First came the bare human foot, somewhere in Africa. Then, in no particular order, came the moccasin, the shoe, the horse and saddle, boat and oar, the ski, the snowshoe—and so much more.

All of these came to the backcountry and helped to enrich our travels there. Sure, there’s been some grumbling about how some of the more recent inventions make modern life too easy, but over time, those tools and technologies have become accepted parts of our adventures in even the most remote places.

But … whoa! Along came the human-powered mountain bike, and although it’s quite similar to the contrivances that hardy souls have been pedaling and pushing through cities and the backcountry since the mid-19th century, some people now consider them to be so high-tech that they should be banned from wild landscapes.

Critics complain that nothing seems to say, “I can’t truly get away,” like the thought of encountering wheels on a trail. Ignoring the gears, cams, springs, levers, satellite communication tools and highly technological gadgets already filling their packs, these critics abhor the presence of bicycles in any federally designated wilderness.

It’s been suggested that the desire to allow bicycles in wilderness is an extremist campaign by a faction of off-road cyclists—people indifferent to the conservation goals of the 1964 Wilderness Act. But bicyclists treasure designated wilderness areas, which are already shared by a wide variety of recreationists, including through-hikers, day-trippers, hunters, equestrians, skiers, snowshoers, birdwatchers, climbers and boaters. And also, of course, cows.

Bills introduced in both the Senate and House of Representatives have renewed the conversation about whether it’s high time to lift the Forest Service’s 1984 blanket ban on bicycles in federally managed wilderness. The bills would allow federal land agencies to continue to maintain complete closures to bicycles if they thought it necessary, but the decision-making authority would move from centralized control in Washington, D.C., to local supervisors of wilderness lands.

For evidence of the cyclists’ purported extremism, some critics look to the supposedly mainstream International Mountain Bicycling Association, which is on record as opposing bicycles in wilderness. But many members and IMBA-affiliated clubs have protested IMBA’s position, and some have even canceled their memberships. IMBA does good work on many fronts, but its stance on wilderness access is increasingly seen as a timid and misguided abandonment of backcountry cyclists and a denial of cyclists’ legitimate role in the conservation community.

One of IMBA’s top three affiliated clubs is just down the road from there: The San Diego Mountain Biking Association called IMBA’s board “tone-deaf to the community” before severing its IMBA affiliation in early 2018. Three years earlier, the independent, 6,000-member New England Mountain Bike Association was already pleading, unsuccessfully, for IMBA to support wilderness access for mountain bikes.

In 2016, IMBA surveyed its ranks and determined that 51 percent of members felt that including access for mountain bikes in wilderness was a “very important issue.” That result was significantly more pronounced in the Western states, where wilderness areas are concentrated. Also in 2016, one of off-road cycling’s best-known online communities,, surveyed its readers and found that 96.2 percent wanted some level of wilderness access.

It seems that the bid for wilderness access has reached the mainstream, and that the tension is less among mountain bikers and more between mountain bikers and the IMBA board of directors. Meanwhile, some cyclists continue to resist proposals for designating new wilderness, because they would be barred from riding in it. As a result, wilderness proposals sometimes get abandoned or scaled back.

Andy Kerr, former executive director at Oregon Wild, recently lamented, “There are millions of acres of qualifying roadless land that could go into the wilderness system, but the prior existing use of mountain bikes politically prevents it.” In the same post, Kerr recommends “allow(ing) mountain bikes into new wilderness areas with conditions.”

This conflict is unfortunate and unnecessary, given the largely shared vision and goals of conservationists, cyclists and other wilderness users. Shouldn’t agencies be free to at least consider bicycles?

The Wilderness Act of 1964 prohibited “mechanical transport,” but how that is defined has become ever more contested as we uncover the historical record. Moreover, bicycle opponents forget the Wilderness Act’s overarching goals, which remain the preservation of wild lands and the promotion within them of rugged, self-reliant recreation. An intrepid backcountry cyclist fits within these criteria perfectly.

It’s time to recognize that many Americans have chosen to add bicycles to their backcountry equipment and would sometimes like to use their bikes to experience the wilderness, while honoring the spirit and purpose of the Wilderness Act.

Daniel Greenstadt is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News. He is an environmental industry consultant and lives in Portland, Ore.

3 replies on “Community Voices: It’s Time for Mountain Bikes to Be Allowed in Federal Wilderness Areas”

  1. Here are some facts in this issue
    Mountain bikers are less than 3% of the Population and Wilderness Areas are less than 3% of the land area in the lower 48 States. This is not even going to make a dent in any mountain biking access issues if such issues actually exist. 78% of the US Forest Service Trails already allow mountain bikes and the Forest Service has the largest trail system on earth. Mountain bikers have never shown any data suggesting they need more trails…

    The Sustainable Trails Coalition, the group that is lobbying for this Bill, has collected over $200,000 and has not released any financial statements or taxes showing how exactly how the money has been spent. Any respectable organization that is collecting money for a cause would release their financial information. STC is also formed under the section of the tax code that allows it to take donations for lobbying or campaigns without revealing who their donors are. In other words, STC is just another Dark Money Group…

    Ted Stoll of STC in his testimony to Congress stated that only certain types of mountain bikers would be going into Wilderness Areas. Sounds like Ted is discriminating against other types of mountain bikers…

    Ted Stroll also said in his testimony that the decision about mountain biking in Wilderness Areas should be made without having a National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) Review. He is advocating that the local land manager make the decision, but he doesn’t want the local land manager to make an informed decision by having a NEPA Review…

    Senator Mike Lee, the sponsor of the STC Bill in the Senate, has a 0% Rating by the League of Conservation Voters for 2017. Lee was the only US Senator voting against aid to Flint, Michigan. Lee sponsored a Bill to allow states to opt out of the Endangered Species Act…

    Representative Tom McClintock, who is sponsoring the STC Bill in the House also has a 0% Rating by the League of Conservation Voters for 2017. He was one of the original co-sponsors of a bill that would sell off 3 million acres of Federal land to the extractors. Please send some money to Jessica Morse who is running against McClintock…

    Having Mountain Biking Trails out in the middle of nowhere isn’t going to help the sport of mountain biking grow. Right now, skateboarding is more popular than mountain biking in the 6 to 17 year old age group. That’s because there are more skateboard parks near where the youth live.

    Greenstadt writes “It’s been suggested that the desire to allow bicycles in wilderness is an extremist campaign by a faction of off-road cyclists.” That’s because STC is a group with extreme views. For instance, Ted Stroll in his manifesto writes that if fishing reels are allowed in Federal Wilderness Areas, then so should mountain bikes. The reason is that fishing reels are mechanical transport, they transport fishing line out onto the water. Sorry Ted, there is a big difference between transporting fishing line, and transporting humans. And all the other items banned in the Wilderness Act, motor vehicles, motorboats and airplanes, all transport humans.

    So, if you want to honor the spirit of the Wilderness Act, banning mountain bikes and other mechanical transport is the way to do it.

  2. Here are some additional facts in this issue (Readers should feel free to copy/paste just as often as Mr. McMahon has copy/pasted his rant in every internet forum he can find.)

    Visitors to federally-designated Wilderness are less than 3% of the population. 100% of US Forest Service Trails already allow foot travel. By Mr. McMahons’s logic, Wilderness makes an even smaller dent in hiker demand for access than it does for bicycle access, so we might as well exclude hikers from Wilderness and, while we’re at it, just stop supporting Wilderness entirely. Mr. McMahon has never shown any data suggesting hikers need Wilderness.

    Mr. McMahon, the Sustainable Trails Coalition’s chief opponent and internet troll, has never released his financial statements or taxes showing exactly how his money is being spent. And we have no idea how much money Mr. McMahon may be collecting – or from whom – for his anti-bicycle crusade. Mr. McMahon’s finances are even more opaque than STC’s. Also interesting is the fact that Mr. McMahon is apparently employed by an outdoor retailer that derives the vast majority of its income from non-cycling products. One wonders.

    The congressional sponsors of various recent Wilderness proposals have even worse environmental voting records and ratings than the sponsors of bicycle-friendly bills that Mr. McMahon is railing against. Yet Mr. McMahon has been thrilled to support those other bills. That’s a pretty good definition of hypocrisy. And now Mr. McMahon wants to tell people who to vote for.

    Having hiking trails out in the middle of nowhere isn’t going to help the sport of hiking grow. Right now, skateboarding is vastly more popular than Wilderness hiking in the 6 to 17 year old age group (and any other age group you care to mention). That’s because there are more skateboard parks near where the youth live. See how that works?

    Mr. McMahon writes that bicycles are “mechanical transport,” and therefor banned by the Wilderness Act while skis, snowshoes, oar locks, etc. are not banned in Wilderness even though they too are mechanical and transport humans. All the transport-related items banned in the Wilderness Act are either motorized or require permanent changes to the land, such as roads, railways, landing strips, etc. Bicycles require nothing more – and sometimes less – than foot and horse travel. Mr. McMahon will assure you that bicycles are mechanical while other mechanical items like skis, etc. are not mechanical because they may have origins that pre-date the modern bicycle, or even the wheel perhaps. That argument is enough to numb the mind of any mechanical engineer.

    Mr.McMahon will now tell you that cyclists are perfectly welcome on Wilderness trails, just as long as they leave their bicycles at home. Just imagine how quickly Mr. McMahon would become an “extreme” boot and pants activist if he were suddenly told that only moccasins and loin cloths are allowed in Wilderness.

    Mr. McMahon believes that backcountry bicyclists – people who ride safely and peacefully alongside other non-motorized uses on trails all over the country – should be banned from 110 million acres (and growing) of federal Wilderness. Despite having less impact than horse travel, and similar impact to foot travel, Mr. McMahon believes that cyclists deserve zero access to our most cherished outdoor adventures. Meanwhile, Mr. McMahon insists that he be allowed to roam anywhere he likes.

    If you want to honor the spirit of the 1964 Wilderness Act, and avoid being a hypocrite, reversing the 1984 blanket ban on mountain bikes is the way to do it.

    Now that we’ve shed additional light on some of Mr. McMahon’s mostly irrelevant facts, maybe we can focus on the fundamental question of whether it is reasonable to allow federal land managers simply to consider potential bicycle use when they make Wilderness trail access decisions, because that is virtually ALL the proposed legislation actually does.

    Readers can decide for themselves which side of this debate represents views that are extreme, exclusionary, dogmatic, elitist, and out of step with the intent of the Wilderness Act. Is it the side that thinks backcountry cyclists are legitimate members of the outdoor community who might deserve to resume access to some Wilderness trails on a case-by-case basis? Or is it the side that can’t bear the thought of sharing even one inch of Wilderness with other conservation-minded visitors who happen to choose equipment that looks different than Mr. McMahon’s equipment?

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