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Understanding Wilderness

Understanding Wilderness

An Introduction to Wilderness


The 1964 Wilderness Act is one of the noblest legislative acts in history. Most mountain bikers believe the Wilderness Act is well intended and support the notion that wild areas should be protected from construction of roads and development. We enjoy riding in healthy natural environments without substantial human impact. Wilderness preservation has perplexed mountain bikers since 1984, when the U.S. Forest Service prohibited this form of non-motorized recreation from all designated Wilderness areas.

IMBA's guides explores a number of options for protecting nature and bicycle access. They are intended to assist the mountain bike advocate in understanding and becoming involved in a Wilderness and public land protection campaign.

It should be noted, however, that we do not discuss the option of allowing bicycles in designated Wilderness. While IMBA challenges the blanket prohibition, we have not worked to revise the decades-old interpretations by the Forest Service (USFS), National Park Service (NPS) and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) that ban bicycles from Wilderness. IMBA's efforts have instead focused on maintaining access to significant bicycle routes when new Wilderness is under consideration.


What is Wilderness?


A review of several sections of the 1964 Wilderness Act will help you to understand its intentions, guidelines and scope.  

The act begins:

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.

Congress defined Wilderness:

A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain. An area of wilderness is further defined to mean in this Act an area of undeveloped federal land retaining its primeval character and influence, without permanent improvements or human habitation, which is protected and managed so as to preserve its natural conditions and which (1) generally appears to have been affected primarily by the forces of nature, with the imprint of man's work substantially unnoticeable; (2) has outstanding opportunities for solitude or a primitive and unconfined type of recreation; (3) has at least five thousand acres of land or is of sufficient size as to make practicable its preservation and use in an unimpaired condition; and (4) may also contain ecological, geological, or other features of scientific, educational, scenic, or historical value.

The original Act designated 54 Wilderness areas on national forests and specifically directed the federal land agencies to administer these areas "for the use and enjoyment of the American people in such manner as will leave them unimpaired for future use and enjoyment as wilderness."


Who Manages Wilderness?


Since 1964, Congress has dramatically expanded the number and extent of Wilderness areas. The National Wilderness Preservation System, as of 2010 includes 791 Wilderness areas encompassing 109.5 million acres managed by four agencies: Bureau of Land Management (BLM), U.S. Forest Service (USFS), National Park Service (NPS), and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS).

The two largest federal land agencies, the BLM and USFS, also manage the most Wilderness areas. Because their non-Wilderness lands have been predominantly used for mineral and timber purposes, we often see Wilderness campaigns involving land in these two agencies.

There are several ways to find out about current Wilderness issues in your region and across the country. A phone call or visit to the federal land agency office nearest you is a good way to learn about current and planned Wilderness.


Bicycles and Wilderness


Wilderness often presents a dilemma to the environmentally conscious mountain biker.  While most of us applaud the intentions of the Wilderness Act, we also believe that cross-country (XC) style mountain biking is an appropriate, quiet, human-powered activity that belongs in Wilderness alongside hiking and horseback riding.

But why did bicycles ever become embroiled in the Wilderness debate?  Note that bicycling is not mentioned in the Wilderness Act.  The key provision often debated is in Section 4(b), which prohibits all motorized travel and equipment and allows "no other form of mechanical transport" in designated Wilderness areas.  What does the term "mechanical transport" mean?  Because Congress did not provide a definition the agencies responsible for implementing the Act have broad discretion to define the term on their own.

In 1984 the USDA Forest Service changed the definition of mechanized so that "[P]ossessing or using a … bicycle" in a designated Wilderness area is prohibited.  That early reaction to the infant sport of mountain biking was one of the first to ban bicycling on public lands and was followed by the Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service and the US Fish & Wildlife Service, all the other agencies that manage Wilderness.


How are Wilderness Areas Designated?


In order for an area to become designated Wilderness Congress must pass an act declaring the area to be suitable for designation and declaring the area as Wilderness.  Because Congress makes the designation the agency is bound to follow the Wilderness Act and any special provisions that Congress has included in the particular designation and the designation cannot be removed or altered except by another act of Congress.  In debating a Wilderness bill Congress itself often relies on the state's delegation (both senators and district representatives) for an indication of local support.  The importance of this delegation's opinion cannot be overemphasized.

Because it is very difficult to pass a bill of any sort, Wilderness bills often must survive several sessions of Congress before becoming law.  If both houses pass the bill, it then must receive the president's signature and become law. It is essential that the state's congressional delegation show near unanimous bipartisan support for a Wilderness bill to pass.  In forming their opinions, congress members gauge whether local interests also come out strongly in favor of Wilderness designation and base their support on local city and county endorsements.

The lesson to remember is that, other than committee chairs, the influential Congress members are from the state(s) with proposed Wilderness. These people look to the state and local sentiments in forming their decision on a Wilderness bill.


Wilderness Stakeholders


A majority of the American people support existing and additional Wilderness designations and most bicyclists share these feelings.  Unfortunately, most people do not know that mountain biking is prohibited in Wilderness areas.  For this reason, it is imperative to reach out to as many stakeholders as possible and let them know that while you may agree with the idea of Wilderness, the ban on mountain biking necessitates your involvement in negotiations before supporting a Wilderness bill.

In any Wilderness campaign there are likely to be numerous groups in favor or against the proposal.  Some of these groups may be in favor of Wilderness in one campaign but against it in another.  It is therefore impossible to nail down a consistent stance from many groups and describing a groups' position requires very broad generalizations that may not always be true.


IMBA's Wilderness Strategy


Our public policy and advocacy efforts will focus on future Wilderness proposals and recommendations where mountain bike trail access could be lost, where viable alternative land protection designations are appropriate and where local IMBA chapters are present to perform volunteer trail stewardship and engage in advocacy efforts. IMBA will continue to respect both the Wilderness Act and the federal land agencies' regulations that bicycles are not allowed in existing Wilderness areas. This 2016 position strategically aligns with our well-established and relevant mission to create, enhance and preserve great mountain biking experiences.

When proposed Wilderness areas include mountain biking assets and opportunities, IMBA advocates for and vigorously negotiates using a variety of legislative tools, including boundary adjustments, trail corridors and alternative land designations that protect natural areas while preserving bicycle access. IMBA can support new Wilderness designations only where they don't adversely impact singletrack trail access for mountain biking.


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