The Battle for Bikes in Wilderness Continues

A new congressional bill and big changes at IMBA

Words by Kurt Gensheimer
Photos by James Adamson

The author buckles down for a four-day bikepacking adventure across the Sierra Nevada.

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.

Descending Bull Run Trail near Moab, UT.

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.

Justin Schwartz high above the North Fork American River at Pucker Point on the Western States Trail.

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


  1. You got the captions for the first two pics switched.

    A concern I have with regards to opening access to bikes in wilderness areas is the increasing use of electric motor assist, which is clearly against the ideals of wilderness.

    • Thank you Andy for pointing out the switched captions. Fixed!

  2. Mechanized vehicles don’t belong on the historic Western States Trail, where your photo of Pucker Point was taken. We are doing everything in our power to ban mechanized vehicles from this historically significant equestrian trail.

    • Dear Western States Safe Trail Alliance — The section of the Western States Trail showing Pucker Point actually DOES allow bicycles there. It is multi-use. So your statement that mechanized vehicles don’t belong there is false…they DO belong. Bicycles and other mechanized vehicles certainly are not allowed on the portion of trail that resides in the Granite Chief Wilderness far to the east, as well as a stretch of trail beginning to the West starting below the town of Foresthill, but not the section of trail in the photo. Also, it is interesting that you call the trail a “historically significant equestrian trail” without mentioning any of the thousands of trail runners and hikers that use it as well. It is multi-use.

      • We are aware that bicycles and motorcycles (and e-bikes) are currently allowed, but we are working to have those nuisances prohibited, since the Western States Trail is no place for mechanized vehicles. It is just too unsafe for wheeled vehicles to be on the same trail as horses, especially at Pucker Point. We would like to get rid of the runners too. This is our trail. We were here first. There are plenty of fire roads for mountain bikers to ride and for runners to run.

  3. As I read the article I thought there was going to be a happy ending. Alas, IMBA still does not get it. Therefore, no support, no $. The article is correct when it asserts that the status quo is turning many Americans against support for “Wilderness” land designations. I for one have adopted such a position, until such time as our user group is presented fair access to the nation’s public lands.

    • George, there is a happy ending. They received $1 million dollars to build mountain biking trails near Caliente, and are leaving the Wilderness alone. But the sad ending is that the Sustainable Trails Coalition is still spending their dollars supporting anti-environment members of Congress

  4. Dear Author,

    Please stop attacking Wilderness. Wilderness represents a small portion of our public lands. Bikers have access to large areas currently. Wilderness users do not want bikes, it is set aside for other purposes, period.

    I feel this attack is selfish and non-sensitive to other user groups.

    Also, please explain these statements from the first paragraph:

    “1984 ban” What are you referring to?

    “generations” Really? Bikes are a recent modern activity in that area, historic use has been walking, hunting/trapping/fishing and equestrian/packing for “generations”. Are you implying that your grand-father was biking in the Boulder-White clouds?

  5. A common phrase applies here as well: “Everything in moderation.” Bikes fit in the same healthy diet as equestrians, mountain climbers, kayakers, canoers and hikers, and needed to be treated that way. In this political discussion the cycles are like the veggies on a kid’s plate, along with the well-eaten meat, bread and fruit. There they sit, as the child is afraid to eat something that is good for them. Lets not throw away something that will further the life and longevity of our national wilderness, and helps keep the money and interest in conservation and protection of our natural resources. With that said, for all those who will oppose this pro-bike view out of principle and twist the intent of these statements. I’m not suggesting that unhealthy foods (ATVs, jeeps etc) ever be consumed on the wilderness plate. Not in the least! Neither am I saying we all become vegetarians. Remember – “everything in moderation.”

  6. You want to know the reason IMBA lost Suburu. It’s probably because of all the Wilderness BS that going on. They should have taken a hard stand against Bikes in the Wilderness and stopped waffling all the time.

    It’s obvious by the phrase “no other form of mechanical transport” that bicycles were never meant to be in Wilderness Areas. The whole issue got worst as the Sustainable Trails Coalition kept getting Anti-Environment Lawmakers to sponsor their Bill. IMBA should have spoke out as soon as they found out that Senators Lee and Hatch were sponsoring the Bill last year. And again this year, the should have spoke out as soon as they found out that Tom McClintock was sponsoring the Bill. He’s one of the original co-sponsors of a Bill to sell 3 million acres of Federal Land to the Extractors. These is not the type of people we want messing with the Wilderness Act

    Mountain bikers are less than 3% of the population, and Wilderness Areas are less than 3% of the Land Area in the Lower 48 States. STC is formed under the section of the tax code that allows black money groups to spend money without revealing their donors. In other words, STC has no accountability at all. All this is doing is pissing off Conservation Groups and other people that would normally be favorable to mountain biking. Maybe after STC wastes the $160,000 they’ll figure out they are the biggest buffoons in mountain biking history.

    • You’re all full of conspiracy theories there, cowboy! As an ex-IMBA insider, I can guarantee the loss of Subaru had NOTHING to do with the Wilderness issue, but I’m not at liberty to share scoop… at least not with a fear mongering anti-bike cuckoo like you. You seem intent on stirring the pot with dishonesty and fear mongering. Do you comment on every bike/wilderness article or what?

      • Good one, Trail Ogre.
        You probably have no idea what was going on at Suburu. The fact is the average age of a member of IMBA is in the mid-40’s. And instead of focusing on building more trails closer to the suburbs to attract younger riders, there is all this Wilderness BS. It can’t help but hurt the sport of mountain biking as a whole.

        And, I haven’t been “stirring the pot with dishonesty and fear mongering.” Instead I’ve been telling the truth and been giving you the reality of the situation. And Fakename Ogre, Just try to find something in my post that isn’t the truth. Good luck.

  7. I’ve been ridin’ hard since i bought my first StumpJumper in the early 1980s, but bikes don’t belong in wilderness. We need places — lots of them — to walk in solitude and quietude without bikes whirring by. The author misses the point with all the blather about economics, efficiency, and the erosion potential of various trail users. The issue is the EXPERIENCE. Having to hop off the trail while bikes blast by in a cloud of dust SHATTERS the wilderness experience. If you don’t get it, spend more time out there on your own two feet until it sinks in. You’ll be a better person for it. Ride on; ride hard — but not in wilderness.


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