Bicycles in Legal Wilderness

Post by blogger | August 16, 2006      

Around 1980, during the developmental days of mountain biking, we did lots of riding in legal (big W) Wilderness here in Colorado. Doing so was legal for a while, until environmentalists and user groups such as equestrians freaked out and pressured the Forest Service to make a ruling against bicycles in Wilderness.

Wilderness mountain biking
Mountain biking legal Wilderness in Colorado, circa 1980.

Colorado Wilderness riding was amazing. Epic single tracks that wove through timberline. Seemingly infinite choices in routes. This is all illegal now. Should it stay that way?

As many blog readers know I’m a recreation advocate and generally want to see more trails created, with more types of uses allowed on more public land. But I’m also a fan of having a given amount of legal Wilderness we can rely on for a more primitive recreation experience. Conversely, I’m not keen on the endless pressure to create more legal Wilderness that restricts most types of outdoor recreation.

At any rate, the issue of mountain bikes in Wilderness has festered for years. By not advocating for bicycle access, wilderness groups have at least neutralized the support of and sometimes alienated a large population of human powered recreationists — backcountry bicycle riders who could be powerful advocates for legal Wilderness (as well as potential money donors to help keep the enviro dollar machine chugging along.)

As a take-no-prisoners advocate for mountain biking, a few months ago Dirt Rag magazine published a legal position article making a good argument that bicycles have always been legal in Wilderness, and were wrongly banned. According to the gist of the article (and in my own experience), the rule is based on a vague definition of “mechanized transport.” This meaning the use of any machinery deemed contrary to the spirit of Wilderness, as defined by the common wisdom of the day. In other words, the way these rules are created, the Forest Service could just as easily ban the use of backcountry ski bindings as that of bicycles.

According to the article:
“Read strictly, this term [mechanical transport] could be applied to numerous forms of transport: alpine and mountaineering skis, rowboats with oarlocks, antishock hiking poles and gear. Pushed even further, the term could even prohibit the mechanical transport of anything, thus banning fishing reels, wheelbarrows and game carts. We already have high tech kayaks that utilize human-powered propellers, making them more akin to bicycles in their transmission system, and who knows what other forms of human-powered recreational devices might be down the pike.”

So there you have it. The issue of machinery, especially bicycle access, is still an undercurrent in Wilderness politics, and not doubt people are gearing up to try and make it legal to ride a mountain bike in legal Wilderness.

In terms of the big picture, what’s this mean for outdoor recreation? I’d imagine that most core Wilderness advocates would agree that opening Wilderness back up to bicycles would be something like the death of a thousand cuts, since it represents a progression away from common Wilderness values (muscle=good machinery=bad). On the other hand, groups such as the Sierra Club would also gain a huge amount of support by bringing mountain bikers into the fold, and could thus continue their agenda of creating ever more legal Wilderness. Besides degrading existing Wilderness, this is another reason I’m not a fan of opening Wilderness up to bikes, as I feel we have enough restrictive legal Wilderness and the last thing we need is another user group that’ll add to Wilderness support.

Instead, what we need is another land management designation that’s more friendly to a variety of backcountry recreation — including bicycles. It would be great to see mountain bikers lobby for that. But alas, making that happen is a stupendous undertaking that would probably take more political muscle than that which created the original Wilderness Act. Nonetheless it could happen — especially if serious consideration is given to the fact that things such as ski bindings and fishing reels are also machinery and perhaps should be banned from Wilderness. After all, how primitive are a pair of Dynafit bindings?

Sierra Club classifies mountain bikes as OHVs.


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29 Responses to “Bicycles in Legal Wilderness”

  1. g woelk August 16th, 2006 10:40 am

    Well, issue has really only been litigated once. Pushcarts with wheels (deemed motarized) to portage canoes having been determined mechanized and statutorily unlawful.

    Personally, I have always had a hard time believing that you can travelwith a string of pack mules, but not a bike.

    See case below.

    Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness v. Robertson
    978 F.2d 1484
    C.A.8 (Minn.),1992

    “Feasible� within meaning of Boundary Waters Canoe Area
    Wilderness Act meant capable of being done or physically possible so that motorized portaging between lakes could not continue under statute requiring termination of motorized portaging unless no “feasible� means of transporting boats existed, after United States Forest Service completed test in which most teams of three people successfully completed nonmotorized portaging; prohibiting motorized portaging was consistent with express legislative purpose and history. Act Oct. 21, 1978, §§ 2(5), 4(g), 92 Stat. 1649; Wilderness Act, § 2(c), 16 U.S.C.A. § 1131(c).

  2. Clyde August 16th, 2006 2:13 pm

    All the mtn bike closures on trails used to piss me off too. Now I think it’s a good thing. Back in the day, we didn’t have full suspension rigs with 6″ of travel and massive knobby tires — rigid forks and fairly slick tires were the norm. Now these are commonplace and speeds are much higher, route choices much more aggressive. Even when the bikes were less aggro, cyclists proved they couldn’t stay off muddy trails, plus they often spooked hikers and horses…the situation would be worse today. After all, your freeskiing huckers ride mtn bikes in the summer and bring that style with them, dude. Pass the Mountain Dew. Pretty sure fly fishermen and AT skiers don’t have anywhere near the same level of environmental impact or user conflicts but be careful what you wish for in a Bush world.

  3. D Weiss August 16th, 2006 3:17 pm

    I’d much rather encounter a cyclist than a horse on a trail anyday. Cyclist tend not do defecate in the middle of the trail, and are much easier to get around than a 1 ton beast.

    And the “no paragliding/hangliding rule” is even more ridiculous. Three steps and you’re in the air, no impact at all. Just a piece of nylon flapping in the wind.

  4. Lou August 16th, 2006 8:10 pm

    Excellent comments you guys, thanks!

  5. Dave Bourassa August 16th, 2006 8:25 pm

    There’s already too much traffic in the wilderness. Why open it up to more and more modes of transportation and people? Mountain bikers have their own trails, hikers have their trails, and so on and so on. No need to pollute the wilderness any more than it already is. Leave it the way it is.

  6. Pete Sowar August 17th, 2006 8:00 am

    Mountain bikers do so little damage on a muddy trail compared to a horse or a cow. I can’t believe people can sit on a horse and destroy a trail, and that a couple hundred cattle can roam there, but we can’t ride a bike.

    How many times have you been on a trail after a wet week and been sinking up to your knees in horse or cow tracks. I have many times. It’s absolutly rediculous to say that mountain bikes hurt the trail after you experience something like that.

    In general, at least around here, wilderness trails are pretty far out and pretty rough. So even if they were open to bikes you wouldn’t see much bike traffic. The people who would be riding them are strong riders, and I have found that these riders are also courteous to other users.

    Lou, there has been talk around here of a ‘wilderness lite’ designation. It sounded good at first until we learned it has happend before – and what it ends up being is a stepping stone to full on wilderness and even more areas we can’t ride.

  7. Lou August 17th, 2006 8:22 am

    Sadly, it’s not really about how mountain bikes affect the land, it’s about one user group not wanting to see another. Sierra club is a huge lobby of hikers and equestrians, they didn’t want bicycles in their wilderness but they accept horses, and they are powerful.

    In other words, much of this stuff about Wilderness is in the nature of social constructs and moment-by-moment value judgements. Of course, the enviros try to play the conservation biology card as well, but when they do that it tends to shut out everyone (the horses and cows would definitely have to go), and get in the way of the latest wilderness morality (in terms of biology, what’s the problem with using a chainsaw to cut a tree out of the trail? Answer, absolutely nothing,) so actual biology is not a popular path for the decision making process, while emotions and bigotry against user groups seem to be the ways decisions are made. Groan.

  8. Pete Sowar August 17th, 2006 8:27 am

    I don’t have much of a problem with wilderness, but if I can’t work my ass off out there toting a bike up these huge climbs and hike-a-bikes I don’t think it’s fair to see someone sitting on a horse.

    If bikes aren’t allowed then horses shouldn’t be allowed.

  9. Lou August 17th, 2006 8:28 am

    And Frank, yes, you really have to watch out for all the quasi wilderness land designations, as just about the only reason they ever get a pass from the core enviros is that they figure such designations can be used as a stepping stone to legal Wilderness. That why they’re so hot on the “roadless” stuff. Sure, you can ride a mountain bike in most (if not all) proposed roadless areas. But when those areas become legal Wilderness, which is what folks will push for, then forget biking in said areas.

  10. Kevin August 17th, 2006 8:43 am

    Wow, I didn’t think a jeeper would be anti-biking. I can certainly see where it would be an advantage to Lou if bikes were kept out of wilderness. The exclusion of bikes, keeps that group sided with the motorized group for access. If mt. bikers could access wilderness, the motorized group would lose a significant ally for “wilderness light”. The “light approach” is being attempted on the slopes of Mt. Hood in Oregon, where popular biking trails would be lost if the area is designated wilderness. In Wa. state multi-day backpacking is on the decline. The majority of trail use is day hikers. impact is being concentrated on trails that provide an easy day experience. Mt. bikers have the ability to cover much more distance and spread their impact better than day hikers. If wilderness trails were open to bikes, that does not mean they would have to be allowed on all trails. High use trails could certainly be designated non-bike, but as it stands now, it is a blanket closure against a user group that has proven it can be a responsible backcountry user.

  11. Mark August 17th, 2006 10:01 am

    Dunno if I’m wanting bikes in wilderness, but I’ll agree that horses seem to tear things up more after the rain. Rode a Rocky Mountain Element today, and it would roll nicely on single track–Wilderness or otherwise. I think there could be a problem with some of the freeride/downhill bikes encroaching as they can be ridden over extreme terrain with speeds scarcely imaginable. I’ve yet to meet a biker flying along the trail at 40 mph, but I’d prefer not to.

  12. Brett August 17th, 2006 1:47 pm

    DISCLAIMER: I’m a mountain biker. Take that for what it is worth.

    The problem with mountain bikers as an organized user group is that we are orphaned when it comes to said groups. We don’t typically like using trails that are open to motorized users, yet the other low-impact users lump us in with moto groups and the moto groups often see us being more akin to the low-impact groups. Classic middle-child syndrome.

    The other comments here about horses on trails are dead-on. Horses do a lot more damage on muddy trails than mountain bikers. This, while equestrians will disagree and ask for proof, is undeniable in practice. Hooves create muddy bombholes and do serious, sometimes permanent damage to trails not having the benefit of regular maintenance. Mountain bikes can cause problems when ridden on muddy trails. This can and should be avoided to some degree with better trail building techniques and user education. However, this damage pales in comparison to what a much heavier, four legged animal can do under the same muddy conditions.

    I think it unfair that certain groups use such alleged “trail damage� by mountain bikers as a legitimate reason to restrict areas open to equestrians from mountain bike use.

    CHEAP SHOT RANT: mountain bikes also do not expel waste directly onto said trail surface.

  13. Julin Maloof August 17th, 2006 4:18 pm

    First, let me say that I like single-track biking. However, to say that mountain bikes don’t damage trails, in my experience, is incorrect. One only needs to look at parks that do allow bikes single track trails to see the difference (Purisima Creek and Wilder Ranch here in California come to mind). I like riding in those parks, but would I want all hiking trails to look like that? No way. Maybe opening wilderness trails would lessen the impact by dispersing bikers over a wider area, but I doubt it.

    I am not a big fan of pack animals on the trails either. But there are a lot more potential bikers than equestrians and based on numbers alone I bet the impact would be higher.

  14. Dave K August 17th, 2006 5:33 pm

    Great topic.

    We actually mtb’d to the top of Elbert a couple years ago. We checked the maps and trailheads, and there was no wilderness designation. It was incredible, as we got to the top right at sunrise. We went up the NE trail from the Colorado Trail, and then we went down the E trail and looped back to half moon.

    Funny, my bc partner and I have many discussions about the self-centered motives of some groups and individuals – on both sides of the fence. I am convinced that many of the enviro-advocates have hidden agendas that have little to do with the environmental impacts as are claimes (valid or invalid), and in some cases this occurs regardless of the usergroups. For example, I have a group of friends that are advocates of non-mechanized transportation who get all upset when someone tracks up their secret stash, camps within viewing distance, or climbs a route they are on. It seems somewhat childish actually, “this is my playground…go somewhere else.”

    Another funny: we were hiking our bikes through Lost Creek Wilderness and we kept meeting up with some horsebackers who were doing trail restoration. We’d pass them, then they’d pass us, etc… Each time we met them this one guy would remind us that we were not allowed to ride our bikes in wilderness, even though our bikes were strapped to our packs and we were drenched in sweat. We’d smile and say thank you…just passing through.

  15. Lou August 17th, 2006 7:01 pm

    Kevin, I’m not anti bicycle. Quite the opposite!

    Dave K, I thought for sure that Elbert was in Mount Massive Wilderness area, but it looks like I’m mistaken. I have an older map that indeed does not show it in Wilderness, but I thought that had changed. If I’m wrong, then great! The joke is on me but I love it. Proof that land can be “preserved” without Wilderness designation. Seriously, I’ve been up there quite a bit and there is virtually no difference between the backcountry around Mount Elbert and the backcountry around Mount Massive to the north, which is in legal Wilderness. Proof that this is all about travel management, not blanket recreation restrictions. This should be a case study!

  16. Derek August 18th, 2006 6:49 pm

    On a recent hike in Utah, I was pleased to encounter this sign at a wilderness trailhead entrance. I was later informed that the sign likely only pertained to the clean up of equestrian excrement in the parking lot, not on the trail.

    While on the trail, my dog did indeed defecate too, but well off the trail in the brush. And he’s arguably easier to get around than the 1,000 pound beast.

    I’m suprised the Sierra Club is pro-equestrian? Seems sort of out dated.

    Image link:

  17. Bob Lee August 19th, 2006 6:46 pm

    I’m not sure theSierra Club or other environmentalists are what you’d call pro-equestrian so much as it would be political suicide to go against horses in wilderness. The Wilderness Act passed by Congress specifically permits horses and that’s because (as I understand it) the Wilderness Act would never have passed if stockmen had be excluded from designated wilderness areas (which I’ll call DWAs). And any attempt to change the Act to exclude horses and cattle would bring in the cattlemen.

    Long ago, stockmen created many of the trails in use in DWAs, and the rancher lobby is powerful in DC. Horses may cause trail damage, and cattle…don’t get me started, but because of those politics it’ll be a long time before cattle and the attendent stockmen’s horses are excluded from DWAs.

    And I almost forgot hunters – not many congressdroids want to go up against the hunting/outfitter constituancy by banning horses in DWAs. I’ll bet that hunters and cattlemen aren’t crazy about the idea of mtn. bikers in DWAs. Someone ought to ask them, but I bet they wouldn’t get painted with the same brush that people use on enviros.

    So DWA managers have to deal with stock and the attendant damage, but mtn bikers don’t have as powerful a voice – by a long shot.

  18. Hamish Gowans August 20th, 2006 12:24 pm

    It seems obvious that more population means more Wilderness is required since solitude is one of the main features of a retreat there. More users would also require more users for the same reason. Someone asked me once if we should set aside wilderness areas where humans aren’t allowed, but I don’t think that’s right. Humans have always been part of the ecosystem. What we need is an ultra-strict Wilderness where you can’t even have clothes that are made of machine-woven cloth or even nail polish. Furs and figleafs only, with the only food being whatever you can catch!

  19. Tom August 22nd, 2006 5:15 pm

    No doubt a legitimate argument can be made that “mechanized transport” means something like an internal combustion engine. And everyone’s points here about limited environmental impact are valid – AS LONG AS THEY STAY ON THE TRAIL. In Colorado that would be a no-brainer. Off-trail in the Rockies isn’t all that inviting.

    But what about other wilderness environments, like open desert with cryptobiotic soil, where off-trail would be easier? What would happen to these wilderness areas? Off-trail biking would tear up the ecosystem. Trail-only rules would do nothing, as the manpower and budget to enforce such rules will never exist. The best way to prevent off-trail riding in these areas is to ban the use of bikes altogether. It’s that simple.

    Earlier this year I saw a TV show about extreme mountain biking where dudes were launching themselves and doing amazing tricks normally reserved for snow sports. Very cool stuff. However, at the same time they were ripping the hell out of the hills they were landing on. How would you prevent this from happening in our wilderness? Who would be there to stop them?

    Sure, in the hands of responsible people bikes are no more dangerous to the environment than feet. But for the irresponsible or just plain selfish and ignorant, it would be another story entirely.

  20. john beck August 22nd, 2006 11:58 pm

    I think it unfair that certain groups use such alleged “trail damage� by mountain bikers as a legitimate reason to restrict areas open to equestrians from mountain bike use.

  21. Michael November 1st, 2006 5:00 pm

    Here in Ontario some of our Provincial parks provide All Terrain Wheel Chairs. Some designed like a typical wheel chair others with a wheel print like a bicycle. Well if, from above “Well, issue has really only been litigated once. Pushcarts with wheels (deemed motarized) to portage canoes having been determined mechanized and statutorily unlawful.”, a portage cart is unlawful. I guess a person person pushed in a wheelchair would be breaking the same law. What a sad state of affairs.

  22. Michael December 18th, 2008 1:01 pm

    The case cited above was from the Boundary Waters Wilderness Act, which is more specific than just lands designated under the Wilderness Act. Lands designated as Wilderness can always include a provision allowing other uses not allowed under the general Wilderness Act. Congress can pass or amend any law it so pleases. A nice workaround would be to lobby for Wilderness, with the caveat that horses be excluded, and bikes included. Then, you have your case study for other areas.

  23. Greg B January 25th, 2009 11:57 am

    This is a civil discourse, and so I find it inviting to chime in. The sad role I see wilderness playing, is a divisive one. It pits people that would normally be friends, against one another.

    As far as other designations that would be like a “wilderness lite”, mountain bike riders from Montana are bringing forth a “National Protection Area”. We may not get too far, but there is a great deal of grass-roots support, and so far, consistant support from adjacent county commissions. This effort has been with the support of IMBA. Indeed, the principles of our whole effort is gleaned from IMBA.

    I am conflicted about the concept of allowing bikes on key trails within wilderness, or instead finding an alternative designation that fits some of our remaining wild lands that isn’t so restrictive. While we are looking hard at alternatives, if enough poorly planned wilderness is forced upon unwilling citizens, (example, the Northern Rockies Ecosystem Protection Act) the concept of wilderness will be cheapened to the point where something will break. At that point, bicycling will be probably forced back into wilderness. The efforts of wilderness groups thus far would then be compromised. It would serve everyone better to find a balance when designing where wilderness zoning is placed, rather than forcing it on others, similar to a land grab.

  24. Lorax August 21st, 2010 3:04 pm

    So why stop with mountain bikes. Let’s get in dirt bikes with mufflers, quiet ATV’s with “soft” tires, camo jeeps with mufflers, and oh yes, let’s build some roads to make it easier to use these – and a MacDonalds or two…

  25. ed August 21st, 2010 8:28 pm

    Lorax- I’m afraid you are comparing apples to oranges.

  26. Lou August 22nd, 2010 8:07 am

    Lorax, the reason for stopping with mountain bikes is that one has to have a stopping point and mountain bikes seem like a good one. It’s really no more complex than that. Pretty arbitrary, really. Seems like that’s your point?

    The actual Wilderness Act is open to a lot of interpretation. Thus, what rules the USFS makes based on the Wilderness Act are quite arbitrary and based on current culture. For example, they could outlaw ski bindings based on the same logic as outlawing mountain bikes. Or they could let mountain bikes in and wait for a gigantic lawsuit by the Sierra Club to sort things out.

    In my view, the important concept here is that our public land needs to be managed for conservation while still allowing for recreation and resource extraction. That is reality. How that is done is open to a lot of adjustment as the years roll by, but if a form of recreation makes little to no lasting or extremely deleterious impact on the land, it should be heavily favored, in my view. A blanket ban of bicycling on a huge amount of public land is just wrong. And locking up more land to bicycles is also wrong, in my view.

  27. Bob Marshall December 7th, 2011 5:55 pm

    Your “conservation” “resource extraction” argument is promoting the commodification of wilderness. The issue is not about environmental impact it is what the Wilderness Act calls “Naturalness” which differs from ecological viability. The WA is about restraint, humility, and temperance. A society should consider the moral ramifications of technology, however they influence wilderness. (I’m thinking SPOT devices too.)

  28. Lou December 7th, 2011 6:35 pm

    The concept of Wilderness as some kind of moral puritiy is a manmade construct that has meager viability. Wilderness needs value other than it being “Wilderness” for it to be truly preserved, rather than set aside as a temporary feel-good act. Recreation is one such value. Watershed is another. Preservation of natural resources for future use is another (blasphemy, I know) is another. Wildlife sanctuary is another. And so forth. Power to those who can sit in the lotus position and float on the good feelings of knowing the Wilderness is there, but they are the minority. Most people need practical reasons for locking the vast majority of human uses out of a given chunk of land.

  29. Bob Marshall December 8th, 2011 12:07 pm


    for a sound argument against wilderness as a social construct.

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