Kent Spence rides on the Cache-Game Divide in the Bridger-Teton National Forest. Wyoming Pathways is more focused on existing trail maintenance than lobbying to allow bikes in wilderness, Tim Young, its executive director said. (Tim Young)

A recently proposed amendment to the 1964 Wilderness Act would allow mountain bikes — as well as game carts, strollers and wheelbarrows — in designated wilderness. The proposed legislation has reignited the debate about the original intent of the Wilderness Act, what wilderness means and if bikes belong in it.

House Resolution 1349 would amend the Wilderness Act so it couldn’t exclude bicycles, strollers, wheelbarrows, survey wheels, game carts and wheelchairs in wilderness areas. (Wheelchairs are already allowed under the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act.) The bill was introduced by Rep. Tom McClintock (R-California) on March 2 and referred to the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Federal Lands, which McClintock chairs and on which Wyoming’s Rep. Liz Cheney sits. Cheney’s office did not return phone calls or respond to emails for this story.

The bill is similar to one introduced in 2015 by Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), which died without a hearing. Opening wilderness trails to mountain bikes hasn’t been a priority within the bike community in Wyoming, said Tim Young, executive director of Wyoming Pathways. The organization has been focused on more pressing issues like preventing closures of existing trails and the Forest Service’s backlog of trail maintenance projects.

Young said he needed to study the bill more, but supports the idea that some wilderness trails would be appropriate for mountain biking. Bikes don’t hurt resources more than hikers and horses on backcountry trails, he said.

“Wyoming pathways represents all types of people-powered recreation, so we also support people who are hiking, the mountain bikers, cross-country skiers, anyone using human-powered ways to explore landscapes,” he said.

Young doesn’t think the bill is an attempt to gut the Wilderness Act, but instead clarify its intent. The Wilderness Act didn’t mean bikes, which weren’t popular at the time, when the authors banned “mechanical” travel in protected areas, Young said. Interpreting the language to ban bikes, one could also apply it so skis, which have mechanized bindings, he said.

“It’s not the Wilderness Act that bans bikes, it’s the interpretation of the law by federal land management agencies,” he said.

Wilderness Act took nine years to mold

Sarah Walker, interim director with the Wyoming Wilderness Association, disagrees. The 1964 law underwent more than 60 drafts and took nine years to pass.

“There was an amazing amount of intent and forethought,” she said. “It was a way to defend our natural environment from an increasingly mechanized world. It’s almost sort of a miracle we still have some of these sanctuaries where you can slow down and move at 3 mph and move deliberately and tediously and more slowly than some people want to — and that’s part of the appeal.”

Walker said she believes allowing bikes in wilderness will cause trail damage, create ecological impacts, but most worrisome, make the original bill more susceptible to changes.

Tony Ferlisi, a Lander mountain bike enthusiast, agrees. Ferlisi used to guide for Trek Travel and now designs trips for the bike company.

One reason mountain bike riders in Wyoming haven’t lobbied as hard for allowing bikes in wilderness is because of the abundance of trails and few people they have to share them with, said Tony Ferlisi of Lander. (Tony Ferlisi)

“This is less about whether bikes are appropriate or inappropriate in wilderness and more about the Wilderness Act as a whole,” said Ferlisi who also serves as the Forest Service liaison for the Lander Cycling Club. “I see it as more of a Trojan horse.”

He understands the arguments about why bikes should be allowed in wilderness. He doesn’t see the point in arguing about impacts because the only way bikes can be allowed in wilderness is with an amendment to the Wilderness Act which would weaken it, he said.

In places like Colorado or California, trails are pressured by large populations of riders, he said. Wyoming riders are less vocal about wanting bikes in wilderness because of how many trails there are for so few people, he said. Ferlisi would rather see creation of special recreation management areas, that don’t require an act of Congress, could still retain wilderness qualities, but do offer mountain bike trails.

“I think that we have a number of other tools in our public land management tool box to have non-motorized recreation allowed in areas that aren’t capital W wilderness,” he said.

He’d like to see mountain bikers using their energy locally to build new trails or maintain existing ones, rather than fight to ride in wilderness, he said.

He knows some people would love to ride bikes in the Wind River or Gros Ventre mountains. That would be an amazing experience, he said. “But as a whole we can do without that.”

“Wilderness is about more than just us as people,” he said. Wilderness offers a unique opportunity to preserve the landscape’s natural character. The clean water the West is fortunate to have often comes from sources with headwaters in wilderness areas. Wildlife use the protected migration corridors.

Wilderness “is a really uniquely American idea and I think it’s one our greatest assets as a country,” Ferlisi said. “I think from a cultural, biological and human health standpoint, it’s super important we retain these places are they are.”

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If you want to judge for yourself, you can read the Wilderness Act, the first sentence of which follows. 

In order to assure that an increasing population, accompanied by expanding settlement and growing mechanization, does not occupy and modify all areas within the United States and its possessions, leaving no lands designated for preservation and protection in their natural condition, it is hereby declared to be the policy of the Congress to secure for the American people of present and future generations the benefits of an enduring resource of wilderness.

(This article has been corrected to state that Ferlisi guided for Trek Travel, not Trek — Ed)

Kelsey Dayton

Kelsey Dayton is a freelancer and the editor of Outdoors Unlimited, the magazine of the Outdoor Writers Association of America. She has worked as a reporter for the Gillette News-Record, Jackson Hole News&Guide...

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  1. Wilderness is wild. The wilderness act needs to be amended to disallow all mechanical devices including but not limited to; horse bridles, ski bindings, gps devices, cell phones, cameras, telescoping hiking poles and horse shoes. Anything else is antithetical to the true spirit of wilderness.

  2. Wilderness deserves the protections afforded by the Wilderness Act of 1964. Why do some insist on “watering-down” Wilderness by allowing bikes, strollers, wheeled carts, etc? If we allow these mechanized modes of transportation in Wilderness areas, the integrity of the Wilderness we have come to know and cherish will be lost forever. And what of future generations of wilderness enthusiasts? What will we leave behind for them to inherit? To diminish Wilderness now is to incrementally destroy it forever. Too much of the wild has already been compromised. Preserve what little wild remains by keeping bikes out of Wilderness. There can be no compromise on this if Wilderness is to remain wild.

    1. This does not “water down” Wilderness at all. The blanket ban on bikes wasn’t put into place until 1984, two decades after the original Act. This only returns administration of the Act to exactly how it was for the first two decades of its existence — and how it was originally intended.

      Enough with the chicken little, sky is falling emotional hyperbole. Recent additions to the Wilderness catalog have included many trails which had previously been popular with cyclists for decades. Even so, the areas were deemed to have “wilderness character” suitable for formal designation. Clearly, the presence of biking did not degrade these areas; it did not make them “less wild.” Nothing was “destroyed.”

      It has been proven both by independent scientific study and actual results as noted in the above paragraph, that bikes have no more impact than boots and far less than hooves. There is zero justification for singling out bikes for exclusion.

      1. Who knows what technology will be developed to allow us humans to move from one place to another.
        If “air cars” could fly 20′ above a wilderness area, create no sound, no visible impact, how would you feel then about 200 of them flying over you while fly fishing in blue ribbon waters? The special interest groups (bicycle lobby, etc) will throw $$$ and votes at this issue until someone bends or breaks the integrity of our forefathers original intent. No they couldn’t have foreseen the technological advances to come, as we can only guess. We can’t always have it “our way now”, and not have it impact us negatively in the future!

  3. Cheney’s office did not respond to phone calls or emails? No worries. She will answer everyone’s questions about this bill and everything else at her next town hall meeting.

    1. I have always had mixed thoughts about “Wilderness Areas”. To me, a non-horseman and arthritic individual, when they decided to close the Platte River Wilderness as a “Wilderness Area” they took 24,000 square acres off of my recreation map. The primary users of the area now are people who can afford horses or are outfitters in the fall months. If the trails and camps I see in the “Wilderness Area” on a map are maintained, then it is not a “Wilderness.” While I am not prohibited from using the land which is owned by all of us, I am unable to use it because I cannot use mechanical assistance. I used to camp and hunt the area, as such it is a loss to mr and others.

  4. Designated Wilderness covers less than 3% of federal public lands in the lower 48 states. Mountain bikers have millions of acres and many thousands of miles of trails open to them. Why do they want it all? Tony Ferlisi is right–this bill is a Trojan horse, and the intent is to weaken the Wilderness Act. In any case, that will be the result if Congress passes this awful bill.

    Mountain bikers are not excluded from wilderness; only their machines are. If bikers want to go into Wilderness areas, they can walk like the rest of us. These are the last remnants of America’s once vast wild lands, and they should be treasured as havens for wildlife and places for humans to get away from mechanized civilization.

    As for the specious argument that the authors of the Wilderness Act actually intended to allow mountain bikes in Wilderness, no they did not. The Act says, “Except as specifically provided for in this Act, and subject to existing private rights, there shall be no commercial enterprise and no permanent road within any wilderness area designated by this Act and, except as necessary to meet minimum requirements for the administration of the area for the purpose of this Act (including measures required in emergencies involving the health and safety of persons within the area), there shall be no temporary road, no use of motor vehicles, motorized equipment or motorboats, no landing of aircraft, no other form of mechanical transport, and no structure or installation within any such area.”

    “No other form of mechanical transport” was not put in there by mistake. When the Wilderness Act’s authors added the prohibition on “mechanical transport” to the prohibition on “motor vehicles, motorized equipment or motorboats” it was because they wanted to prohibit both motorized and mechanical transport. Bikes are mechanical transport. This is not an ambiguous provision. Every word of the Wilderness Act received careful consideration during those 60 drafts and 9 years of work.

    1. Thank you Ms. Harvey. The language you cite is unambiguous in the original Wilderness Act. Bicycles are mechanical transport. Horses, dogs, llamas, donkeys and goats have been our wild companion animals predating the wheel and cart.

      1. Well, Rob, let us remove the non-indigenous critters from the forest as well, then. Let all people walk into the area with nothing but what they can carry. Maintain nothing in the forest, allow no leasing of the land to to the cattle outfits and keep it as a true wilderness.

    2. To add additional clarity to which I am sure Mrs. Havey meant to include, please note the following quote from the act:

      “Mechanical transport, as herein used, shall include any contrivance which travels over ground, snow, or water on wheels, tracks, skids, or by floatation and is propelled by a nonliving power source contained or carried on or within the device.”

      The operative statement here is the act prohibited devices that are PROPELLED BY A NONLIVING POWER SOURCE.

      When the act was published in 1966, overland mountain bicycles did not exist, therefore the act was unable to delineate this type of muscle-powered transport.

      1. I did not include that quote because it is not in the 1964 Wilderness Act. You might want to read the Act.

          1. Ann is correct. That definition of “mechanical transport” is law because it is part of the Code of Federal Regulations, but it is not contained in the Wilderness Act itself. But all that means is that we still need to figure out its significance in this discussion.

            Bicycle opponents insist that the bicycle-friendly language was simply a rule-making error, corrected decades later by new regulations restoring the law to it’s proper intent. Cyclists suggest that bicycle-friendly regulations established in 1966, immediately after the passage of the Wilderness Act of 1964, are a better indication of intent than a new regulation established 18 years after the fact when hiking and horse advocates marched into the Forest Service to demand exclusivity.

        1. You’re right, it is not in the original Act–but it was how the USFS chose to interpret the act, and did so correctly because they knew the origin and genesis of the act and its corresponding intent.

          More telling though, is how Congress themselves wrote subsequent Wilderness legislation, removing any ambiguity of intent. When Congress did address mountain biking in Wilderness legislation, they listed it as a wilderness use, and set it right alongside hiking and horseback riding, specifically calling it “primitive recreation” in accordance with the wording in the original Act. Clearly, their intent was bike inclusive.

    3. “Designated Wilderness covers less than 3% of federal public lands in the lower 48 states. ”
      A horribly misleading statistic. The vast majority of the US is private property. Much more is highly developed. Backcounttry cyclists, who seek a similar experience as backcountry hikers, don’t want to ride developed lands any more than you wan to hike them. In my home state of CO, over 54% of all backcountry is designated Wilderness. Much more is off s due to National Parks, National Monuments, or other USFS, BLM, or state, regional or local closures. What’s more, many trails begin and end outside Wilderness, but because some small portion passes through a small corner of Wilderness, the entire route is rendered nonviable for biking.

      If you, as an equally low impact, human powered user, were disallowed from over 85% of your most cherished lands, you wouldn’t be saying “That’s okay, I have this ‘other 97%’ I can hike in”!

      “Mountain bikers are not excluded from wilderness; only their machines are.”
      But the mechanically assisted touring skier — and his mechanical skis — are not excluded. Neither is the boater with his mechanical oarlocks providing him a mechanical advantage in his transport. Clearly, the intent wasn’t to ban all things mechanical.

      That’s where you need to study the genesis of the act. Actually go and read the Congressional testimony given during the formation and writing of the act. “Mechanized” in the vernacular of the day and in use during the writing of the act, was synonymous with “motorized.” That’s why all those examples given in the Act have motors — and why all the mechanical things which are allowed, have no motors and are purely human powered. It’s clear which camp the bike belongs in!

      Even if you choose to conveniently ignore the fact that other mechanical devices (human powered, just like the bike) are allowed, and that every bit of historical evidence points to the intent to preclude only things which are motorized, you can’t ignore the one and only time Congress did directly address mountain biking in actually Wilderness legislation. By 1980, mountain biking popularity was known and Congress therefore addressed it head on in the Rattlesnake National Recreation Area and Wilderness Act of 1980. In this act, they referred to cycling as a wilderness activity. They even specifically referred to cycling as “primitive recreation” in accordance with the wording of the original Act, thus removing any possible ambiguity as to original or current intent. Clearly, the intent was bike inclusive.

  5. “My final comments tonight concern the issue of wilderness purity. Time after time, when we discuss wilderness, questions are raised about how developed an area can be and still qualify as wilderness, or what kind of activities within a wilderness area are consistent with the purposes of the Wilderness Act. I believe, and many citizens agree with me, that the agencies are applying provisions of the Wilderness Act too strictly and thus misconstruing the intent of Congress as to how these areas should be managed.”

    “Such policies are misguided. If Congress had intended that wilderness be administered in so stringent a manner, we would never have have written the law as we did. We wouldn’t have provided for the possibility of insect, disease, and fire control…We would’t have made wilderness classification subject to existing private rights such as mining and grazing. We wouldn’t have provided for the continuation of nonconforming uses where they were established – including the use of motor boats in part of the Boundary Water Canoe Area and the use of air-fields in the primitive areas here in Idaho, As these examples clearly demonstrate, it was not the intent of Congress that wilderness be administered in so pure a fashions to needlessly restrict its customary use and enjoyment. Quite the contrary, Congress fully intended that wilderness should be managed to allow its use by a wide spectrum of Americans.”

    “In summary, if purity is to be an issue in the management of wilderness, let it focus on preserving the natural integrity of the wilderness environment – and not on needless restriction of facilities necessary to protect the area while providing for human use and enjoyment.” – Sen Frank Church, from Wilderness in a Balanced Land Use Framework, 1977.

    Editor’s note: In certain circumstances, WyoFile will publish a comment without the commenter’s full name.

  6. Wilderness is not about a more mechanical gears advantage. Its about slowing down not speeding up.

    1. Paul: So no modern boots, skis, boats, GPS, hiking poles, water filters, horses(?) or any other modern materials and equipment that allow us to move further and faster over the land? After all, it’s about slowing down, right?

    2. Slowing down how much? Who’s to say? Is there some magic number that we should not exceed? Who do you get to determine what the appropriate speed is?I have seen and experienced everything from the seat of a bike that I have from the soles of my boots.

      I have been passed by trail runners while riding my bike. Do you propose that trail running should be banned?

      I can gallop a horse over rough terrain faster than I can ride my bike over the same terrain.

      Are you more in tune with the proper way to see our wild places than one of history’s greatest naturalists?

      “A man on foot, on horseback or on a bicycle will see more, feel more, enjoy more in one mile than the motorized tourists can in a hundred miles.”
      ― Edward Abbey