You are here

Forest Service Drawing Line On Mountain Bikers in Potential Wilderness, National Park Service Agrees


U.S. Forest Service managers in parts of Montana and Idaho are working to ban mountain bikes on landscapes that some day could merit wilderness designation, a move that isn't sitting well with the International Mountain Bicycling Association. Over at the National Park Service, meanwhile, officials have no intention of letting mountain bikers access lands eligible for wilderness designation.

“Existing lands that have been determined to be eligible for wilderness, they should not be considered for potential mountain bike trails at this point," says Garry Oye, the Park Service's wilderness and recreation chief. "We wouldn’t want to authorize a use if we’ve already determined that the lands should be considered for wilderness. We wouldn’t want to allow a use that would compromise that future designation. That’s consistent with our policies.”

Since 2005 at least IMBA has been working to expand mountain bike use in national parks. That year saw the organization and the Park Service sign off on a Memorandum of Understanding calling for a five-year pilot program that would explore mountain bike possibilities in the National Park System via pilot projects in three parks. Initially that MOU was aimed at opening more dirt roads and administrative roads to the cyclists, but not long afterward IMBA officials began talking of the need for single-track routes in the parks.

While those efforts led to a study in Big Bend National Park to create a "shared use" trail, one designed primarily with mountain bikers in mind, IMBA officials began working to change Park Service regulations that must be negotiated before a park superintendent can open park terrain beyond developed areas to mountain bikes. As the clock was running out on the Bush administration the Interior Department published a proposed rule to "streamline" the regulatory landscape regarding mountain bikes in national parks, but it quickly drew criticism from groups that feared how much Park Service landscape its passage could affect.

There are places for mountain bikers to ride in the National Park System. Hundreds of miles of mountain biking opportunities exist in the parks, ranging from the classic, 100-mile-long White Rim Trail in Canyonlands National Park to routes through the woods at Mammoth Cave National Park, the carriage paths in Acadia National Park, and even the rail trails in Cape Cod National Seashore. In all, more than 40 national park units off mountain biking opportunities in some form.

But not all public land landscapes are open to mountain bikers. This past Sunday's New York Times ran a story about Forest Service efforts to institute regulations that would ban mountain bikers from hundreds or even thousands of miles of trail that weave through lands that one day could be designated as official wilderness. While many mountain bike enthusiasts maintain that they should be able to enjoy their favored form of recreation on public lands, included those designated wilderness, land managers who oversee lands with wilderness characteristics are trying to prevent compromising those characteristics. And since officially designated wilderness is off-limits to mechanized travel -- even if that mode of transportation is a bike -- the forest managers are perhaps erring on the side of caution by moving to limit where mountain bikers can ride.

"There's no comparison between bikes made 20 years ago and those made today," Dave Bull, the Forest Service's director for recreation, minerals, lands, heritage and wilderness in Montana told the Times. "People are better able to get to places they couldn't reach before without hiking. They're pushing further and further."

Not only are the latest generation of bikes capable of taking their riders farther and farther into the backcountry, but their arrival, some believe, is out of sync with the wilderness concept.

“There is a wilderness experience, a truly backcountry experience, that is part of the idea and the concept behind wilderness," says Michael Carroll, associate director of The Wilderness Society's Wilderness Support Center. "It's preserving a landscape that is similar to the landscape that our fathers and their fathers before them were able to experience. It’s hard to argue that that experience has been preserved when you have heavy traffic zipping by on mountain bikes after you’ve spent two days hiking in.”

IMBA's communications director, Mark Eller, believes that sentiment can flow in two directions.

"Let’s reverse the hypothetical and say you’re in a remote area and you’re a solo mountain biker and you come across a gaggle of hikers," he offers. "Is that going to disrupt your quiet, the solitude on your mountain bike? Probably.”

Beyond that, says Mr. Eller, the debate over appropriateness, and righteousness, of trail use seems to be getting skewed.

“There seems to be the perception of conflict and the realities that people see on the trails are totally out of whack with each other," he said, adding a moment later that, "I have a hard time just categorizing one trail mode as always more pristine and contemplative than other.”

IMBA has worked to build alliances with the land-management agencies, from meeting around the country with officials to sending trail crews out to both repair trails and demonstrate how to build trails that will stand up to bike use. The group has not talked about cutting trails in national park wilderness areas -- though IMBA officials have talked in theory about realigning proposed wilderness boundaries to benefit mountain bikers -- but rather has focused on creating more riding opportunities elsewhere in the parks. With word that the New River Gorge National River is in line for $2 million to expand its network of bike trails, the group hopes to show that shared-use trails can be well-designed and used cooperatively by hikers and bikers.

“That’s what we’re hoping will be a great place for people to look to and see how it can work in a national park," said Mr. Eller, who agrees that not all national parks are suitable for backcountry mountain bike trails. "We think we’re going to be able to show how it can be done when it’s done right.”

While IMBA also has argued that the ban against "mechanized" travel in official wilderness should be reworded to one against "motorized" travel, that might create more of a battle than the group wants to enter in light of the longevity of that provision in the Wilderness Act, which was passed in 1964

“Any time you go back and modify the parent law, or parent legislation, you better do it with some good public debate, and I think that’s what needs to happen if we do need to go back and look at those things that were legislated in 1964," said the Park Service's Mr. Oye. "It’s not our intent to change the Wilderness Act to allow for mountain bikes, and it’s not our intent to compromise future wilderness designations by promoting mountain bike use in areas that” have potential to be designated wilderness.

At the Wilderness Society, Mr. Carroll adds that, “This is the camel’s nose under the tent. That’s been our argument for a long time. There’s no way you can say that they’re not mechanized. They say themselves that they want to see these big loop systems developed, and they say they want to be allowed in wilderenss. For us those things don’t add up.”

A mountain biker himself who enjoys riding the trails around Durango, Colorado, Mr. Carroll said the issue over mountain bikes in wilderness is personally a tough one -- "I've got tons of friends who are mountain bikers. It's a conundrum for me." -- but in the end he believes wilderness lands need the highest level of protection from impacts. With mountain bikes getting bigger and bigger, their impacts are getting larger, as well, said Mr. Carroll, referring to the Surley bike company's "Pugsley" model with its huge, 4-inch-wide tires.

“Protecting the resource, protecting it for what it represents, for the clean air and water, the wildlife, protecting it for future generations ... is the first priority of wilderness areas," he said. "We want to preserve that as a piece of the puzzle in terms of the management of our public lands. It’s not about 'our' use. ... I think it’s (the debate) unfortunate. There are so many people, if they could take a step back from their use and look at the larger resource issues, and the larger context, I wish they could see that this is about the greater good, not just about your specific use.”


My experience on shared trails is: The bikers are rude and don't always stay on the trails. They are yelling to communicate instead stopping to communicate in a more quiet voice. My vote would be to keep them off the trails. Let them fight with automobiles on the paved roads.

I agree with Mr Carroll, a wilderness area should be a wilderness area ! We have a chance to once again to do the right thing and save some of these areas as WILDERNESS !!! Once wilderness is gone, it is gone forever so let's do it now !

There are plenty of places where people can play with their toys (mountain bikes, snowmobiles, off road vehicles), there needs to be places where nature can just be nature at its best. The federal lands should have something for everyone, including Mother Nature herself.

Mountain bikes should stay off Wilderness Areas but they certainly have a place in the NPS. The wording of "mechanical" in 1964 likely went beyond "motorized", contrary to IMBA's assertion. Perhaps this was not a direct exclusion of bikes, which was likely unforeseen. But other mechanical uses are possible, such as horse & buggy and sleds. However, I'd be interested to know if wheel chairs are also disallowed.

In any event, mountain biking is a wonderful and healthy way to enjoy the back-country. Their inclusion within appropriate places within the NPS only enriches the overall support of NPS initiatives.

I find mountain bikers to be a polite crowd and have had few conflicts. I think this is a generational issue and also a little bit of ignorance on the realities of mountain bikes and it tends to be the older, politically savvy crowd who hate mountain bikes, while the majority of us have few problems with them.
Let's 'fess up here folks. Hikers are more invasive to wilderness or recommended wilderness than mountain bikes. There are bigger groups of hikers going into remote areas. Hikers are able to spend multiple nights deep in the backcountry. Hikers are the first to wander off trail, tromping on fragile wildflowers or sensitive tundra. Hikers trash trails just like all user groups do. Hikers widen trails because they don't want to step in the mud, or walk through a creek. Personally, when I hike, I love to go off trail and explore areas that see little human use - unlike bikes, I will travel across tundra, bushwack through the forest. My best chance of seeing wildlife is off a trail, on foot. Bikes can't do that.
This argument that mountain bikes can go farther (Mr. Bull) is true, but also not true. If a trail is steep or technical they travel about the same distance as a hiker. And if a bike is going to ride deeper into the backcountry it is usually limited to a single day unlike hikers who can spend multiple days deep in the backcountry. A very long ride for your average mountain biker is about ten miles in one direction and that means ten miles back to the car. Hikers can travel fifteen miles in one direction, easily in one day and then spend the night, and go further the next.
The bottom line is the older hiking crowd controls the voice of the lobbyists in this argument. It is truly sad. Mountain Bikers are conservationists as much, if not more, than hikers, at least where I live this is the case. For hikers to keep kicking mountain bikes off of their trails is extremely selfish. Mountain Bikers are now relegated to share trails with the motorized crowd and yet we're kicked off of those trails as well because they are too trashed to ride without a motor.
Lastly, most of the trails in these wild areas are off limits to bikes because they are too technical to ride. Mountain Bikers are not asking for much. If these areas were left open to bikes, hikers would still enjoy the majority of all trails in the west to themselves.

I am a hiker first and foremost, but like K Dostal, I am disappointed by the irrational rhetoric of mountain biking haters. Still, I have no problem with bikes being kept out of designated "Wilderness with a Capital W" areas as long as the NPS and the USFS recognize mountain biking as a use they should allow in other management zones.

Anon and Betty H need to take some deep breaths, sit in a lotus position for a few minutes, and find a little more "loving kindness" for other recreational users.

I've seen the operating guides for designated wilderness areas, and wheelchairs or other medical devices are specifically exempted from being considered "mechanical transport". Strictly speaking, if there wasn't such a distinction, someone with an artificial leg/foot (with several moving parts) might be considered to be using mechanical "transport".

Bikes are mechanized, but carbon fiber walking sticks, wheelchairs, and kayaks are not. Go explain that one!

Kafka would be proud of the nonsensical regulations we have today. BTW, for the "pure" wilderness worshippers out there, Congress intended to have bikes be authorized in wilderness areas in 1964. All of this has little to do with any kind of rational argumentation and a lot to do with the desire of a few not to share their taxpayer funded piece of haven. Heck, if wilderness was off limits to hikers, I'd probably drum up the fear mongering as well just so I would not have to share. That being said, it does not make it right.

In the backcountry, there is PLENTY of room for everybody to share, except on a few heavily traveled trails, since it's mostly empty.

I need to comment on Mr. Carroll and his complete lack of understanding of Mountain Biking. The Pugsley is a very specific mountain bike, and is mostly used as a snow bike. In all my years of biking, I've only seen 1 on the trails, so using that bike as the prototypical bike on the trails shows a complete lack of understanding and knowledge about mountain biking. Furthermore, with tires that big, it's very hard for anybody to go very fast (you do have to pedal the darn thing, it's still a human powered machine). And finally, the very wide tires of that bike mean that the bike is less likely to impact the trail (less pressure per square inch of contact).

As for mountain bikes getting bigger and bigger, that does not mean anything. If he refers to downhill specific machines, he would be right, except that those bikes are not meant to be pedaled up the hill, and can only be used at ski resorts in the summer, hardly the wilderness heaven. The typical bike that can be pedaled cross country has not changed much in weight over the last 15 years, it's still somewhere between 25 and 31#. The only difference is that there is more suspension travel that makes them easier to pedal all day. Meanwhile, 1000# horses tear up the trails and defecate all over, and Mr. Carroll does not seem to have much to say about this.

Frankly, the hypocrisy is disgusting.

Add comment


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

National Parks Traveler's Essential Park Guide

Recent Forum Comments