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Uphill Grind

Mountain Bikes in Wilderness Areas

By Frederick Reimers | Photo by David Stubbs

Update: On August 7, 2015, President Obama signed into law a bill that designated 275,665 acres of the Boulder-White Cloud mountains as Wilderness, closing off the area to mountain bike access.

In central Idaho, 150 miles of trail navigates the Boulder-White Cloud Mountains. It’s exactly the type of pristine but somewhat forgotten country that draws backcountry mountain bikers from nearby Ketchum. But in 2014, a local chapter representative of the International Mountain Biking Association (IMBA) testified before the U.S. Senate against designating 272,000 acres of those lands as Wilderness with a capital W. Why? Only primitive uses like hiking and horseback riding are allowed in Wilderness—mountain bikers are shut out.

Montana cyclists faced a similar predicament this spring in the Bitterroot National Forest. During the past decade, while the area was classified as a Wilderness Study Area, mountain bikers maintained 178 miles of established trails there. Then, without public input, the U.S. Forest Service adopted Wilderness management practices for the Study Area. The trails lovingly cleared of deadfall by local riders were now closed to mechanized travel. Similar restrictions apply to mountain bikers in our National Parks. And, on a case-by-case basis, the same is true of many city-level Open Space and Parks departments.

There’s no longer much debate that bikes cause significant trail impact, especially compared to horses. But as with packrafting in Yellowstone National Park, a public battle about bikes in Wilderness could backfire. “There isn’t sufficient legal grounds to challenge the ban in court—and losing that fight would establish legal precedent, which is worse,” says IMBA’s Mark Eller.

Another option? Fighting for different classifications. National Recreation Area and National Monument labels protect undeveloped spaces while allowing mountain bikes. Sloan Shoemaker, executive director of the conservation group Wilderness Workshop and an avid mountain biker, worked with IMBA on just such a fix to a Congressional bill after a Colorado Wilderness Area was stymied when mountain bikers sided with motorized users. Instead of losing established mountain bike trails to Wilderness they simply designated a few key corridors as National Recreation Areas.

Sadly, when IMBA and the Sierra Club teamed up to reach a likeminded compromise on Idaho’s Boulder-White Clouds area, it was thwarted by politics. To fight the Obama Administration’s creation of National Monuments, Congressional Republicans now paradoxically support the Idaho Wilderness designation they once vehemently opposed.

The official mountain biking response? Patience, Eller says. “Mountain bikers are still fringe players, politically. We’ve only been organized on conservation issues for 20 years. Compare that to the Sierra Club’s 120. We need to keep building our social capital or we don’t stand a chance of overcoming decades of Wilderness management.”

From the Summer 2015 issue.

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