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Proposed Bill in Congress Would Open Wilderness Areas to Bikes

Idaho has nearly 20,000 miles of bike trails in national forests outside of wilderness-designated areas. (Linda Paul/flickr)
Idaho has nearly 20,000 miles of bike trails in national forests outside of wilderness-designated areas. (Linda Paul/flickr)
September 22, 2016

BOISE, Idaho -- Congress is briefly back in session, and one of the bills being considered could open up wilderness-designated areas to mountain biking.

Senate Bill 3205, called the Human-Powered Travel in Wilderness Areas Act, was introduced by Senator Mike Lee (R-Utah) and co-sponsored by Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), and would enable local federal agencies to assess whether non-motorized travel should be allowed in wilderness areas.

Jon Harloe, owner of Custom Cycles in Boise and a former member of the Southwest Idaho Mountain Biking Association, said bikers have plenty of other places to ride besides wilderness areas, which make up about two percent of the contiguous United States.

"It's not like there's some epidemic shortage of mountain bike trails. They're popping up everywhere,” Harloe said. "Why can't we just leave two percent of our land alone? Not only for our own sake, but if you read the Wilderness Act, it talks about respect for nature."

Harloe said the bill was born out of a conflict over mountain biking trails that became part of the Boulder-White Clouds Wilderness Area last year. According to a 2013 report from the U.S. General Accounting Office, there are 3,700 miles of wilderness trails - compared with 20,000 miles of non-wilderness trails - in Idaho's national forests.

Supporters of the bill said there is a blanket nationwide ban, and that local managers should be in charge of what type of travel is permitted on these lands.

But Craig Gehrke, Idaho director of the Wilderness Society, said according to the bill, local federal agencies would have two years to determine whether a trail should be open to mountain biking. After that, the areas would be automatically open to bikes.

"It's a bit of sham in a way,” Gehrke said, "because with all of the wilderness areas in the United States, the managers couldn't possibly make public determinations on all the trails individually within two years."

Harloe said he also worries this bill could lead to other intrusions on protected lands.

"The issue is bigger than our desire to ride our bikes,” Harloe said. “We need to continue the tradition of protecting our wild places from encroachment of disruptive user groups and, possibly down the road, forces that we may not foresee."

The original Wilderness Act from 1964 stated there should be no form of mechanical transport on wilderness-designated land.

Eric Tegethoff, Public News Service - ID