allowance for wheelchairs in wilderness areas, at least where accessibility is possible.

Leave a Reply to Scott Turner Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scott Turner Mar 4, 2019 16:03

It doesn't merit a new article, but it's worth noting here that HR 1349 "died" with the last Congress. Bills don't carry over from Congress to Congress, and the current Congress has yet to introduce a similar or equivalent bill. With a Democratic House, it's a little hard to imagine anybody taking this issue up again in a meaningful way, but we'll wait and see what happens.

Leave a Reply to Scott Turner Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Tim Gledich Jun 2, 2018 21:06

Your article is riddled with fallacies that create more confusion on the topic.

As much as you like to point at the Sustainable Trails Coalition for not allying with leaders of public lands maybe you could do the same with your fellow trail users?

I support the STC.

I like to hike. I like to bike.

Leave a Reply to Tim Gledich Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked * Jun 1, 2018 17:06

Thank you for clearly labelling it as "opinion". I support the STC and am disappointed that you had to make it a partisan political rant.

Leave a Reply to Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

May 2018 in Review – 1000 Miles Jun 1, 2018 11:06

[…] One of those articles was a hike write-up for the Kelly Ditch Trail in the Cuyamaca Mountains. The other article was an opinion piece about the mountain biking community’s alliance with the anti-parks […]

Leave a Reply to May 2018 in Review – 1000 Miles Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Bones May 28, 2018 15:05In reply to:

You'd be one of the first I've heard to argue that wilderness trails should accommodate the wheelchair-bound. I know of no disability rights organizations spending resources to advocate for widening, flattening, or paving wilderness trails, but maybe you can lead the way for them in the struggle for mechanized wilderness access for the disabled. I think you should take the lead on this! Have a look at what Disability Rights California does, they look like a very nice organization, and start from there:
I see a list of genuinely valuable things they're seeking to accomplish for disabled people, and your idea is maddeningly absent! You might contact them to press for support of your plan.
A good start also would be to volunteer to widen local singletrack bike trails for wheelchairs, which if you think about it, makes lots of sense as the right place to begin since those trails are already safely being used by wheeled traffic, they don't have pesky steps, waterbars or switchbacks, they'd only need to be widened by about 64 inches (probably using a bulldozer). Maybe check with mountain biking organizations in your area to see if they're receptive to the plan.
In the meantime you're wasting your valuable time fingerwagging at editorials here. Godspeed!

Leave a Reply to Bones Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Albert L May 27, 2018 13:05

Does it ever bother some of you at all that to not allow mechanized travel prevents many with handicaps from enjoying their public land? I think with quiet modern vehicles, some electric all the wilderness should be accessible for travel when reasonable. Designated wilderness etc. seems like a land grab for those that disdain the general public and often believe people should be kept out as these lands are for the plants and animals. At the very least allow it where motor routes once existed. I know of plenty in what is now designated wilderness.

Leave a Reply to Albert L Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scott Turner May 26, 2018 10:05In reply to: APRandom

Obviously, digging into the minutiae of Forest Service policy and its attempts to interpret the act reveals some ridiculous contradictions. However, flaws in the forest service’s interpretation don’t suddenly void the Wilderness Act’s intention and purpose. Besides, you can just as well point out that the “non-living power source” language you cite is in direct contradiction to the mandate written into the Wilderness Act, and therefore was never valid in the first place.

In other words, just because the forest service got confused when it tried to adapt its policy to a mandate from Congress, it doesn’t mean we toss out key provisions in the mandate. It’s the other way around.

Leave a Reply to Scott Turner Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

APRandom May 26, 2018 07:05

The forest service has defined "no other form of mechanical transport" in the most reductionist way, defining anything that transports anything else, using "moving parts," as "mechanical transport." Read the words carefully:

"3. Mechanical Transport. Any contrivance for moving people or material in or over land, water, or air, having moving parts, that provides a mechanical advantage to the user, and that is powered by a living or nonliving power source. This includes, but is not limited to, sailboats, hang gliders, parachutes, bicycles, game carriers, carts, and wagons. It does not include wheelchairs when used as necessary medical appliances. It also does not include skis, snowshoes, rafts, canoes, sleds, travois, or similar primitive devices without moving parts."

Example one: A fishing reel has at least one moving part, the reel rotating about the spindle. It moves material, the line and lure, through the air and water. The moving parts of the reel retrieves the material from the water. The mechanical advantage is the user can use a longer line (compared to a fixed line attached to the end of a pole) and can fish further out into the body of water.
Example two: Rowboats support the weight of the oars using oarlocks, moving parts which act as fulcrums for levers (the oars) so that the user (water traveler) can operate two oars at once, instead of using both arms/hands on a single canoe paddle.
Example three: Hiking poles give a tremendous mechanical advantage to the hiker, especially when carrying a heavy pack, as the unstable biped now becomes a more stable quadruped. Try crossing a fast-moving stream without them. The violation happens when the hiking poles have shock absorbers in them, which are moving parts by the above definition, and are banned in designated Wilderness.

Rowboats and bicycles are mentioned in the same sentence in this memo from 1964, where Forest Service employees are trying to figure out what is meant by "mechanical transport." Did the framers of the Wilderness Act mean to ban everything with "moving parts?" Because that would mean banning rowboats along with bicycles.
Instead, they adopted the second definition, effective from 1964 to 1984, which defined "mechanical transport" as that which has a "non-living power source." Now, the USFS lawyers have adopted a completely reductionist definition, as if to say, "You want to ban 'mechanized transport?' fine. Here's a definition that covers absolutely everything."

Leave a Reply to APRandom Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Leave a comment

Leave a Reply Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *