Should mountain bikes be allowed in wilderness areas?
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More than 100 million acres of America's most rugged landscapes designated as wilderness are off limits to mountain bikers. But two senators want to change that. They have introduced a new bill. It would allow bikers to join hikers and horseback riders in those scenic, undisturbed areas.
The proposal is debated within the biking community. It is opposed by conservationists. They say bikes would erode trails. And, they would upset the notion of wilderness as primitive spaces.
The bill comes from U.S. Senators Mike Lee and Orrin Hatch. Both are Republicans. It would give local officials with the Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Forest Service and other federal management agencies two years to decide in each wilderness area if bikes will be allowed. If no decision is made within two years, the bike ban would be lifted in that area.
The proposed law comes from somewhat unlikely sponsors. Hatch and Lee represent Utah. Outdoor recreation and mountain biking are big business in the state. But both are supporters of the Republican state's push to take over public lands controlled by the federal government. That is something environmentalists and outdoor recreation groups oppose.
Lee said he's a former mountain biker. The senator said his bill takes on what he sees as an overreaching federal regulation. He believes that it confines locals. Lee says there's no evidence that mountain bike tires cause any more erosion than hikers do.
At issue is a part of the Wilderness Act. It restricts the use of "mechanical transport." That refers to bikes, all-terrain vehicles and cars. The restrictions are in 100-plus million wilderness acres. They are found in 44 states. It's the only blanket ban on bicycling in the federal public lands system.
The ban on "mechanical transport" doesn't include wheelchairs. Those are allowed as part of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Lee notes that skis, rock climbing gear, kayaks, which are also allowed, "arguably involve some type of mechanical action." They help people move about.
Mountain biking wasn't a popular sport when the law was passed. That was in 1964. But conservationists say allowing the bicycles will alter the character of those spaces. And, they say the bikes are tough on trails. That is according to Alan Rowsome. He is with The Wilderness Society. It is a conservation group.
Rowsome said that only about 10 to 12 percent of all U.S. public lands are protected under the Wilderness Act. He called it one of "the bedrock environmental laws we have in this country." It sets aside some areas as untouchable.
That includes tens of thousands of acres of forests, valleys, lakes and peaks around Lake Tahoe. That is a large freshwater lake. It is between California and Nevada. "If mountain bikers could start riding those trails, they would be in Seventh Heaven," said Ted Stroll. He is president of the Sustainable Trails Coalition. It is a nonprofit. The coalition is working to overturn the ban.
Stroll said the wilderness ban on bikes leaves riders in Colorado on dirt forest roads from Crested Butte to Aspen. This is instead of more scenic single track trails. In North Dakota, he said, about 100 miles of one bike trail are bookended by wilderness zones. They leave bikers to make detours at both ends. The detours are there to avoid the protected areas.
The International Mountain Bicycling Association is still reviewing the bill. That is according to its president, Mike Van Abel. But the association's 40,000 mountain bikers are divided on the idea.
Some mountain bikers don't want to upset longstanding political alliances with conservation groups. The mountain bikers say bikers should instead focus on working with interest groups and lawmakers to negotiate. The mountain bikers prefer to move the boundaries of wilderness areas to allow bikes on trails.
"Wilderness is the first time we as a species decided to put the needs of nature above the needs of man," said Ashley Korenblat. She is the owner of a bicycling tour company. It is based in Moab, Utah. The area is a mountain biking playground. "We don't need to ride our bikes everywhere."
Korenblat is a former chair of the International Mountain Bicycling Association. There are few trails in wilderness areas that would be fun to ride, she said. But "the last thing the bike industry wants to do is have a big fight with the environmental community."
CRITICAL THINKING QUESTION
How could bikers have more impact than hikers?
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