Wilderness areas are known for isolated beauty and the feeling of peace experienced there. There are no cars, few roads and only horseman, horses and hikers can enter them. But that could soon change if a bill that’s now in congress becomes law.
When Craig Bowden isn’t teaching eighth graders language arts he’s out riding his mountain bike. Today, he’s giving me a lesson on bike riding at Woodward Park in north Fresno.
“When you’re taking a corner you typically want to have your outside foot down, so the pressures on the outside,” Bowden says as we ride down a hill.
Bowden is president of the group Central California Off-Road Cyclists. They host bike rides, teach riding skills and hold cleanups along trails in the region. Bowden says he likes the Woodward Park course and others near Bass Lake, but wishes there were more places to ride.
“I just love riding,” says Bowden. “So we’ll come out to Woodward Park. We’ll ride around the neighborhood if we don’t get out of the house too much, but what we really love is getting out up into the mountains where there are trails for cyclists.”
That’s why he’s in favor of HR 1349, a bill introduced into Congress earlier this year by Republican Tom McClintock. It would amend the Wilderness Act, signed into law in 1964.
“We do face an elitist attitude these days that would like to further restrict public access to the public lands. Well that’s not why we set those lands aside,” says McClintock.
The act created the National Wilderness Preservation System, recognized wilderness areas as places “where man himself is a visitor,” and banned the use of motorized vehicles and mechanical transport in these areas. If the bill passes it’ll allow biking in the 109 million acres of national wilderness areas in the country. There are 149 areas like this in California alone. McClintock says it’ll also allow things like strollers, non-motorized wheelchairs, game carts and wheelbarrows in these places.
“Mountain bikes, horses and hikers all coexist on trails throughout the public lands so I think it’s absurd to contend that they’re perfectly compatible on BLM or National Forest Land, but are completely incompatible in the wilderness areas,” McClintock says.
Ted Stroll is the president of the group behind the bill. He says the Sustainable Trails Coalition would like to work with agencies that run wilderness areas to incorporate bikes sustainably.
“We don’t want a blanket permit, despite the seemingly broad language of HR 1349,” Stroll says. “None of us expect mountain bikers on the entire John Muir Trail through the Sierra Nevada in the summer.”
Still the bill doesn’t include any instructions on how agencies should incorporate bikes and other non-motorized wheeled devices into them.
“Now admittedly by being so terse it does bring up the question whether this would allow for a blanket reauthorization of mountain biking even if Sustainable Trails Coalition does not want that,” says Stroll.
Stroll says that could change as it moves through Congress. But not everyone loves the idea of allowing bikes into wilderness areas. Mark Larabee with the Pacific Crest Trail Association says bikes will distort the intent of the Wilderness Act.
“Injecting more people into them, more quickly, on bicycles really goes against what the framers of the Wilderness Act had in mind,” says Larabee. “We’re trying to keep them the way they are so future generations have the ability to walk in there.”
He says there’s a certain untouched feeling found in wilderness areas and that the addition of bikes on trails will disturb that peace. He says these areas are important for clean air, water, biodiversity and wildlife.
“Frankly they’re important for humans,” Larabee says. “Bikes are a form of recreation, but when you add the speed and ability of a cyclist you inject a huge potential for a huge group of people in that back country and it changes that character of the backcountry.”
A lot of horseman also dislike the idea of sharing the backcountry with bike riders.
“There can be terrible accidents with horse-biker conflicts,” says Randy Randy Rasmussen, president of the group Back Country Horsemen of America. “Horse Riders that aren’t expecting to come across mountain bikes. If it's done in certain circumstances, around a corner or down a hill in fast fashion. There’s not time to react.”
Back at Woodward Park Craig Bowden is moving through an obstacle course of bumps and jumps. When he stops he says he has a simple solution to alert hikers and horses on the trail. A little bell attached to the handlebars.
“Horses have that very keen sense of hearing and so what we’ve done is put bells on our bikes so when we’re riding either uphill or downhill or cross country the bells are dinging,” Bowden says. “It gives that horse a warning well ahead of time so we don’t sneak up on them.”
Bowden says groups like his don’t just want to open wilderness areas and bike all over them. He says they want to work with the proper agencies and maybe even create specific trails within them for bikes. But that language isn’t apparent in the bill that would amend the Wilderness Act. As of right now it’s in the early stages and still has to move the house and the senate before it would reach the president’s desk.