More than a year ago an extensive analysis of the Wilderness Act of 1964 and subsequent Forest Service regulations concluded that Congress did not intend to ban mountain biking in designated Wilderness, but the report’s conclusion has apparently been lost in the wind. It has done nothing to change the current policy banning fat-tired bicycles; nor has it done anything to cool off the debate between hikers and mountain bikers.
The treatise authored by Theodore J Stroll, a staff attorney at the Supreme Court of California, examines in the greatest detail every word in the Wilderness Act, congressional testimony on the Act, and a series of regulations written by the Forest Service, the federal agency charged with management and enforcement of the Act. At the end of the report, Stoll concludes: “The regulations appear to run counter to congressional intent.”? In other words, Congress did not intend to ban mountain bikes from Wilderness trails.
This report is not the ramblings of a hammerhead mountain biker feeling over-regulated. Instead, it’s professional, top-of-the-line legal research, which makes it sort of amazing it hasn’t gotten more traction in the debate between hikers and mountain bikers over Wilderness proposals. If the Forest Service read this report carefully, the agency would already be revising its regulations, reversing the flawed assumption that bicycles violate Wilderness principles. Then, presto, we would no longer have the conflict over the use of bicycles in Wilderness because they’d be a legal form of transportation no different than horses or rubber rafts.
Stroll chronicles the early days of the debate, back when bicycles had white-walled balloon tires and plastic streamers coming out of the handlebars. The first FS regulations written in 1966 did not ban bicycles, but in later years when the modern mountain bike emerged and cyclists started venturing onto single-tracks, the agency revised its regs to specifically disallow bicycles.
The author points out significant inconsistencies in the current regs. For example, rubber rafts have mechanical parts like oarlocks that facilitate transportation on Wilderness rivers, and they’re no different than bicycles with mechanical parts that make travel easier. He also points out to a new form of kayak propelled with propellers, asserting that it’s no different than a bicycle propelled with wheels—except, of course, the kayak is allowed and the bicycle is not. He goes on to give details on several more glaring inconsistencies in the regulations. The regs do not, for example, exclude wheelchairs from Wilderness.
“Congress did not intend for the Act to prohibit human-powered transportation that leaves no permanent trace but is capable of operating on trails or bodies of water found in Wilderness,”? Stroll writes. “Accordingly, the regulations…prohibiting mountain bike use in Wilderness require reevaluation.”?
Stroll also notes that Congress intended to keep out modes of transportation requiring motors and roads or other “permanent improvements”? that would make maintenance of Wilderness character impossible. He even details how Congress came close to officially declaring bicycling as a “proper activity”? and implies that it was only pure happenstance that bicycling isn’t written into the Act. Stroll also maintains that mountain biking should be allowed because it meets the major benchmark of the Act that requires “the imprint of man’s work”? to be “substantially unnoticeable.”?
“Had the ability to explore the outdoors by rugged bicycle travel existed in the 1960s, it seems unlikely that the forefathers of the Act would have thought it unsuitable for Wilderness,”? concludes the author of this definitive work that should be required reading at Forest Service offices.