Federal bill: Allow bikes in wilderness

David Briggs
If passed, a bill would open up the possibility of biking on trails in wilderness areas, such as the 9.4-mile (out and back) Tomales Point Trail.

Do bikes belong in the 33,373-acre Phillip Burton Wilderness in the Point Reyes National Seashore? That’s a question that the hikers, horseback riders, bicyclists and park officials of West Marin may soon have to unite to answer.

Last month, a bill that would overturn a longstanding ban on bicycles in federally designated wilderness areas—and give local land managers discretion to decide which trails to open to bikes—moved to the House floor in Washington following a 22 to 18 vote from the House Natural Resources Committee. A companion bill is in the Senate.  

The legislation, sponsored by California Republican Congressman Tom McClintock, would amend the 1964 Wilderness Act. The act prohibits the use of motorized vehicles, aircraft or other forms of mechanical transport in wilderness areas; since the 1970s, that last item has been interpreted as inclusive of bicycles. But the new bill would amend the act to exempt “motorized wheelchairs, non-motorized wheelchairs, non-motorized bicycles, strollers, wheelbarrows, survey wheels or game carts” from the prohibition.

Federally designated wilderness comprises roughly 110 million acres of national forests, national parks and seashores, wildlife refuges and BLM properties. It is the most protective land designation in the United States. The Wilderness Act defines wilderness as “an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” Yet bicycles were allowed in wilderness areas until 1977. 

That year, in response to the advent of mountain biking and under pressure from national conservation organizations such as the Sierra Club, the forest service argued that bicycles were a form of mechanical transport, and banned them. The other land management agencies soon followed. 

Congressman McClintock has argued that this decision was not reflective of the original vision. “When the House considered the Wilderness Act in June of 1964, the record  is clear that its framers intended that the term ‘mechanical transport’ be applied to non-human-powered vehicles like motorcycles—not human-powered devices like bicycles,” he said in a press release for the house committee.

Congressman McClintock, whose district includes the Sierra Mountains and iconic wilderness areas such as Yosemite, characterizes the principal objective of the bill as restoring public access to public lands. But many in Marin County, which is regarded as the birthplace of mountain biking, are less than pleased by the prospect of opening up lands to bikes. 

The FootPeople, an association of Marin residents that actively opposes the new legislation, wrote a letter to Congressman Jared Huffman on Dec. 31. “Mechanized devices create negative impacts to wildlife: more roads fragmenting habitat, night-time bike riding with bright lights impacting wildlife, and more and more visitation into previously less frequently accessed places, again, impacting wildlife patterns and needs for no human visitation,” their letter states.

The FootPeople argue that wilderness provides the opportunity to witness and experience what the country was like hundreds of years ago, and that allowing mechanized devices in wilderness “threatens the primitive experience that people need in an increasingly mechanized and motorized world.” 

On other public lands in the county, conservation groups have for years protested increased access for mountain bikers. Last August, the Marin Conservation League, the Marin Audubon Society and the California Native Plant Society sued Marin County Open Space District for opening up some trails to bikes in the county’s road and trail management plan. The litigation is still pending.  

Max Korten, director of the Marin County Parks, defended the county’s decision. “Each year, we’ve had projects that increase the number of miles accessible to mountain bikes, but at the same time, we’ve reduced the social trails and some of the fragmentation of habitat that exists, reduced erosion, and increased sight lines and safety to trails,” he said. 

And, Mr. Korten added, “Parks and Open Space has a very different mission and mandate than federal management land agencies. Considering mountain bike use on that land is very different.” 

Linda Novy, a Fairfax resident and the vice president of the Marin Conservation League, characterized Congressman McClintock’s bill as “dangerous” and “an attack on the Wilderness Act.” Ms. Novy said it could also open the door to other forms of mechanized transport as technology develops down the line. 

She also pointed out that 1990 amendments to the Americans With Disabilities Act specifically allows wheelchairs in wilderness areas. “This is about mountain biking,” she said.

But Vernon Huffman, a Woodacre resident and the president of Access4Bikes Foundation, finds it disappointing that groups like the league are so vehemently opposed to bicycles, which he said do not impact the environment more than other users.

“Every time there’s a glimmer of hope or a trail proposal, these groups tend to react legally and oppose it, holding a line,” he said. 

Mr. Huffman, a former park ranger who worked in Yosemite, Glenn Canyon and Cape Cod National Seashore, went on, “At the beginning, mountain bikers weren’t organized and there was a knee-jerk reaction to ban mountain bikes on public land, and we’ve been crawling back from that ever since. But as the sport has grown and the empirical data has shown that [the impact of] mountain bike use is no more than hikers and far less than equestrians, we’ve been slowly accepted.”

Though bikers account for an average of around 30 percent of trail users on lands managed by Marin Open Space, California State Parks, the National Park Service and the Marin Municipal Water District, they are only allowed on 15 percent of those trail systems, according to data aggregated by Access4Bikes. Comparatively, the group also reports that equestrians have 70 percent access (hikers have 100 percent). 

The Point Reyes National Seashore has just 15 miles of dirt trails open to bikers, including the Estero Trail, the Olema Valley Trail and the Inverness Ridge Trail. Another 14 miles of fire roads are open to bikes. (Over 115 miles are open to horses.)

For Mr. Huffman, the goal is not total access, but cohesive access. “What [bicyclists] really live for is loops, and there are a few small connectors that would make a huge difference,” he said. For instance, allowing bike access on the Ridge Trail and sections of Coast Trail would greatly increase loop options, he said. 

Mr. Huffman also coaches the San Domenico High School mountain biking team and said youth, too, would benefit from new trails. Students often get hurt on paved fire roads, where they pick up speed, he said: “We want to stay in woods, on the trails, where it’s safer.” 

But opening up new trails to bicycles “would certainly change the atmosphere for hikers, since now they can choose to go on certain trails without bikers if they want to and know what to expect on a given trail,” said John Dell’Osso, a spokesman for the Point Reyes National Seashore. “It would certainly create a different kind of feeling on the trails.”

Mr. Dell’Osso said the park would seek guidance from both the Department of the Interior and the park service were Congressman McClintock’s bill to pass. Public input would also play a major role, he said.

Extensive dispute around mountain biking in Marin dates back to the sport’s inception in the late-1960s. Around that time, a group of teenagers rode vintage single-speed, balloon tire bikes on Mount Tamalpais and through Baltimore Canyon in Larkspur. According to the Marin Museum of Bicycling, “their exploits and attitudes earned them status as local legends and spawned the birth of mountain biking as it grew beyond their circle of friends.”

Mountain biking has become increasingly popular since the 1980s. The Outdoor Industry of America reports that there are 8.5 million mountain bikers in the U.S., compared to about 10 million overnight backpackers and 42 million day hikers.