A U.S. House committee on Wednesday advanced legislation to allow bicycles and wheelchairs in wilderness areas, a measure supported by Montana's Rep. Greg Gianforte.
After initially voting down House Resolution 1349 Wednesday, the House Natural Resources Committee voted to reconsider and then passed the bill to the full House of Representatives. The resolution, brought by Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Calif., would amend the 1964 Wilderness Act to “to permit the use of bicycles, strollers and other human powered wheeled implements, and motorized and non-motorized wheelchairs in wilderness acres.”
The legislation lifts a blanket ban imposed by the U.S. Forest Service in the 1970s on bicycles, McClintock told the committee.
“There are places where (bikes) are appropriate and others where they’re not, and land managers should be able to make that judgement without a one-size-fits-all prohibition,” he said.
McClintock continued, saying that the original intent of the Wilderness Act never included a bicycle ban, and that mountain bikers should have just as much of a right to access as other recreationists. The Forest Service violated congressional intent when it issued the ban, he added.
Rep. Jared Huffman, D-Calif., disagreed, saying that wilderness areas do not allow other forms of “mechanical transport” and that less than 3 percent of public lands are protected as wilderness.
“(HR 1349) erodes the very core of the Wilderness Act,” he said.
Gianforte, a Republican, voted for the measure. He did not weigh in during the hearing, but issued the following statement when asked for comment:
“Susan and I raised our kids enjoying Montana's public lands – hiking, camping, backpacking, and hunting often – and we know the importance of preserving public access to them. This bill restores the original intent of the Wilderness Act. I don't want to prohibit those with disabilities, including veterans in wheelchairs, from enjoying our nation's wilderness.”
Whether to allow wheeled implements in wilderness areas has been a hot button issue that has divided recreationists.
Proponents see bicycles and other wheeled devices as low impact and quiet modes of transportation that deserves case-by-case consideration.
Opponents see prohibiting even human-powered devices as necessary to keep the areas wild.
Montana Wilderness Association's conservation director John Todd said Wednesday that the bill would diminish Montana’s wilderness areas, and that the organization was disappointed in Gianforte’s vote.
“Mountain bikers, including the International Mountain Biking Association, backcountry horseman, sportsmen, and conservationists all oppose this legislation because it sweeps the rug from under numerous efforts underway in Montana to find consensus over how we manage our public lands,” he said in a statement. “This bill also fails to acknowledge that there's room on our public lands to accommodate mountain bikers and preserve the places that Montanans hold so dear."
IMBA in its opposition has said it is interested in collaborative approaches to land management that advances both recreation and conservation.
Another national mountain-biking group called Sustainable Trails Coalition has thrown its support behind HR 1349, saying the legislation “places backcountry cyclists on an equal footing with campers, hikers, hunters and equestrians.”
“Congressman McClintock’s bill will give mountain bikers long-overdue relief from agency misunderstandings,” STC board member Ted Stroll said earlier this year.