When their vision of creating a scenic cycling trail through a protected alpine backcountry hit a snag, San Diego area mountain bikers turned to an unlikely ally: congressional Republicans aiming to dilute conservation laws.
The frustrations of the San Diego cycling group and a handful of similar organizations are providing tailwind to the GOP movement to lift restrictions on the country’s most ecologically fragile and pristine landscapes, officially designated “wilderness.”
Resentment of these cyclists over the longstanding ban on “mechanized” transportation in that fraction of the nation’s public lands presents a political opportunity for Republicans eager to drill fissures in the broad coalition of conservation-minded groups united against the GOP environmental agenda.
“People who enjoy mountain biking have just as much right to use the public trails as those who enjoy hiking or horseback riding,” said Rep. Tom McClintock (R-Elk Grove) during a hearing for the bill he authored, H.R. 1349, to allow bikes in wilderness areas. It was swiftly approved in committee and now awaits action on the House floor. “Our wilderness areas were never intended by Congress to prohibit human-powered mountain bikes,” McClintock said.
McClintock’s interpretation of the Wilderness Act is hotly disputed, including by many mountain bikers, as well as people intimately involved with the act’s drafting. But it appeals to groups like the San Diego Mountain Biking Assn., which complains that wilderness designations are interrupting plans for long-distance trails between the beaches of Oceanside and Del Mar and the rugged mountains around the historic mining town of Julian.
The momentum of the McClintock measure is alarming conservation groups, including the organizations that maintain the Pacific Crest Trail and the Appalachian Trail, which together stretch through dozens of wilderness areas. They warn it would invite mountain bikers to shred through the iconic landscapes, despite assurances from McClintock that the measure empowers federal land managers to ban the bikes where appropriate. The Sustainable Trails Coalition, the California-based cycling group that recruited McClintock to the cause, has for years been seeking to open the Pacific Crest Trail to mountain bikes.
“This would redefine what wilderness means,” said Mark Larabee, an advocate with the Pacific Crest Trail Assn. “It would forever change the experience people have come to expect from walking on the trail.”
The International Mountain Biking Assn., which represents 40,000 bikers, is siding with the more than 100 environmental groups opposed to the re-envisioning of the act and against its own San Diego chapter. The international group says keeping some lands off-limits to bikers is appropriate, and it focuses its work on collaborating with other conservation groups to increase access in places where mountain bikes do belong.
But the issue is a complicated one for avid bikers. The Wilderness Act, which was passed before mountain bikes existed, has been used in recent years to protect more and more land, sometimes pushing bikers out of areas where they had long ridden. President Obama’s signature of a law in 2015 creating the 275,000-acre Boulder-White Cloud region north of Sun Valley, Idaho, for example, locked mountain bikers out of cherished trails they once enjoyed.
In San Diego, mountain bikers complain patchworks of inland wilderness designations are throwing a wrench into plans to complete multiple cross-county trails through the woods. “It’s extreme and unfair,” said Susie Murphy, executive director of the San Diego Mountain Biking Assn.. She says environmental groups opposing the McClintock bill are missing an opportunity to expand the draw of wilderness to a younger generation of outdoor enthusiasts eager to preserve the backcountry.
“In a lot of these areas, the mountain biking community would be amazing stewards,” Murphy said. “If you don’t get newer groups into these places to take care of them, how would anyone protect them from other uses that would be way worse than mountain biking, like mining?”
But outdoors advocates say there are far more productive ways to expand access to bikers than joining the GOP’s public lands crusade.
“People should not be fooled,” said Michael Carroll, director of the Wilderness Society’s People Outdoors Program. “The lawmakers supporting this are the same people pushing to shrink national monuments and drill the last bit of unprotected coastline in the Arctic. This would set the stage for other special interests to say, ‘You rewrote the Wilderness Act for mountain bikes. What about our needs?’”
Carroll said other ongoing initiatives are already effectively expanding access to mountain bikers, as conservation groups and federal agencies re-envision public lands protection to meet the growing population of cyclists. He pointed to a recent collaboration in his hometown of Durango, Colo., in which mountain biking organizations played an influential role in designing a large preserve. The “Recreation Not Red Tape Act” proposed by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) would require federal land managers to prioritize expanding recreational opportunities.
“We have learned from our mistakes how to sit down together and plan,” said Andrew Downs, a regional director of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy. “The best way for the mountain bike community to get better rides and more trail miles is to work collaboratively.”
The supporters of amending the Wilderness Act frame it differently. They talk of overzealous bureaucrats hijacking a landmark law that was never intended to bar bicycles from public lands. McClintock pulled from the archives of speeches delivered by one of the Wilderness Act’s sponsors, the late Democratic Sen. Frank Church of Idaho, whose words McClintock interpreted to express regret that outdoor enthusiasts like bikers were kept out of wilderness. Retired federal land managers interpret Church’s words very differently.
“The whole point of our public lands is so that people can enjoy them, for use, resort and recreation,” McClintock said.
Some of the people who were intimately involved with the drafting of the Wilderness Act, though, say that actually was not the point. It was to keep certain lands free of all but the most primitive encroachment, they say.
Among them is Edward Zahniser, a former park service official. Zahniser’s father, Howard, wrote the 1964 act. And Edward Zahniser himself has been explaining it to lawmakers and federal officials from the time he was a boy helping his dad leaflet the halls of Congress in support of the measure, through adulthood when he held dozens of training sessions for other bureaucrats.