Lonely Planet Writer

Proposed bill would lift ban on bikes in US wilderness

Few of America’s landscapes are as remote and rugged as those designated federal wilderness. But for decades since the Wilderness Act of 1964, which created the legal definition of over 100 million acres of wilderness in the US, bikes have been barred from wilderness areas.

Biking through the mountains in Utah.
Biking through the mountains in Utah. Image by Lee Cohen/Getty Images

Recently, a bill proposed by two Utah senators would allow bikers to join hikers and horseback riders on the spiderweb of trails that runs through wilderness areas.

The bill, however, is controversial. Conservationists argue that mountain bikes would erode the trails, and their introduction into primitive spaces contradicts the original intent of the Wilderness Act, which defined wilderness as a space “where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”

Supporters of the bill say there is no evidence that mountain bike tires erode trails, and the ban is an example of overreaching federal restrictions that impedes local governments.

Arches National Park, Utah.
Arches National Park, Utah. Image by Lee Coursey / CC BY 2.0

Part of the 1964 act restricts the use of “mechanical transport” like bikes, cars and all-terrain vehicles (ATVs). The ban doesn’t restrict wheelchairs, which are permitted due to the Americans with Disabilities Act, nor does it restrict other modes of transport that use some type of “mechanical action” like kayaks, rock climbing gear or skis.

In fact, bikes weren’t even part of the original ban. Mass-produced mountain bikes weren’t introduced until 1981, and in subsequent years powerful groups of hikers and equestrians joined forces under the banner of conservation to ban two-wheeled transport in wilderness areas. In 1984 the US Forest Service revised its regulations to bar mountain bikes. A 2006 study from the National Park Service, however, found that hiking and mountain biking trails had lower percentages of trail degradation than horse trails.

Even among mountain biking groups the issue is divisive. Many don’t want to upend longstanding alliances with conservationists and say mountain bikers should instead work with legislators to shift boundaries of wilderness areas to permit bikes.