Bicycles belong in wild places.
Mountain biking is banned in all federal Wilderness areas (except maybe one). It’s not because of the Wilderness Act of 1964 (16 U.S.C. § 1131 et seq.), which says nothing about bicycles or mountain biking. It’s because agencies that run Wilderness areas have misread the Wilderness Act and created rules against it.
Other human-powered wheeled devices that are not allowed in Wilderness: hunters’ game carts and game carriers , baby strollers, and wheelbarrows.
If these human-powered contrivances aren’t allowed, what is? You may find the answer surprising.
The Wilderness Act of 1964 permits a number of exceptions. In addition, later federal statutes (i.e., laws passed by Congress and signed by the President) creating individual Wilderness areas have tacked on additional exceptions. And some Wilderness Study Areas permit nonconforming uses.
The table that follows shows what’s allowed where. Compare these allowed uses to the banned use of riding a bicycle on a Wilderness trail and decide for yourself what’s more suitable for Wilderness. It may help to keep in mind the legal description of the recreation values of Wilderness. Wilderness areas should offer “a primitive and unconfined type of recreation” or “outstanding opportunities for solitude” (16 U.S.C. § 1131(c)).
|Activity Allowed||Wilderness Area(s)||Location||Legal Basis and/or Source of Information|
|Military Bombardment||Future Wilderness area near Vieques||Puerto Rico||PL 106-398 (2000) §§ 1505(d)(2), (d)(3)|
|Low-level Military Overflights||Utah Test and Training Range; Deep Creek, Fish Springs, Swasey Mountain, Howell Peak, Notch Peak, King Top, Wah Wah Mountain, and Conger Mountain Wilderness Study Areas. (Some of these areas may since have become Wilderness proper.)||Utah||PL 109-241 (2006); PL 109-163 (2006) § 382(b)|
|Eighteen Wilderness areas||Nevada||PL 107-282 (2002) § 205(1)|
|Sixty-nine Wilderness areas||California||16 U.S.C. § 410aaa-82 (1994)|
|Military Operations Generally||Utah Test and Training Range; Deep Creek, Fish Springs, Swasey Mountain, Howell Peak, Notch Peak, King Top, Wah Wah Mountain, and Conger Mountain Wilderness Study Areas. (Some of these areas may since have become Wilderness proper.) No military ground operations permitted. Missiles permitted. Communications and tracking systems permitted, including infrastructure and equipment supporting them.||Utah||PL 109-241 (2006) § 382; PL 109-163 (2006) § 382|
|Eighteen Wilderness areas (flight operations).||Nevada||PL 107-282 (2002) § 205(1)|
|Sixty-nine Wilderness areas (flight operations).||California||16 U.S.C. § 410aaa-82 (1994)|
|Aircraft and Motorboats (where previously permitted)||All Wilderness areas||Everywhere||16 U.S.C. § 1133(d)(1) (1964)|
|Road to a Lighthouse||Tree Point Light Station, Misty Fiords National Monument and Wilderness||Alaska||PL 109-241 (2006) § 502|
|Grazing||All Wilderness areas||Everywhere||16 U.S.C. § 1133(d)(4)(2) (1964)|
|Cedar Mountain Wilderness||Utah||PL 109-163 (2006) § 384|
|Ten Wilderness areas||Nevada||PL 106-554 (2000) § 8(d):|
|Sixty-nine Wilderness areas||California||PL 103-433 § 103(c) (1994)|
|River of No Return Wilderness||Idaho||PL 96-312 (1980) § 7(a)(2)|
|Grazing (including by partnerships, corporations, and other legal entities)||Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park (Wilderness portions)||Colorado||PL 106-76 (1999) § 4(e)|
|Weather Stations||El Toro Wilderness||Puerto Rico||PL 109-118 (2005) § 3(d)|
|Mount Naomi, Wellsville Mountain, Mount Olympus, Mount Nebo, Twin Peaks, High Uintas, Pine Valley Mountain, Mount Timpanogos, and Deseret Peak Wilderness areas (including road access to service them)||Utah||PL 98-428 (1984) § 305|
|Dams||Any of 69 Wilderness areas that border the Colorado River||California||PL 103-433 § 202 (1994)|
|Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness||Minnesota||PL 95-495 (1978)|
|Snowmobiles and Motorboats||Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness||Minnesota||PL 95-495 (1978)|
|Docks, Snowmobiles and Motorboats||Apostle Islands National Lakeshore Wilderness (unclear whether in Wilderness or immediately adjacent to it)||Wisconsin||PL 108-447 (2004) § 140(d)|
|Businesses (including luxury pack outfitter expeditions that affect trail conditions)||All Wilderness areas (“to the extent necessary for activities which are proper for realizing the recreational or other wilderness purposes of the areas”).||Everywhere||16 U.S.C. § 1133(d)(5) (1964)|
|John Muir, Ansel Adams, and Dinkey Lakes Wilderness Areas (law requires U.S. Forest Service to “minimize adverse impacts on the historic access rights of special use permittees in these three wilderness areas . . . .”)||California||PL 108-108 (2003)|
|Water and Power Projects||All Wilderness areas (“the establishment and maintenance of reservoirs, water-conservation works, power projects, transmission lines, and other facilities needed in the public interest, including the road construction and maintenance essential to development and use thereof”)||Everywhere||16 U.S.C. § 1133(d)(4) (1964)|
|Motor Vehicles and Roads||Grandmother Mountain Wilderness Study Area||Idaho||PL 102-584 § 4(b)(2) (1992)|
|Mount Naomi, Wellsville Mountain, Mount Olympus, Twin Peaks, High Uintas, Mount Nebo, Pine Valley Mountain, Deseret Peak, Mount Timpanogos, and Ashdown Gorge Wilderness areas (by local governments)||Utah||PL 98-428 §§ 302(b) (1984)|
|Toilets and Similar Facilities to be Serviced by Helicopter||Mount Naomi, Wellsville Mountain, Mount Olympus, Twin Peaks, High Uintas, Mount Nebo, Pine Valley Mountain, Deseret Peak, Mount Timpanogos, and Ashdown Gorge Wilderness areas||Utah||PL 98-428 § 302(b) (1984):|
|Permanent Structures||The Appalachian Trail and Long Trail and their “associated trails.”||Vermont||PL 98-322 § 104(c) (1984)|
|Energy and Mining Surveys (any kind of mining survey operation allowed, including drilling; comprehensive support infrastructure allowed, including roads and permanent structures)||All Wilderness areas||Alaska||16 USC §§ 3150(a), 3167(a), 3199 (1980)|
|Energy and Mining Surveys (including drilling of core samples by helicopter and “any other [survey] methods [that are] appropriate.”||All Wilderness areas||Everywhere||PL 97-394 § 308 (1982)|
|Mining Surveys Generally||All Wilderness areas||Everywhere||16 U.S.C. § 1133(d)(2) (1964)|
|Cobalt Mining; Gold Mining||River of No Return Wilderness||Idaho||PL 96-312 § 4 (1980); Harvard Environmental Law Review article, page 531, footnote 154|
|Aircraft and Airstrips (news headline quoted in law review article: “Jetboats, Planes Are the Rule Here”)||River of No Return Wilderness (28 airstrips and heavy aircraft use)||Idaho||PL 96-312 § 7 (1980); Harvard Environmental Law Review article, page 531, footnote 154|
|Small Hydroelectric Generators||River of No Return Wilderness||Idaho||PL 96-312 § 7(d)(4) (1980)|
|Relaxed River Management (news headline quoted in law review article: “Jetboats, Planes Are the Rule Here”)||River of No Return Wilderness (heavy use of jet boats)||Idaho||PL 96-312 § 9(b) (1980); Harvard Environmental Law Review article, page 531, footnote 154|
|Borax or Related Mining; Docks, Staging, and Transfer Facilities; Salvage Cleanup||Misty Fiords National Monument Wilderness||Alaska||PL 96-487 § 503(h)(6), (7) (1980)|
|Aquaculture||All Wilderness areas||Alaska||16 U.S.C. § 3203(b) (1980)|
|Cabins (new and existing)||All Wilderness areas||Alaska||16 U.S.C. § 3203(c), (d) (1980)|
|Operating a Wheelchair||All Wilderness areas||Everywhere||42 U.S.C. § 12207(c) (1990)|
|Helicopter Skiing||Palisades Wilderness Study Area||Wyoming||News item; see also Harvard Environmental Law Review article, page 527, footnote 133.|
2. To some extent Wilderness has become a playground for participants in luxury pack outfitting trips. Here are some examples of the nature of the trips these enterprises have offered (some links may no longer be current):
And here’s how one backpacker described the effect:
“My trip to Stanley Hot Springs was full of surprises. This was my first trip into the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness, which was the 1st Wilderness Area designated in Idaho and one of the first of the entire United States. It lies directly north of the massive Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness, and is separated from the Frank by only one road, the Magruder Road.
“We broke camp at Wilderness Gateway Campground at 4am in an effort to beat the heat. We were unfortunate to arrive during a week-long heat wave of mid-90s to 100+ temperatures. The last part of the hike down to Rock Creek was rough. There was little water, the trail was thrashed and loaded with horse poop due to extreme outfitter activity —in many places it was like hiking up jagged stairs. And, horse traffic on the trail proved cumbersome as the heat ratcheted up.
“Horses have the right-of-way here, so every time they are encountered backpackers and hikers have to get off the trail, approx. 5-6 feet below the horses and crush beautiful foliage as a result while the horses pass and kick rocks and dirt all over the party below. This makes for slow going, and if you have heavy backpacks on can really suck. We had to do it 4 times. Some of the outfitters were actually upset at having to deal with us backpackers, I think it was because our dogs spooked their horses and one of them spilled their beer. All in this particular party were drinking beer and smoking cigars while on the trail.”