Following the reintroduction of a bill in the U.S. Senate on May 17 to end the prohibition of mountain bikes in wilderness areas, 150 conservation groups have signed a letter opposing the measure.

    The letter, dated June 6, is being sent to all the members of the Senate by Missoula, Mont.-based Wilderness Watch. It follows an earlier letter signed by 133 conservation groups sent in December to the members of a House of Representatives subcommittee following the reintroduction of a similar bill there.

    HR 1349, reintroduced in the House by Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Calif., in March 2017, would amend the 1964 Wilderness Act to state that it does not prohibit the use of nonmotorized wheeled vehicles in wilderness areas. It was passed by the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Federal Lands in December.

    The Senate bill, titled the “Human Powered Travel in Wilderness Areas Act” (S 2877), reintroduced by Utah Republican Sen. Mike Lee, goes further, requiring federal land managers to determine within two years which trails in wilderness areas should be open to all human-powered travel, including that which is mechanically assisted. The bill would allow managers to prohibit any use likely to change the wilderness character of the area, though it also states that any form of nonmotorized travel shall be “rebuttably presumed to be in accordance with the preservation and maintenance of the wilderness character of a wilderness area.” The bill also allows land managers to put restrictions on that use.

    The Wilderness Watch letter to the senators calls the bill “an unprecedented call to weaken the Wilderness Act.”

    “For over a half century, the Wilderness Act has protected wilderness areas from mechanization and mechanical transport, even if no motors were involved with such activities,” the letter states. “This has meant, as Congress intended, that wildernesses have been kept free from bicycles and other types of mechanization and mechanical transport.”

    The letter states that the bills would “open the entire National Wilderness Preservation System to mountain bikes and other wheeled machines.”

However, a Colorado-based group called the Sustainable Trails Coalition that is promoting the legislation has noted that the bills would not automatically open wilderness areas to biking because federal land managers could still ban mountain bikes anywhere they deem them inappropriate.

    “The bills we hope to see passed simply eliminate the blanket ban and return authority to the local land managers,” the group states on its website.

    Signatories to the Wilderness Watch letter include Idaho Rivers United, Hailey-based Western Watersheds Project and the Sawtooth Interpretive and Historical Association in Stanley.

    The Idaho Conservation League did not sign on. ICL Public Lands Director John Robison said the organization opposes the bills but has not been actively involved, preferring to work with mountain biking groups on drawing the boundaries of new wilderness areas, such as that in the Owyhee area of Idaho.

Email the writer: gmoore@mtexpress.com

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