Mountain bikes are designed and built to cover almost any terrain.
But they cannot go on every trail.
Mountain bikers — thousands of whom enjoy some of the nation’s most state-of-the art trail systems here in Central Oregon — have long been excluded from wilderness areas, including the nearly 300,000-acre Three Sisters Wilderness and its 260 miles of trails.
But two Republican Utah senators introduced a bill in July that would allow mountain biking in wilderness, which includes some 150,000 square miles of the country’s most remote, pristine locales. Wilderness is open only to hikers, runners and horseback riders.
The controversial Human-Powered Travel in Wilderness Areas Act has drawn the ire of environmental groups. And even mountain biking groups, both locally and nationally, have concerns about the bill.
While there seems to be some agreement that mountain bikers should not lose access to trails they have enjoyed for many years once an area becomes designated wilderness, mountain bikers in Central Oregon are not exactly eager to ride trails in the Three Sisters Wilderness or other wilderness areas in the state.
Bikes in the wild
Under the bill — sponsored by U.S. Sens. Mike Lee, R-Utah, and Orrin Hatch, R-Utah — federal land managers at the local level would have two years to determine where bikes would be allowed within wilderness areas. Bikes would automatically be allowed in locations where no decision is made in those two years.
But local officials with the U.S. Forest Service say two years may not be enough time to make those decisions.
“If it came to pass, we would have to go through environmental analysis and processes to designate trails,” said Jean Nelson-Dean, public affairs officer for the Deschutes National Forest. “It would be a lot of public involvement. It would be a very, very long process. That would be a tremendous amount of work, and there would certainly be issues with capacity, in terms of analysis and the decision-making process. We have a lot of trails, and we don’t have everyone in agreement (among the public) about what should and should not be done.”
A certain section of the 1964 Wilderness Act is at the crux of the issue, according to The Associated Press. The act prohibits the use of “mechanical transport,” including bikes and motorized vehicles, in wilderness areas.
The Central Oregon Trail Alliance — a volunteer organization with a history of working with the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management to build and maintain mountain bike trails on the Deschutes and Ochoco national forests — has no designs on opening Oregon wilderness areas to mountain biking, according to COTA chairman Bruce Schroeder.
“I don’t think any of us (in COTA) are interested in the Three Sisters Wilderness,” Schroeder said. “I really think this bill wasn’t written with the Bend area in mind, so I can’t really see the community at large coming out strongly to allow mountain bikes on wilderness trails. COTA’s position is to not lose access (that it already has). If we have to give up something for wildlife protection, we want something in return. We wouldn’t want to lose any trails to an arbitrary decision that maybe someday it could become wilderness. Whether this bill fixes that or not I guess is arguable.”
According to The New York Times, mountain bikers were upset in 2015 when more than 400 square miles of the Boulder-White Clouds Mountains in central Idaho were designated as wilderness.
Closer to Central Oregon, mountain bikers lost access to about 120 miles of trail near Mount Hood with the designation of the Roaring River Wilderness in 2009.
Bend’s Paul Thomasberg lobbied hard then for mountain bikers to not lose access to those remote trails. The former COTA board member and member of the Mountain Bike Hall of Fame has built many miles of singletrack in Central Oregon and has developed a lasting relationship with the U.S. Forest Service.
“I had some frustration with IMBA (the International Mountain Bicycling Association) with what happened with Mount Hood a long time ago, just that they weren’t quite aggressive enough” in efforts to retain access for bikers, Thomasberg said.
IMBA actually opposed the introduced bill in a statement it released in July:
“ … amending the Wilderness Act comes … with a risk of unintended consequences, especially political consequences and further polarization of the stewardship and outdoor recreation community, and is unnecessary to preserve mountain bike access while also achieving landscape level conservation.”
Thomasberg said he is unsure where he stands on the bill, but he said he likes the idea of giving local land managers with the Forest Service and BLM the authority to make decisions on which trails should be open to bikes.
“It’s all about local power and that’s the most important thing,” Thomasberg said.
He added that little wilderness in Central Oregon would be feasible for allowing mountain bikes due to crowds, but he said that opening more remote areas to mountain bikes is not necessarily a negative.
“I don’t really see a lot of places that are currently wilderness suddenly opening up a bunch of trails (to bikes),” Thomasberg said. “However, I also see that there’s a few places that trails could be opened up. The example locally is having a singletrack route that goes from Bend all the way to Oakridge. There’s some just little pieces in there where they’re like corners that go through wilderness. And they’re very, very seldom used.”
Longtime Bend resident David Stowe is an executive committee member of the Juniper Group, the Central and Eastern Oregon chapter of the Sierra Club. Like most other environmental groups, the Sierra Club strongly opposes the bill, as does Stowe. But he is sympathetic to mountain bikers, and he has worked with Thomasberg and other COTA members to reach compromises in certain areas, such as Waldo Lake southwest of Bend.
While some fear that this new bill could drive a wedge between environmental groups and mountain bikers, that is not necessarily the case in Central Oregon.
“I love COTA, and I love mountain bikers,” Stowe said. “I think it’s a great way to recreate. I don’t think mountain bikes belong everywhere, though. We’ve got to find a way to let people enjoy the woods, and stop trying to keep people out. But in the case of the Wilderness Act … a mountain biker can go 40 or 50 miles. A strong rider, it’s amazing what they can cover in a day. So it makes these backcountry areas that are remote, not remote anymore. And it disturbs wildlife, and it just becomes less wild.”
Stowe said he hopes that environmental groups and mountain bikers can continue to work together on the side of land conservation.
“We all want to keep public land open to the public, so we just have to figure out how to slice that pie up,” Stowe said. “And I think mountain bikers and environmentalists are natural allies, not opponents. That’s the way we need to do business moving forward.”
When the Wilderness Act was signed in 1964, it noted that “there shall be no temporary road, no use of motor vehicles, motorized equipment or motorboats, no landing of aircraft, no other form of mechanical transport” in the designated wilderness areas. Modern mountain biking did not exist then. But in 1984, as the sport started to gain ground, the Forest Service added to its rules, prohibiting “possessing or using a hang glider or bicycle.”
“One of the key purposes of the Wilderness Act was to keep wild areas wild in perpetuity,” Stowe said. “That’s lost on the mountain biking folks who are proponents of access. My concern is the integrity of the land. Mountain bikers would say horses are much tougher on the trail, and I would say, yeah, you’re right, there’s no doubt about that, they’re like rototillers going down the trail. But mountain bikes have their own set of issues.”
Thomasberg disagreed with the Forest Service’s 1984 update to the Wilderness Act.
“There really was no reason for a blanket ban,” he said. “It was just something new, and the easiest way to deal with it was a blanket ban. They should have just left it up to the local land manager to make that decision for each area.”
The Sustainable Trails Coalition, a nonprofit that is supporting the bill, believes that the Wilderness Act was never meant to exclude bikes, and it is opposed to a blanket ban on bikes in wilderness. But it also believes mountain bikes should not be allowed on all trails.
Most backcountry hiking trails are not ideal for mountain biking, often with rocks and downed trees, or crowded with hikers and equestrians, according to the STC.
The STC claims it mostly wants closed trails, such as those in the Boulder-White Cloud Wilderness Area in Idaho, reopened to mountain bikers, rather than access to all trails.
Another issue is that user conflict — among hikers, mountain bikers and horseback riders — is already high in nonwilderness areas in Central Oregon. Opening wilderness to mountain bikes, it seems, would only increase those conflicts.
“Bikes and equestrians tend to be a bad combination,” said Kim McCarrel, chair of the Central Oregon chapter of Oregon Equestrian Trails. “I believe they can coexist on some trails, as long as there are no blind corners and not a lot of elevation change. But that’s not the case in a lot of wilderness. I’ve already heard from the Forest Service that we have too many trails in the wilderness that are already overused.”
McCarrel conceded that horses likely do more damage to trails than mountain bikes. She added, however, that because horseback riders had been using wilderness trails for many decades before the 1964 Wilderness Act, they were allowed in wilderness areas.
“It’s a historical-use thing,” McCarrel said.
Along those lines, McCarrel does not believe mountain bikers should be banned from trails they have been riding for years, like those in the Boulder-White Clouds.
“If it was OK for mountain bikes to be here yesterday, walling people out like in Idaho, that’s really not fair,” she said.
Further complicating the issue, as The New York Times noted in August, is the fact that the bill comes from Lee and Hatch, whom some environmentalists and outdoor recreation groups are concerned have a “public land seizure agenda.”
Efforts to shift federal lands into state or local control are nothing new in the West, according to The New York Times. The 41-day armed occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge near Burns this past winter is one example.
Thomasberg fears that mountain bikers are getting lumped into the same groups that support the seizure of federal lands.
“Their sort of anti-government, land-takeover position is long well-known,” Thomasberg said of Lee and Hatch. “In a way, I think mountain bikers get used. We’ve been used in the past, and it’s kind of sad. They want us on their side, just like the motorized community would love to have us on their side. A lot of times, bikers get used as political pawns.”
The Deschutes National Forest’s Nelson-Dean noted that with so many different angles and opinions on the issue, the discussion will not be a simple one.
She added that in Oregon and Washington, about 2,000 miles of trail are already designated and maintained for mountain biking, and another 1,000 miles of trail are mixed use.
“I think when you start looking at the Wilderness Act … part of what it foresaw was exactly this kind of continuing intrusion into wilderness and wanting to retain a unique experience of solitude and primitive recreation,” Nelson-Dean said. “I think it will depend on what people’s vision of the Wilderness Act means and what it should continue to mean. A lot of things come and go, and we’ll just see where this (bill) goes. I do think there’s a lot of interest in it, for sure.”
— Reporter: 541-383-0318,