Mountain Biking Threat to Wilderness


Across the country, the growing popularity of mountain biking is increasingly a threat to our wildlands, even in designated wilderness. Some mountain biking advocates promote the idea that their sport is compatible with the goals, and even the legal obligations of federal land management agencies that manage wilderness.

Yet my feeling is that mountain bikers and their machines are a threat to the legal, ecological, and philosophical foundations of the Wilderness Act and public lands management. I say this as someone who regularly rides a mountain bike.

A small minority of the most aggressive mountain bikers have formed the Sustainable Trails Coalition (STC) to sponsor legislation to open designated wilderness to mountain biking. Republican Congressman Tom McClintock of California introduced HR 1349 to Amend the Wilderness Act to allow wheeled vehicles like bicycles and Republican Senator Mike Lee of Utah has introduced the introduced the Human-Powered Travel in Wilderness Areas Act, S.3205 to the same purpose. Both pieces of legislation are aimed at busting open the 1964 Wilderness Act to biking and other uses.

Of the six sponsors of current House Bill, 5 of them have a 0% Rating and the 6th one has a whopping 3% Rating by the League of Conservation Voters in 2016.

One must question why they would be so interested in sponsoring legislation that modifies the Wilderness Act if not for some nebulous purpose.

Indeed, if mountain bikes are permitted in Wilderness, why not other forms of mechanical advantage?

The threat posed by this legislative effort is opposed by 133 organizations that signed a letter to Congress opposed to weakening or modifying the Wilderness Act. Indeed, to its credit, even the International Mountain Biking Association or IMBA has opposed this legislation.

A common distortion utilized by the aggressive mountain biker community to suggest they are being treated unfairly is the idea that the Wilderness Act did not specifically ban bicycles. As the STC proclaims on its website “When the President of the United States signed the Wilderness Act of 1964 he wasn’t banning bicycles, wheelbarrows, and strollers.”

In fact, the Wilderness Act is clear in its intent. The opening preamble declares “In order to assure that an increasing population, accompanied by expanding settlement and growing mechanization, does not occupy and modify all areas within the United States and its possessions, leaving no lands designated for preservation and protection in their natural condition, it is hereby declared to be the policy of the Congress to secure for the American people of present and future generations the benefits of an enduring resource of wilderness.”

It is clear the Act was intended to be an antidote to “growing mechanization.”

The Act goes even further by declaring that federal agencies must “preserve the wilderness character”.

Finally, in its prohibition of uses, the Wilderness Act says: “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, and no structure or installation within any such area.”

The Wilderness Act clearly intended to exclude any “mechanical transport” which includes bicycles. The fact that the Wilderness Act didn’t specifically mention mountain bikes has a lot to do with the fact that there were no mountain bikes in 1964. The Act does not specifically ban snowmobiles, jet skis, paragliding, hovercraft and a wide array of other forms of “mechanical transport” but the intent of the Wilderness Act is clear. No mechanization and mechanical transport.

The purpose of the wilderness act is to preserve the wilderness character of the areas to be included in the wilderness system, not to establish any particular recreational use. Howard Zahniser, who authored the Wilderness Act, made this clear when he testified before Congress. “Recreation is not necessarily the dominant use of an area of wilderness.  This should be clearly emphasized.”

Beyond the clear legal mandate to ban mountain bikes, there are ecological reasons to oppose the growing plague of mountain bikes on backcountry trails. Unlike non-mechanical means of access such as hiking, mountain bikes, and their mechanical advantage permits more rapid travel. The distance that a mountain bike can cover in a day means that many previously remote areas of our backcountry and wildlands are intruded upon by human activity.

Many wildlife species experiences increased tension and anxiety when there is the human presence. For instance, a study published by UC Santa Cruz scientists from found that mountain lions in the Santa Cruz mountains are disturbed by the sound of human voices. These fearful encounters are causing the carnivores to flee their kill sites and reduces their feeding time by 50%.

Certainly, mountain lions will react to hikers just as they may to mountain bikers, but the greater distance that a bike can cover in a day means the chances for encounters between wildlife and humans is greatly increased.

Wilderness is the “gold standard” for conservation. Wilderness designation not only protects wildness but evolutionary processes and influences like wildfire, floods, and predators.  Mountain bikers suggest that land classifications such as National Recreation Area, Conservation Area, Backcountry or other designation can achieve the same results of land protection as Wilderness. I know of no examples that are as good for land protection as Wilderness.

For instance, the Rocky Mountain Front in Montana had the highest wilderness rating under RARE11 in the entire lower 48 states, yet the bulk of this outstanding area was designated a conservation area by the Rocky Mountain Heritage Act, in part to appease mountain biker opposition to wilderness. And unlike designated Wilderness, the Conservation Area allows the construction of “temporary roads”, use of motorized vehicles for “vegetation management” a euphemism for logging, as well as motorized access for managing grazing, and weed control. It also authorizes logging for fuel reduction and insects. It further mandates construction of more mountain biking trails. While the new designation is better than the status quo, this is hardly as good as wilderness.

As anyone who has studied Conservation Biology knows, the largest habitat island, the more species it can support. By “shrinking” wilderness through additional access, we reduce the habitat effectiveness of the areas. With the mechanical advantage offered by modern mountain bikes which are increasingly efficient, the places where there is human intrusion is growing proportionally.

With the burgeoning human footprint upon the Earth, we need to provide wilderness landscapes where human intrusions are minimized and provide security and safety for wildlife.

Some mountain bikers argue that bikes do less damage to trails than horses which are permitted in designated wilderness. Notwithstanding the fact that horse use is not widespread in many wilderness areas, the horses are worse argument is a red herring. How does increasing wilderness access with another form of transportation reduce horse impacts? It only adds to the cumulative effects of all access.

It is not only designated wilderness that is threatened by mountain biking advocates. Many existing Wilderness Study Areas and roadless lands that have been identified for their wilderness qualities as potential new wilderness are under attack from mountain bikers.

For example, recently the Freedom Riders, a mountain bike group in Wyoming supported Congress Woman Liz Cheney’s efforts to open the Palisades Wilderness Study Area to mountain biking.

There are also philosophical reasons to oppose mountain biking. The Wilderness Act states and implies that the primary purpose of our national wilderness system is to preserve the “natural condition” and “wilderness character” of the land. It is not about protecting or creating recreational opportunities.

Mountain biking is exemplified by speed and requires concentration. We are separated from nature in so many ways today with cell phones, cars, videos and the like that we seldom have a quiet interaction with the natural world. Speed robs you of the natural interactions.

All you must do is look at the covers of mountain biking magazines where riders are often airborne and careening downhill to understand what is important to the aggressive mountain biker. Indeed, the aggressive mountain bikers do not differ significantly from dirt bikers and other thrillcraft in their appearance and behavior.

Or scan the names of mountain bike brands. There is Cannondale Bad Habit, Cannondale Scalpel Cannondale Trigger, Evil Bikes, GT Aggressor, GT Fury, Marin Attack, Scott Voltage, and Titan Punisher. What kind of behavior do you think these bike manufacturers are promoting?

In some ways, the mountain biking issues is not unlike the debate over the damming of Hetch Hetchy Canyon in Yosemite National Park. John Muir who led the fight to keep the dam out of the park was not opposed to San Francisco obtaining a reservoir to provide a water supply for the city but argued there are some places like Hetch Hetchy and a national park which should remain free of development.  He suggested there were other less scenic, less ecologically valuable, and less valuable to the national heritage than a national park for creating a reservoir.

In a sense, the same idea applies to mountain biking and our efforts to protect wildlands. At this point, only 2.7% of the lower 48 states are protected as wilderness. And even if the remaining roadless lands that could qualify for wilderness designation were added to the Wilderness System, at most 5-6% of the lower 48 states would be off-limits to mountain biking. Can we not as a society at least give back 5-6% of our land area for the “others”, the wildlife and wildlands that require less human domination and manipulation.

At its heart the basic premise of the Wilderness Act, it is about restraint and humility. It is about countering the paradigm of conquest, domination, and exploitation.

Our obligation is to pass on to future generations wild places. Mountain biking diminishes that wildness.

The reason we protect wilderness is not about me or us. It’s about protecting landscapes for the rest of life that we share the planet with and providing those creatures a viable home as well as preserving the wildness in nature.

What we do when we protect wilderness is we create an alternative to the prevailing paradigm of domination, conquest, and colonization. Wilderness preservation offers a new narrative about communion and reciprocity. About humility, wonder, and reverence.


















  1. John Platt Avatar

    Excellent. We just published an op-ed a couple of hours ago that makes many of these same points. The two pieces together raise a lot of really important issues.

  2. Jerry Avatar

    “All you must do is look at the covers of mountain biking magazines where riders are often airborne and careening downhill to understand what is important to the aggressive mountain biker. Indeed, the aggressive mountain bikers do not differ significantly from dirt bikers and other thrillcraft in their appearance and behavior.

    Or scan the names of mountain bike brands. There is Cannondale Bad Habit, Cannondale Scalpel Cannondale Trigger, Evil Bikes, GT Aggressor, GT Fury, Marin Attack, Scott Voltage, and Titan Punisher. What kind of behavior do you think these bike manufacturers are promoting?”

    George, please don’t label all mountain bikers as radicals due to the crap that magazines and manufacturers print and use as a sales tool. The vast majority of mountain bikers are not full on mountain shredders with no care for the trails they ride. Mountain bikers that ride true backcountry are certainly NOT those types. Backcountry mountain bikers ride much differently, especially in very remote areas.

    I am a mountain biker and I prefer backcountry trails. I enjoy a long day in the saddle away from the cars and people. Still, I’m not totally in total agreement with allowing bikes in the wilderness either but I am tired of losing hundreds of miles of backcountry bike accessible trails to WSA, recommended wilderness and wilderness. There are ways to work this out and for all users to come together to protect our wildlands. But it won’t happen if the growing mountain bike segment of conservationists continue to be thrown under the bus.

    Oh, and I ride a Transition Smuggler and it’s a pretty awesome rig!

    1. Hiker Avatar

      If you read George’s letter he clearly states that he is most concerned with aggressive mountain bikers, not all. You may be the most careful mountain biker in the world but how about the one after you? All it takes is one shredder to change a trail for the worse. Where I live in Arizona you can tell where bikes are allowed by the width of the trail (usually ten to twenty feet as opposed to two for foot traffic). There’s plenty of trails and dirt roads in the west open to bikes, why do you need more? Why can’t we leave some areas off limits? I hike the same trails over and over every week and see new things every time. Why can’t bikers be satisfied with what they have? Don’t you see the danger in changing our Wilderness Laws? It all seems very selfish to me.

      1. Ida Lupine Avatar
        Ida Lupine

        “I hike the same trails over and over every week and see new things every time.”

        So do I. One of the best posts on this I have seen. And point of view – why do we constantly need to expand into wilderness, and constantly need more? What you say about the width of the trails is concerning.

  3. louise kane Avatar
    louise kane

    My mom gave me the population bomb and we had copies of Lester Brown state of the world around the house, 40 years ago no one has heeded the warnings. The US is third most populated country, awful and yet we still celebrate birth,
    newborn kids represent so much for me now, a mixture of awe and trepidation, and all I can think about is how another human mouth impacts the earth. I’ll be gone but shouldn’t we be concerned for those coming up?

  4. Patrick Avatar

    I get that mountain bikers might want access to wilderness areas, but wilderness areas should be designated for non-mechanized travel only, which includes bikes. There is no compelling reason why bikers need access to more land since there is already plenty of BLM land and other public land available. There is 248,345,551 acres available, according to 2015 statistics (see Total public land designated as wilderness is 109,142,230 acres (see, or less than 50% of that total. That doesn’t consider state or county forest lands, much of which is designated multi-use. Much of the nonwilderness land is not heavily utilized, and has miles of forest roads and trails that are well suited to bike use There is no compelling reason to allow bike access to wilderness. Bikers shouldn’t be so self-interested and recognize how important it is for maintaining wilderness for its intrinsic, quiet solitude…a place you can access without bikes and with minimal impact like everyone else.

  5. mike kunnecke Avatar
    mike kunnecke

    Unlike you armchair adventures, The through hikers I meet Bikepacking the Continental Divide, Arizona & Colorado trails seem glad to see another person on the trail. The bill doesn’t do away with the bike ban, it allows the local land manager to decide where bikes are appropriate & where they are not. Bikepackers aren’t flying through the air making Mountain Dew commercials. Bikepacker carry roughly the same weight as backpackers slowing the speed dramatically, & much like a backpacker the steep downhill single track requires speed to be kept under control or pay the considerable consequences.

    1. Hiker Avatar

      Who are you calling armchair adventures[I assume you meant adventurers]? And what difference does that make? You are advocating for a change to one of the best protections we have. That is a slippery slope. I have hiked and backpacked most of my life and my best memories are not when I see others on the trail. They are of silence broken only by nature, like the call of elk or the cry of a mountain lion. These things need to be experienced to be believed. True wilderness is one of the last places for this experience. If you can bikepack you can backpack. There is a time and place for both. Also, your argument depends on all other bikers to be like you. They are not. Many are thrill seekers. Is that bad? or wrong? NO, but that does NOT belong in our wilderness. If I was quietly watching a moose with it’s calf or a roadrunner attacking a snake and a bike went ripping by that moment would be ruined. Is that what you want for the future of our nation? If anything the kids of tomorrow will need more peace and quiet not less.

  6. rork Avatar

    Non-wilderness whining:
    In Michigan, most roads are open to bikes. Trails on public land that are not roads are closed to bikes unless marked as open, and you can’t go cross country either.
    Theses rules are broken so often near me that there is new erosion. On flat ground it is a narrow (10-inch) rut in the ground that makes it hard to walk on. On steep ground it is worse. My guess is that nobody has ever gotten a ticket. When challenged, they always claim they did not realize they were not allowed there. Signs explicitly noting closures are removed or even replaced. It’s fun being a pirate I think. The horse people are bad at following rules too, and can do more damage in 1 day than the rest of us do all year.

  7. John R Avatar
    John R

    Good Summary. Thank You George. You Rock!

  8. Ida Lupine Avatar
    Ida Lupine

    All I can remember is the mountain biker who surprised a grizzly and was killed, almost a year ago. I hope if this should come to pass, you mountain bikers will sign releases that you accept the dangers you encounter, and will not want the wildlife executed for your joyrides.

    At the time, it was called a grizzly ‘attack’ on the biker, complete with a photo of a burly F&W agent with a shotgun to go after the bear. 🙁

      1. Hiker Avatar

        How fast are mountain bikes compared to hikers? How much higher is the chance to come up quickly on a bear when on a bike? Yes, hikers get attacked. Does that mean we should change the law and hope that bikers will be safe? There have been attacks by griz on mountain bikers. They survived so the news wasn’t as dramatic. There are also hikers who have survived. In fact most have. It’s just that there are circumstances where you can increase your chance of surprising a griz like: hunting, biking, jogging. They are trying to delist the griz as we speak. The griz, along with ALL other dwellers of Wilderness need the maximum protection. Don’t you want future children to have the chance of experiencing the joy and wonder of seeing one of these majestic beasts in the wild?

      2. Ida Lupine Avatar
        Ida Lupine

        So – hikers aren’t continually begging for new trails to blaze in undeveloped wilderness, usually content with existing trails – and don’t travel at higher rates of speed, and so are more likely not to have an encounter with a grizzly, or better able to react when they do.

        The more undeveloped the wilderness, it would seem, the more wildlife not used to humans? The more the wilderness is developed the more wildlife is chased into smaller and smaller habitat.

      3. Ralph Maughan Avatar
        Ralph Maughan

        Do folks remember this? It made a lot of news in Montana.

  9. spakle Avatar

    the Kansas Supreme Court held:

    *Each citizen has the absolute right to choose for himself the mode of conveyance he desires…”

    1. Hiker Avatar

      So I’m allowed to ride my bike on the freeway? I think not. Last I checked we were talking about wilderness law on FEDERAL land not state. Kansas, the best example of FEDERAL wilderness!

      1. Kathleen Avatar

        I know, right?!? No congressionally-designated wilderness areas currently exist in Connecticut, Delaware, Iowa, Kansas, Maryland, or Rhode Island.

    2. rork Avatar

      “…..whether it be by wagon or carriage, by horse, motor or electric car, or by bicycle, or astride of a horse, subject to the sole condition that he will observe all those requirements that are known as the law of the road.”
      You left a bit out there.

  10. spakle Avatar

    Synonyms for motorized
    adj power-driven
    mechanized powered mechanical

  11. Ida Lupine Avatar
    Ida Lupine

    I was going to post this in “Why Mountain Biking is Inappropriate in Wilderness” but that thread is closed. Of course, the guilty cougar is going to be tracked down by F&W:

  12. glenn monahan Avatar
    glenn monahan

    There is an explosion about to happen … ELECTRIC MOUNTAIN BIKES! They will allow individuals, regardless of their level of physical fitness, to go further, faster, and steeper. They will cause a flood of bikers into wildlife habitat. And disturbingly the extreme International Mountain Biking Association recently endorsed the use of electric mountain bikes on all trails.


George Wuerthner is an ecologist and writer who has published 38 books on various topics related to environmental and natural history. He has visited over 400 designated wilderness areas and over 200 national park units.

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George Wuerthner