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Guest Opinion: Bill will boost conservation and bicycle sales

Published August 15, 2016

By Ted Stroll

Editor's note: In its August 15 issue, Bicycle Retailer & Industry News published a column by Ashley Korenblat on the topic of mountain biking in federal wilderness areas. In the September 1 issue, BRAIN will publish an opposing viewpoint, written by Ted Stroll, the board president of the Sustainable Trails Coalition. We are publishing both columns on the BRAIN website today. (Korenblat's column) 

In these days of challenging market conditions, there’s a bright spot: the recently introduced congressional Human-Powered Travel in Wilderness Areas Act. From the biggest manufacturer to the smallest shop, the bicycle industry will benefit if it passes. 

The 1,200-word bill, which the Sustainable Trails Coalition (STC) has worked on for a year, will reconnect Americans with their federal lands in two ways:

 1. Its travel aspect will let visitors explore local areas, under federal supervision and if federally authorized, if they’re willing to get about on their own. This aspect applies to all federal trails, not just Wilderness ones.

2. Its maintenance aspect will restore overgrown and lost trails for hikers, horse-riders, hunters, and cyclists.

The bill will let local Forest Service, National Park Service, and Bureau of Land Management staff use modern hand-manipulated tools to restore Wilderness trails and decide if human-powered travelers like mountain bikers can visit them. 

The main beneficiaries will be backcountry mountain bikers. In an area larger than California and Maryland combined, mountain biking is forbidden. But other self-powered explorers will benefit too. For the first time in years, parents with baby strollers, canoeists with portage wheels, and hunters with hand-wheeled game carriers will be able to visit Wilderness if the nearby federal land manager allows it.

And there’s the elderly but intrepid man I’ve seen on a county-park trail. He walks beside a scooter outfitted with an oxygen tank, leaning against the handlebar for support, oxygen mask over his face. He’ll be eligible to visit Wilderness too.

As significant for recreation, and hence bicycle sales, is the bill’s maintenance aspect. The Forest Service admits it’s reducing trail maintenance. Wilderness trails may be the most neglected of all. Oddly, the agency ordinarily doesn’t let its employees use wheelbarrows in Wilderness and requires deadfalls be removed with giant Paul Bunyan–style handsaws, even though the Wilderness Act authorizes modern tools if they’re of “minimum” scale. This bill will reinforce that part of the current Act.

Facebook reflects the widespread enthusiasm the bill has generated. The three grass-roots Facebook pages associated with the bill have 11,389 “likes.” A single post on one of those pages has 31,198 views. Another post garnered 9,201 views in 13 hours.

Because the legislation offers much to hikers, backpackers, and equestrians alike, we’re not surprised that traditional conservation organizations haven’t formally opposed it. Perhaps tired of squabbling over trail access mile by mile for years, traditional skeptics may perceive their members have more to gain by regaining access to abandoned trails than to lose by sharing some trails with the occasional mountain biker.

STC has raised about $130,000, but the biggest bicycle manufacturers haven’t donated. Now that the bill is before Congress, we hope they’ll reconsider. A bike shop in New Mexico donated $2,000, understandable given that the Forest Service could be closing trails near Albuquerque that mountain bikers ride after work. It’s a threat that faces bike shops anywhere near roadless federal land, whether in Brevard, N.C., Winthrop, Wash., or Moab, Utah.

There’s no hidden agenda here. Senators Mike Lee and Orrin Hatch of Utah, the bill’s author and original cosponsor respectively, would like to see Moab protected for mountain bikers and more human-powered Moab-type destinations emerge. The bill doesn’t provide for motorized travel, semi-motorized travel by devices like e-bikes, grazing, mining, or sale of federal land.

Nor does it amend the Wilderness Act substantively. It adds a few sentences to the Act’s 52-year-old text to reinstate those aspects of Congress’s intent that federal agencies have forgotten or misunderstood, restoring the Act’s original function.

Mountain bikers are united in our desire for reasonable Wilderness access. An informal Singletracks poll and a publicly released portion of a scientific IMBA member survey show strong support for the legislation. The IMBA poll revealed that 48.4 percent of California IMBA members feel regaining some Wilderness access is “very or extremely important.”

Anyone who opposes this legislation is necessarily signaling he or she doesn’t trust on-site federal employees to administer forests and parks. We hope you have more faith in them.

Please support the Human-Powered Travel in Wilderness Areas Act. Or prepare to watch from the sidelines while your customers continue to be evicted from trails they’ve long treasured.

Ted Stroll is board president of the Sustainable Trails Coalition, based in California.


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