Section 508 Navigation
National Trails Training partnership Skip Navigation
HomeAbout usTrailsWhat's hotCalendarTrainingResources & libraryPartnersJoin usStore

Federal land management
Hosted by AmericanTrails.org

Mountain Bike Recreation and Designated Wilderness: A Case for Reconsideration

A discussion of issues with appropriate recreation and protection of public lands.

By Jim Hasenauer

In ordinary language, the word "wilderness" is evocative and ambiguous. It conjures a sense of natural terrain on a grand scale. The very essence of the mountain bike experience is for the rider to be enveloped by wilderness. However, in public land policy deliberations, bicycle advocates have learned to routinely distinguish between "big W", designated Wilderness, and "small w", wilderness as wildland.

"Designated Wilderness is a troublesome issue for mountain bicyclists and mountain bike organizations. We love wild places. We want such places to be protected; yet, we are banned"

Designated Wilderness is a troublesome issue for mountain bicyclists and mountain bike organizations. We love wild places. We want such places to be protected; yet, we are banned. This puts us in the position of having to choose between forfeiting what we believe are legitimate riding opportunities and supporting a supposed greater good. We find ourselves in a dilemma of either opposing Wilderness designation, or finding alternatives to Wilderness that will allow mountain biking commensurate with natural resource protection. The problem has been so vexing that since 1984 mountain bicyclists have typically sidestepped the issue completely, and focused instead on organizing to secure and access to non-Wilderness recreational trail systems (Hasenauer 1999).

We are currently faced with a number of new Wilderness proposals that promise the possibility of protecting millions of acres of public land. The fact that responsible mountain bicyclists are riding, or are hoping, to ride trails in these areas brings this issue to a high level of concern for us and the International Mountain Bicycling Association (IMBA).

To begin the description of our position, it is critical that two important aspects of mountain bicycling be considered. First, this is human muscle-powered recreation. And second, this is trail-based recreation.

People often have confused mountain bicycles and their impacts with off-road motorcycles. While there is a similarity in appearance, and even in some technology, it is important to remember that the bicycle power source is a human, few of which can sustain 1/4 horsepower for any amount of time. Furthermore, it is significant that while mountain bikes are sometimes called "all terrain bicycles", they are best suited to trails and roads. With respect to rider behavior, staying on the designated trail is both a practical necessity and a well-established ethic in the mountain bike community. Cross-country travel is discouraged.

It is my position that mountain biking should be allowed on some trails in designated Wilderness. My argument is based on historical, philosophical, and political grounds. However, if mountain biking cannot be allowed in designated Wilderness, we need alternatives that provide high levels of resource protection, while accommodating bicycle trail use.

The 1964 Wilderness Act was a milestone in natural resource conservation history for its recognition that there must be places set aside in their pristine state and wholly untouched by development, roads, vehicles and other human-made changes. The Act envisioned "untrammeled" land where humans are only visitors who do not remain. The Act immediately set aside 9.1 million acres of Wilderness (Stegner 1990).Although it took steps to minimize human impacts, the Wilderness Act did not forbid human visitation. In fact, the Act defines Wilderness as an area with "outstanding opportunities for solitude or a primitive and unconfined type of recreation". Section 4(c) stipulated "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..." (Public Law 88-577) (16 U.S.C. 1131-1136).

In 1965, the USDA-Forest Service wrote formal regulations to implement the Wilderness Act, and defined "mechanical transport" to mean a cart, sled or other wheeled vehicle that is "powered by a non-living power source." (CFR 36 Sec. 293.6(a)) Clearly the ban on "mechanical transport" in the original language was a statement about the impact of power, noise, and emissions of motor vehicles. Thus, the 1964 Wilderness Act allowed bicycle use, but there were very few bicyclists riding in Wilderness areas.

There is a history of bicycle travel on dirt since the bicycle came to the United States in the late 1800's, and some of it took place on landscapes that would later be designated as Wilderness. In 1964, mountain bike technology had not been invented, and the bikes of the time were not well suited to trails on natural terrain. They were mostly heavy and single speed, or lighter, fragile, 10-speed "racing bikes." However, inventive riders have always modified bicycles to go off road. These riders were out there, but in the 1960s and 70s, their numbers were too small to be noticeable.

In 1981, the first mass-produced mountain bikes became available. Their popularity increased throughout the 1980s. When the bikes began showing up on public lands, land managers did not know what to expect from the activity or its participants. Many were justifiably cautious. There was an abundance of data used to guide decisions on other types of motorized and non-motorized recreation, but virtually no knowledge existed on the management of off-road bicycles. The concerns and complaints of hikers and equestrians, especially in urban fringe areas, led some land managers to close trails.

The first mountain bike organization, the National Off-Road Bicyclists Association (NORBA), was founded in 1983. In 1984, the Forest Service published a regulation that prohibited "possessing or using a hang glider or bicycle" in a Wilderness area (CFR 36 Sec. 261.16 (b)). That action was one of the first bans on mountain bicycling in Wilderness areas, and it was the single largest. At the time, bicyclists were not aware of and did not participate in any public process that led to the change in the CFR. I contend that the 1984 decision to ban bicycles was not based on objective analysis of bike impacts. That work was not done until many years later.

Federal land management agencies certainly have the authority to interpret the Wilderness Act; however, they also have the responsibility to act rationally and objectively. I have not been able to find any evidence of a careful, rational examination of data on bicycle impacts that preceded the ruling that bicycle-use should be banned while other non-motorized trail activities are allowed. It is time to revisit that 1984 ban.

The philosophical reasons for allowing bikes on some Wilderness trails are based on the recognition of bicycles as low impact devices which do not necessarily conflict with Wilderness values. Studies have concluded that mountain bike impacts are not significantly different than hiker impacts in most cases. Both of these uses tend to have fewer impacts than do equestrians (Wilson and Seney 1994, Cessford 1995). As Wilderness allows both hiker and equestrian recreation, it should in principle, allow bicyclists. Other than historical accident, what privileges hiking or equestrian use?

I know that many will disagree, and I have heard the arguments: the bike is a machine; it is manufactured; it has wheels and gears; Native Americans did not have it. Still, most cyclists correctly see themselves as human scale and muscle-powered with technology not much different than backpack frames, technical clothing, oarlocks, ski bindings or climbing gear. This is how we wish to be categorized in recreational schema.

Codes of ethics for bicyclists, such as the IMBA Rules of the Trail, embrace the "Leave No Trace" principles of wilderness travel. As with the codes of ethics espoused by rock climbers, backpackers and others, our codes require cyclists to take personal responsibility for themselves and their equipment.

One often hears anti-bike individuals argue that bicyclists' motives and experiences are qualitatively different than those of pedestrians, but that claim does not hold up. Like other trail users, cyclists seek urban escape, nature observation, and exercise benefits. Several studies have indicated that mountain bicyclist have strong environmental values and want to protect wild places (Watson et al. 1991, Moore 1994, Bjorkman 1996). One study of IMBA membership published by Hollenhurst et al. (1995, p. 11) found that "mountain bike opinion leaders are overwhelmingly biocentric in their thinking, believing that nature has intrinsic value exclusive of what it does for humans, that humans do not have the moral license to infringe on this right, and that many of our environmental problems are rooted in our societal tendency to dominate, control, and exploit nature."

Backcountry bicycling is certainly an adventure sport, but it seems that it could be allowed and managed in designated Wilderness. Where trails accommodate equestrians or hikers, they could accommodate cyclists. I am not advocating that all Wilderness trails be open to bikes, or that all Wilderness areas have some trails open to bikes. I am arguing the principle that the use of bikes is not inconsistent with Wilderness protection.

The political reasons for allowing bikes in some designated Wilderness are, I hope, obvious and compelling. Wilderness is designated by Congress. New designations face opposition from a variety of interest groups. Their passage relies in part on a strong, united political constituency. It is in the best interests of Wilderness advocates to have bicyclists as part of that constituency.

A lot has happened since 1984. Bicyclists have organized, and they have emerged as a significant stakeholder and partner group (Hasenauer 1998). We are and will be increasingly involved in land-use planning. A pro-Wilderness coalition that includes organized bicyclists would be prodigious. As a mountain bicyclist and as an environmentalist, I would like very much to advance that possibility.

I have been told that I am "dreaming." If that is the case, then we must have alternatives. The land management toolbox needs to be expanded.

As one of the reasons that Wilderness designation is so attractive is its high level of protection and presumed permanence, it may be useful to strengthen other land use designations. In late 1998, IMBA began circulating for comment the details of two alternative land use designations (Sprung 1998, p. 8). National Conservation Areas (NCA) and National Recreation Areas (NRA) would be organic designations providing high level land and resource protection that would allow bicycle use on designated trails. Both NCA and NRA designations currently exist, but there are no standardized guidelines for management of these areas. There seems to be advantages to establishing strong, clear, consistent guidelines. Comments on these proposals are being collected, and we would be interested in your feedback.

In the meantime, bicyclists must be at the table when Wilderness boundaries are being drawn. IMBA and its local clubs have a right to be part of the public process that considers Wilderness. We are going to argue that the Wilderness boundaries must be adjusted to exclude significant existing and even potential mountain bike routes. We are going to have to have compelling reasons why Wilderness is the best designation to be applied. Responsible mountain bikers have a deeply seated belief that they can ride responsibly with minimal impact. Anecdotes and offensive characterizations will not overcome those beliefs. As long as bikes are not allowed in Wilderness, mountain bicyclists will vary in their support of Wilderness designation, especially when other land protection designations are possible. If CFR 36 Sec. 261.16 (b) were to be changed to allow bicycle use on some designated Wilderness trails, there would be overwhelming support of Wilderness designation from the mountain bike community.

Ultimately, the best public policy for environmental protection and recreation planning will emerge from fact-based decision making, empirical evidence over anecdote, shared use over exclusion or separate facilities, and education as the primary mode of regulating behavior. The mountain bike community is ready to participate.

Literature Cited

Bjorkman, A.W. 1996. Off-road bicycle and hiking trail user interactions. Report to the Wisconsin Natural Resources Bureau of Research. Eagle, Wisc. 124 pages

Cessford, G.R. 1995. Off-road impacts of mountain bikes: A review and discussion. N. Z. Dept. of Conserv., Dept. of Conserv. Sci. and Res. Series, No. 92. Wellington, New Zealand 40 pages

Hasenauer, J. 1998. Stranger to stakeholder to partner: the mobilization of constituency on public lands. A paper presented at the National Communication Association Annual Conference. New York, N.Y. 19 pages

Hasenauer, J. 1999. Mountain bicycling and wilderness: navigating dangerous and unknown rhetorical terrain. A paper presented at the Conference on Communication and Environment. Flagstaff, Ariz. 18 pages

Hollenhurst, S.J., M.A. Schuett, M.S. Olson, D. Chavez, and T. Mainieri. 1995. A national study of mountain biking opinion leaders: characteristics, preferences, attitudes and conflicts. USDA-For. Serv. Rpt., PSW-93-0029CA and PSW-93-0034CA. 94 pages

Moore, R. L. 1994. Conflicts on multiple-use trails: synthesis of the literature and state of the practice. Fed. Hwy. Admin. Rpt. No. FHWA-PD-94-013. Washington, D.C. 68 pages

Sprung, G. 1998. Alternatives to Wilderness Act could allow cycling and protect land. IMBA Trail News. 11(4):8-9.

Stegner, W. 1990. It all began with conservation. Smithsonian. 21(1):34-46.

Watson, A.E., D.R. Williams, and J.J. Daigle. 1991. Sources of conflict between hikers and mountain bike riders in the rattlesnake NRA. J. Parks and Rec. Admin. 9(3):59-71.

Wilson, J.P., and Seney, J.P. (1994). Erosional impact of hikers, horses, motorcycles and off-road bicycles on mountain trails in Montana. Mountain Research and Development. 14(1):77-88.

Join American Trail

Related topics:

More resources:

NTTP logo


page footer

Contact us | Mission statement | Board of directors | Member organizations | Site map | Copyright | NRT | NTTP