Proposed bill changes management of wild places
BY KATIE MCKALIP
A new Congress and a new presidential administration may be underway, but heated debates over natural resources management in America continue.
Some things never change.
Outdoor recreationists of all stripes, however, are keeping a close eye on legislation introduced last year in the 114th Congress that could drastically change public access to, and the use of, federally designated wilderness, among the nation’s most important public lands.
The Human-Powered Travel in Wilderness Areas Act, sponsored by Sens. Orrin Hatch and Mike Lee of Utah, would open wilderness areas to mountain biking by leaving this decision in the hands of individual land managers. Following its introduction the bill elicited a negative response from many public-lands users, even those who enjoy mountain biking and advocate on its behalf, due to precedents it would set and the potential impacts of unleashing millions of bikers on these special landscapes.
Under the 1964 Wilderness Act, bikes and other forms of “mechanical transport” are explicitly banned in wilderness areas, which are set aside to preserve their pristine waters, fish and wildlife habitat and opportunities for solitude. Today, hikers, anglers and hunters on foot and with traditional pack stock treasure wilderness areas for those same values.
Access opportunities to both private and publicly owned lands are a critical issue for recreationists in the United States. Inadequate public access has emerged as a defining factor in our ability — or inability — to enjoy the outdoors, and sportsmen cite declining public access as the No. 1 reason why we stop pursuing our passions.
Given the priority many of us place on expanding access to our lands and waters, why shouldn’t we support an effort that would introduce a degree of flexibility in the ability of managers to open up places currently designated off limits to “mechanical” recreation?
It’s worth considering the relative rarity of our wilderness lands. Designated wilderness in the Lower 48 encompasses less than 3 percent of our land mass. Yet it comprises the last bastions of pristine fish and wildlife habitat in the United States. These areas are highly vulnerable to human disturbance and encroachment, and bikes can affect fish and wildlife habitat in ways that are by no means insignificant. Numerous studies, for example, demonstrate the outsize impact of mountain bikes on areas frequented by big game.
“Mountain biking is an increasingly popular form of quiet and healthy recreation — one that has a place on public lands,” said Jay Banta, a sportsman and biologist from St. George, Utah, who serves on the national board of Backcountry Hunters & Anglers, which focuses on public-lands issues. “But wilderness designations work well as currently stipulated in the Wilderness Act. “Furthermore, wilderness encompasses some of our rarest, most precious lands and waters. Their existence prevents the fragmentation of irreplaceable areas of fish and wildlife habitat.”
Mountain biking has a large and growing following, and it can be enjoyed in appropriate places that often can be easily accessed by members of the public. Wilderness management should minimize the impacts of mountain biking and other growing recreational demands. Opening our wilderness areas to bikes would disrespect the very tradition of wilderness.
While the Hatch-Lee bill failed to gain traction in the last Congress, those of us who care about the responsible management of public lands must be alert to future attempts to dilute the spirit of the Wilderness Act. We should carefully consider the motives and values of a bill’s proponents. While Sens. Hatch and Lee insist that they introduced their legislation simply to open up more public lands for enjoyment by Americans, we can’t ignore the fact that their decisions are frequently influenced by special interests such as the oil and gas industry. How would this segment benefit from increased access to and permissiveness in the management of lands that have traditionally been strictly off limits to development?
From Alaska to Florida, wilderness areas provide us with unmatched backcountry adventures that are part of the fabric of the American experience. While a range of interests, including the mountain biking community, energy companies and non-motorized users such as hikers and hunters, deserves to have a voice in helping determine and shape future wilderness area proposals, the bottom line is that bikes and wilderness don’t really go together.
Luckily we have plenty of public lands that are open to mountain bikes —and to motorized use, industrial development and other uses, both competing and complementary. This gives all us of places to experience and enjoy the outdoors. Ultimately, however, management of our wilderness areas should be closely guarded and rigorously defended. The spirit and letter of the Wilderness Act as currently drafted must be upheld. ♦
— Katie McKalip is national communications director of Backcountry Hunters & Anglers. BHA, a national sportsmen’s group focused on conservation, access and fair chase issues, is committed to defending traditional use of wilderness areas. Visit www.backcountryhunters.org.