Sen. Lee proposes bill to allow mountain biking in designated wilderness areas

ST. GEORGE — U.S. Sen. Mike Lee has proposed a bill to grant mountain bikers access to federal wilderness areas when allowed by local officials. 

Lee, R-Utah, reintroduced S.1695, the Human-Powered Travel in Wilderness Areas Act, in May after proposing similar legislation in 2016 and 2018 without success. 

If passed, the bill would allow local managers to choose whether non-motorized, human-powered travel, specifically mountain bikes, would be allowed in the wilderness areas they oversee.

The Wilderness Act passed in 1964 prohibits the use of any form of “mechanical transport” in wilderness areas, keeping motorized vehicles like cars, dirtbikes, ATVs and aircraft out of these areas, but also non-motorized vehicles like bicycles. Lee’s bill would add language to the existing law allowing non-motorized travel “in which the sole propulsive power source is one or more persons.”

“This is really a minor change, but it’s one that would help a lot of people to enjoy wilderness areas and do so in a way that’s respectful of the environment,” Lee told St. George News. 

The bill would not simply allow the use of mountain bikes in all wilderness areas, however. It would only allow their use in places where local managers deem acceptable. 

This file photo shows a competitor at the Red Rock Rampage mountain bike race, St. George, Utah, March 1, 2014 | Photo by John Teas, St. George News

“The fact that they’re able to make a localized, particularized decision, means that any harm that one could contemplate that could come from this, could be avoided,” Lee said. “They can customize it for whatever local conditions might exist.” 

Wilderness areas are managed by the Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service, Forest Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Not everyone agrees with the idea of allowing mountain bikes in wilderness areas, however. Some have concerns about the effect it might have on environmental factors as well as the disturbance on others’ recreation.

“The potential for mountain bikers to disturb the enjoyment of others in wilderness areas, it just doesn’t make sense to me based on why the wilderness bills were passed in the first place and why these wilderness areas were set aside,” Susan Crook, land program manager for Conserve Southwest Utah, said. 

The main conflict that Crook is concerned about has to do with horses, which are sometimes startled by bicycles, causing a potentially dangerous situation. 

“Bikes and horses do not mix,” Crook said. “That would be a very bad idea having bikes on trails with horses.” 

Other concerns have to do with riding over vegetation and causing erosion, specifically if the bike is taken off-trail. 

A 2010 literature review by the University of Washington, however, found that hiking and horseback riding had the same, if not more, effect on erosion as mountain bikes while on trails. 

“It doesn’t do environmental harm. In fact, in many areas it is entirely possible, if not likely, that you could ride a bike through an area doing no more damage than, maybe even less damage, in some cases, than you would by having people walk through it,” Lee said. “There’s just no reason to have a categorical ban on bikes.”

Crook is more concerned about the impact of the small number of irresponsible riders who may take their bikes off-trail. Though she admits that those who might break the rules should the bill be passed are likely already doing so. 

“People who are riding horses can go off-trail and create problems, people hiking can go-off trail and create problems,” Crook said. “Anytime anyone is in these wilderness areas, there are impacts and people should be using them responsibly as they should any recreational area.” 

The bill has been read twice by the Senate and was referred to the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources May 23. 

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @STGnews | @MikaylaShoup

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