Mountain Biker Distortions On Wilderness Act

Kurt Gensheimer’s Feb. 28th editorial on mountain biking and wilderness in the Sacramento Bee is full of the same misinformation and distortions.

Mr. Gensheimer suggests that Rep. Tom McClinock’s legislation to open our nation’s wilderness system to mountain bikes and other wheeled contractions “restores” the original intent of the  1964 Wilderness Act and will provide access.

Ironically, Wilderness Areas are accessible to anyone so long as they leave behind their mechanical transportation.

It appears that Mr. Gensheimer hasn’t read the Wilderness Act.

The Wilderness Act’s opening paragraph states: “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.”

The Act further goes on to state 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, and no structure or installation within any such area.”

A bicycle is a form of mechanical transportation and part of the “growing mechanization” that the Wilderness Act was established to preclude.

Mr. Gensheimer says the Wilderness Act did not explicitly ban bicycles so he argues that means bicycles should be legal in wilderness areas.

However, the Act also does not explicitly ban snowmobiles, jet skis, four wheelers, hovercraft, skateboards, helicopters, and a host of other forms of “mechanical transport”. Just because these things are not explicitly mentioned does not mean they are therefore legal.

It would be like claiming that the First Amendment Freedom of the Press does not apply to television or radio because the Constitution only mentions freedom of the “press” implying printing presses.

Mr. Gensheimer’s assertion that the Forest Service put in place a ban on bicycles in 1984 is also incorrect. The Forest Service was only clarifying what the 1964 Wilderness Act stated about mechanical transport.

It is always interesting to observe that mountain bikers tend to believe that our public lands are merely there as outdoor gymnasiums for their recreational use.

However, it is clear from reading the Wilderness Act as well as the commentary which leads up to the Act that the prime purpose of the Wilderness Act is not to provide recreational opportunities, rather again the Act specifically states that its prime purpose is to “preserve the wilderness character and the resource of wilderness.”

Howard Zanhiser who wrote the Wilderness Act wrote: ” I believe we have a profound fundamental need for areas of the earth where we stand without our mechanisms that make us immediate masters over our environment.”

Racing down a trail on a mountain bike, eyes glued on the path ahead, is not preserving wilderness character.

Finally, Mr. Gensheimer says that mountain bikers will support more wilderness if they are allowed to ride their bikes in wilderness areas.

Using that same logic, one could suggest that if logging, mining, oil and gas drilling, dams on rivers, four wheelers, dirt bikes, snowmobiles, four-wheel drive trucks, and so forth were allowed in wilderness areas, there would be almost universal support for wilderness designation.

Of course, if we permitted all these activities, there would be no wildlands left. What he doesn’t get is that using a bike diminishes the wilderness qualities of the area that Congress clearly intended to preserve.

Wilderness designation and preservation is about self-restraint and humility. It’s about sharing the land with other creatures. Only 2.7% of the lower 48 states is designated wilderness. Is it too much to ask that these lands be set aside primarily to provide for the rest of the life on the planet which are fellow travelers?






  1. Kathleen Avatar

    Op-Ed: “5 Lies Being Used to Get Mountain Bikes in Wilderness:
    A new bill would open up wilderness areas to bikes—but the arguments in favor of it don’t hold water”

  2. Kathleen Avatar

    Op-Ed: “5 Lies Being Used to Get Mountain Bikes in Wilderness:
    A new bill would open up wilderness areas to bikes—but the arguments in favor of it don’t hold water”

  3. Ida Lupine Avatar
    Ida Lupine

    “I believe we have a profound fundamental need for areas of the earth where we stand without our mechanisms that make us immediate masters over our environment.”

    We have a moral obligation to protect these areas. Without it, as you say, there would be none left – and only 2.7% designated wilderness left in the lower 48 is getting pretty close.

  4. rork Avatar

    It’s been a few years so I’ll remind people I’m in favor of no pack animals as well. We could live with less trails in some wildernesses (I am used to being mostly off trail in several wildernesses – and some places, like parts of “the Church” that are too tough for horses it’s hard to find the trail). Trails would stay in better shape. Less invasive plant introduction, less grazing of the plants. Less guides taking tourons with money but few skills out. Less crowding. The Bob Marshall could effectively become twice as big – very few people would get to the middle – cause I imagine the trails getting a bit full of fallen timber, especially far from the roads. Maybe we could allow exemptions be given to some scientists.
    I especially call on all mountain bikers to join me in my call, since they all agree that horses are even worse than mountain bikes. But we want alpacas and goats gone too.

  5. Ida Lupine Avatar
    Ida Lupine

    That horses are harder on the trail than mountain bikes is debatable; and I personally don’t believe it. And the point is that they fall under the category of non-motorized and non-mechanized travel.

    They move at a slow pace, guided by their rider, and the point isn’t speed and going off trail – and as the most brilliant comment I have read (by Hiker) said – and I’ll paraphrase:

    “Hikers and riders on horse use the same trails, are content with seeing something new every day in them – and not continually tearing up new, previously ‘untrammeled wilderness’ to conquer.”

    1. APR Avatar

      As a hiker in Wilderness for nearly 50 years, the greatest damage I have seen is from excess use of horses. Trails are pounded to rocks, which hurts everyone’s feet, so a new, parallel trail is formed. Trail braiding is common in popular Wilderness areas due to over-use by commercial outfitters. This has always been a problem. On the other hand, as a hiker, I am well versed in land navigation, so when the trails are in bad shape, or out of simple curiosity, I will hike off trail, to go where nobody has been before, an adventure which, to me, is a Wilderness Value. It can be said that the hiking boot is the ultimate all-terrain vehicle. Large rocks and roots, perhaps hidden in grass, will stop a biker cold. The trail-less terrain is the hiker’s domain.

    2. rork Avatar

      “That horses are harder on the trail than mountain bikes is debatable; and I personally don’t believe it. And the point is that they fall under the category of non-motorized and non-mechanized travel.”
      The damage is irrelevant, eh?

  6. APR Avatar

    It is not only wheels which are banned from USFS designated Wilderness. The definition of “mechanical transport” is literal, and includes anything with even the most primitive mechanism, codified as “moving parts:”

    “3. Mechanical Transport. Any contrivance for moving people or material in or over land, water, or air, having moving parts, that provides a mechanical advantage to the user, and that is powered by a living or nonliving power source. This includes, but is not limited to, sailboats, hang gliders, parachutes, bicycles, game carriers, carts, and wagons. It does not include wheelchairs when used as necessary medical appliances. It also does not include skis, snowshoes, rafts, canoes, sleds, travois, or similar primitive devices without moving parts.” – Section 2320.5, Forest Service Manual Title 2300, “Definitions”

    The most obvious transportation device other than the bicycle which falls under this definition is the rowboat. The oarlocks are the moving parts, while the mechanical advantage is the ability to use one oar in each hand, rather than both hands needed for the single paddle of a canoe. Literally interpreted, the above rule would also seem to ban fishing reels, which transport line and lure (material) over and through water using a device with at least one moving part, a reel wound with fishing line rotating on a pivot, moving line through guides, and giving the fisherman the advantage of using far more line than simply using a fixed line tied to the end of a pole, such as Tenkara fly gear.

    More devices in common use can be described, but the point is that this isn’t just about wheels. The official interpretation of “mechanical transport” brings us a greater Wilderness Experience, to remind us of a primeval time before things with moving parts were invented. It is important to enforce this sense of timelessness, where we can pretend we are the only person in the world, in a time long gone by, not sullied by even the most primitive transportation inventions.

  7. Hiker Avatar

    I think that we {hikers, horse riders, and bikers} all agree that Wilderness is important. The difference in opinion seems to be impact and use. I feel that we ALL have an impact when we use Wilderness. I have seen wildlife react to me more times than I can count. I have seen graffiti on the red rocks of Arizona{I believe caused by hikers, what rider would get off just to carve their name?}. I have seen horse droppings on unofficial trails. I have seen bikers shortcut and make new trails. One of George’s points, I think, is that we need to limit this use and impact. We are blessed with the limited Wilderness we have. Let’s keep it the way it is. Trying to argue about horse use when the article is about mountain biking is like spitting in the wind. Do horses have an impact? YES. Is it more than bikes? who knows. Let’s NOT find out. For those who don’t like horses in Wilderness I say good luck. They are legal users who fill many roles. The government uses them to haul supplies. Hunters use them to haul their kill. Others use them all the time just for fun. The point is to limit use to what it is today, even if that is not perfect.

    1. rork Avatar

      My point is that we can do even better.

  8. Kathleen Avatar

    I agree with Hiker–the horse vs. bike debate is moot in that horses aren’t excluded by the Wilderness Act whereas bicycles are. Horse people were there from the get-go advocating for the Act, and many long-established trails into designated Wilderness areas used by hikers today started out as horse trails. (See Frank Church on horseback here:
    Whether horses do damage or not isn’t the issue. They aren’t the “mechanical transport” prohibited by the Act. The argument today is about an assault on the integrity of the 1964 Wilderness Act by a special interest user group.

    1. rork Avatar

      Saying that it is not the point, that the question is moot, or that horse use is older than bikes (but not nearly as old as walking in the Church – the cavalry going in the to get the Sheepeater Indians lost most of their horses), do exactly nothing to contradict a single thing I wrote, so I figure you agree with the points I made.

      1. Hiker Avatar

        I find your points valid. What I have trouble with is the energy required for a fight over horse use in Wilderness. I think that energy could be better used keeping bikes out of Wilderness. Of course we can do better, but at what cost?

        1. rork Avatar

          I agree. Just trying to win minds among the choir or at least expose them to the infection.

  9. Ida Lupine Avatar
    Ida Lupine

    There’s nothing more beautiful than encountering a horse and rider on a trail. No mountain bike, a solitary competition with nature, could ever compete with it.

    I never complain about the evidence of horses, because it benefits the land, IMO. 🙂

  10. Lonna O'Leary Avatar
    Lonna O’Leary

    It amazes me how completely selfish, thoughtless and greedy humans can be. Why do humans have to take up every last inch of ground for their agricultural, recreational and industrial applications and activities? We humans are not the only living beings on this planet. We must start taking much greater care of it for future generations to be able to have someplace to ejoy the beauty of this earth and for all it

  11. Patrick Veesart Avatar
    Patrick Veesart


    I am a huge fan of your tireless work/writings on grazing and dispelling the myths of the public lands grazers, but I mostly disagree with you regarding bicycles in Wilderness. Why? because I think it is hypocritical to allow horses in Wilderness but not bicycles. My observation is that horses do tremendous damage in the backcountry. But mostly, I’m sorry that there is a divide between Wilderness “purists” and bicyclists over an issue that all could and should be united over. Welcoming the bicycling community to the Wilderness family strengthens Wilderness protection.


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.

Subscribe to get new posts right in your Inbox

George Wuerthner