No, Mountain Bikes Won't Destroy Our Wilderness Trails

The Human-Powered Travel in Wilderness Areas Act gives land managers the option to allow, or deny, cyclists. Credit: Jordan Siemens / Getty

While the rest of us were enjoying the great outdoors this Labor Day, the New York Times Opinion section laid a rotten egg for cyclists. "Keep Bikes Off Our Trails," demanded the headline of an article advocating for the continued ban on bikes from all designated wilderness areas. Bikes have effectively been shut out since the inception of the Wilderness Act of 1964, a bill that created our most pristine nature sanctuaries and prohibited motorized and mechanized travel almost two decades before the first mountain bikes hit dirt.

This summer, the Human-Powered Travel in Wilderness Areas Act has been working its way through congress. The bill would give wilderness areas (of which there are 759, covering 109,754,604 acres) the option to open as much or as little of its land to mountain biking as the managers deemed appropriate. The op-ed author, Doug Scott, is having none of it. Scott is no doubt speaking from the same love of the outdoors that most riders share — he spent his career advocating with the Wilderness Society, Sierra Club, and Campaign for America's Wilderness, after all — but rather than presenting research that wilderness areas must be protected from tire treads, he relies on fear-mongering and fallacies.

First, let’s make it clear that allowing quiet, lightweight, human-powered machines into wilderness areas will not magically open the door to ATVs and other motorized vehicles. We can all recognize faulty slippery-slope logic, right? The new bill specifically supports "nonmotorized transportation."

Scott also conjures up conservation boogeymen in the Republican co-sponsors from Utah, Mike Lee and Orrin Hatch. No, these Senators do not have records as stewards of the earth. And we'd certainly give any outdoor legislation from this duo a hard, cynical look. But Scott suggesting guilt by association for the Human-Powered Travel bill ignores its actual contents, which merely opens the door to cycling and lets wilderness areas determine what's best for themselves.

The heart of Scott's argument is simply that wilderness areas must be protected "wild places, untrammeled, as much as possible, by man," as he puts it. It's a purely emotional, subjective argument, because that's all he has to work with. He doesn't claim that mountain bikes inflict a greater environmental impact to trails — probably because research shows it's only as hard on trails as walking. Rather, he contends mountain bikers have enough land access, as far as he's concerned, and he doesn't want to see any wheels on his trails.

But Scott's fear of a two-wheeled takeover on wilderness trails is actually the last thing cyclists want. Most backcountry hiking trails make for atrocious riding. No rider wants to dismount and scramble over rocks and downed trees, much less spend a ride dodging hikers and horses (those are allowed). The Sustainable Trails Coalition, a non-profit group advocating for bike access in wilderness agrees. "We don't want access to all wilderness trails," says Dave Simon, a board member at the STC.

Both a backpacker and mountain biker, Simon says riding in wilderness with deep hiking traditions and no cycling connection would be inappropriate. "For example, busing out tourists to bike through a Grand Canyon Wilderness would be a terrible idea."

Instead of unfettered access, cyclists would like to see closed trails — like those lost in Idaho in 2015 when the Boulder-White Cloud Wilderness Area was designated — reopened. The Human-Powered Travel bill gives the Boulder-White Cloud managers the option to do just that if they deem it best for the land. That's the point of this legislation, giving land managers power to open trails where appropriate. Doug Scott can keep his trails. More than anything, we just want ours back.