A new congressional bill and big changes at IMBA
Words by Kurt Gensheimer
Photos by James Adamson
Although the topic of bikes in federally designated Wilderness has been an issue ever since bikes were banned from Wilderness in 1984, the 2015 establishment of Boulder-White Clouds as Wilderness near Stanley, Idaho was the last straw for many mountain bikers. With one very politically charged pen stroke, some of the most iconic backcountry singletrack open to bikes for generations was suddenly swept away.
Boulder-White Clouds is just one of hundreds of Wilderness and Wilderness Study Area proposals that have locked out backcountry bike access over the years, and the closures don’t seem to be stopping anytime soon unless the archaic blanket ban on bicycles in Wilderness is overturned.
A new congressional bill, H.R. 1349, recently introduced in the House of Representatives by Chairman of House Subcommittee on Federal Lands, Republican Rep. Tom McClintock, is only ten lines long, but would end the blanket Wilderness ban on bicycles, baby strollers and game carts. It would still uphold federal agencies’ discretion to manage trails, which means that land managers maintain control of where mountain bikes can be allowed in Wilderness.
“The sound and rational management of our public lands to promote healthy forests and healthy local economies will be a top priority of the subcommittee, along with restoring access and enjoyment of these national treasures to their rightful owners – the American people,” said Rep. McClintock upon his appointment as Chairman back in January 2015.
McClintock represents California’s Fourth Congressional District, containing hundreds of thousands of acres of federally managed land including the Tahoe Basin, Eldorado, Tahoe, Stanislaus and Sierra National Forests as well as Yosemite and Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks. Although he has his fair share of detractors, Rep. McClintock has always been a supporter of economically depressed mountain communities that rely on tourism dollars to survive. By expanding reasonable bike access to public lands, it will bring more money into mountain communities surrounded by Wilderness, as mountain bikers have proven to be a powerful economic engine.
Just as a 100 percent ban on bicycles in Wilderness is not rational, neither is 100 percent blanket access. There are some trails in Wilderness areas that simply aren’t fit for bicycle access, but there are literally millions of acres of remote, seldom visited terrain where the bicycle is the most efficient means of human powered backcountry travel, keeping historic trails from completely disappearing due to lack of use. This new bill would permit land managers to evaluate where bicycle access makes sense, enabling them to open certain Wilderness areas that are most accommodating to bicycle use.
This new bill is the second piece of proposed legislation driven by the Sustainable Trails Coalition (STC), a special interest group formed in July 2015 focused on removing the 33 year old blanket ban on bicycles from Wilderness, promoting more reasonable case-by-case access.
Big Changes at IMBA
Meanwhile, the International Mountain Bicycling Association (IMBA) had a rough 2016, losing their financial backer of 19 years, Subaru. IMBA also let go of their Executive Director Mike Van Abel who served for 12 years. After Subaru’s departure, the Trail Care Crew was put on hiatus and IMBA let go of several Regional Directors, significantly consolidating the organization’s payroll. The San Diego Mountain Biking Association (SDMBA) is one of the larger national IMBA chapters, and has publicly questioned the value of being a chapter member, especially now that IMBA is proposing a 40 percent dues increase to help fill the financial void Subaru left.
Only four months after announcing Mountain Bike Hall of Fame inductee David Wiens as Chairman of the Board, in February IMBA asked Wiens to replace Van Abel as Executive Director. Many mountain bikers agree that Wiens is the right man at the right time to navigate IMBA through stormy seas, as Wiens has extensive experience as a professional mountain biker, event promoter and the founder of Gunnison Trails, a trails advocacy organization in his home town of Gunnison, Colorado.
For advocates of bikes in Wilderness like SDMBA and the STC, there was a flash of hope that the appointment of Wiens as Executive Director would mean a change in IMBA’s bikes in Wilderness position. For more than a decade under Van Abel, IMBA did not believe fighting to regain bicycle access in Wilderness was a viable political strategy. Instead, IMBA worked with organizations opposed to bikes in Wilderness like the Sierra Club and The Wilderness Society to negotiate boundaries, preserving bike access to certain trails.
Although this strategy has saved a handful of trails from being lost to Wilderness designation, millions of acres and hundreds of miles of trail are being shut out forever to bicycle access with this strategy. Critics claim that IMBA takes a defeatist position, not demanding an equal seat at the table as a user group, ensuring that any deal struck will be a loss situation. The bike ban in Wilderness is a political problem that requires a political solution, something that IMBA refuses to pursue.
A Pivotal Time
I was optimistic after Wiens was appointed as Executive Director, because back in October of last year I had a terrific phone call with him, discussing the topic of Wilderness and the importance of overturning the blanket ban on bikes. He seemed to understand the main point I was making; by upholding a blanket ban, it is creating an involuntary, anti-Wilderness movement with the fastest growing trail user group that volunteers the most trail work hours per year.
But in February, BIKE Magazine published an interview with Wiens that included the topic of Wilderness, to which Wiens responded, “… right now it’s that we (IMBA) do not support any effort to change the Wilderness Act. And personally, I’m OK with a place where we don’t get to ride.”
On the topic of IMBA’s tenuous relationship with STC, Wiens said, “… we can’t support any organization that’s looking to change the Wilderness Act. It’s pretty black and white.”
It’s hard to figure whether Wiens’ comments are sincere, or if they’re a product of answering to a Board of Directors genuinely opposed to bikes in Wilderness. But an interview with Wiens in the March 15 issue of Bicycle Retailer and Industry News cleared up any confusion.
“We just have to be solid on our position, which is that we don’t support any changes to the Wilderness Act. That’s the position that the board came up with last year, and there’s no indication that we are going to change that.”
Either way, it seems IMBA is not listening to its membership base, as SDMBA reported that roughly 48 percent of IMBA national members and nearly 70 percent of members in the American West support lifting the Wilderness Blanket Ban on Bicycles.
Wiens is not in an enviable position, and he readily admits it. But there’s one thing many mountain bikers can agree on; Wiens is the best hope IMBA has right now of becoming more relevant to the larger mountain bike community. As much as IMBA wishes it would go away, the topic of bikes in Wilderness will only become more important as more public land is designated Wilderness, permanently cutting out bike access in areas that have allowed bikes for generations. And for mountain bikers who want preserved backcountry access, IMBA is faced with some serious soul searching that may mean the future relevancy of the organization.
At a critical time in our country’s history, we need more advocates for conservation of public land, not fewer. Expecting mountain bikers to support Wilderness designations that completely lock out their chosen form of low-impact, human-powered backcountry travel is unreasonable. Every argument against bikes in Wilderness is rooted in bias and an unwillingness to share, not science, as mountain bikes are proven by third party research to have similar trail impact as hikers, and far less than horses and cattle – both of which are non-native species permitted in Wilderness. But unless mountain bikers step forward by contacting their congressional representatives, requesting IMBA’s support and donating money to STC for continued lobbying efforts, the loss of backcountry bicycle access will expand.
IMBA Announces 40 Miles of New Singletrack in Caliente, NV
IMBA recently announced a huge win in the high desert of southeast Nevada, helping secure more than $1 million in funding to build 40 miles of singletrack surrounding the small community of Caliente. Blessed with beautiful and diverse high desert terrain, Caliente sits at 4,300 feet elevation, and is just a two hour drive from Las Vegas and St. George, Utah.
This four-year process was coordinated by IMBA Southwest Regional director Patrick Kell, bringing together city government, Nevada State Parks and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to plan, flag and fund three trail networks on local, state and federal lands that will all connect with the historic town of Caliente right in the center of the trails.
“The city, state and federal government all see the community value of trails,” said Kell. “The folks in Caliente have been welcoming and appreciative to this project, and between the three agencies, there have been no hiccups whatsoever.”
Twenty-two miles of singletrack leave right from town on BLM land, beginning construction in April amidst terrain rich with sage, junipers and even Ponderosa Pine trees in the higher elevations. Only two miles from town, Kershaw-Ryan State Park is set deep in a canyon with towering rock walls resembling terrain on Colorado’s Western Slope near Grand Junction. The State Park has developed campgrounds ideal for families and has approved 12 miles of singletrack with another seven in the works, all of them connecting to the BLM trails.
The City of Caliente is also building five miles of flow trail on the north side of town, leaving from a city park trailhead featuring a pump track, swimming pool and year-round bathroom facilities. The trails on city, state and federal lands will accommodate a wide range of skill levels, and the next phase of planning includes another 50 miles of trail north towards Piochoe in the Highland Peak Range amidst alpine terrain above 9,000 feet elevation. Thanks to the efforts of IMBA, Caliente promises to be another worthy stop for mountain bikers traveling from California to popular riding destinations in Utah, Arizona and Colorado. —KG