Spotlight On: Mountain Bikes in Wilderness

The Long History of Excluding Mechanization from Wilderness Areas

Benton MacKaye, father of the Appalachian Trail, was an enthusiastic bicyclist but believed that like any form of mechanization, bicycles did not belong in wilderness.

In 1897, he and several companions biked for ten days into New Hampshire. Once there, they set off on a long backpack ramble in the White Mountains. The night before they began the hike, MacKaye wrote in his journal: “We have said ‘good-bye' to the bicycles and civilization and will now pursue our way on foot through the White Mountains.” It was, he wrote, his first encounter with “true wilderness.”

Americans enjoy our public lands for a wide variety of outdoor activities. Of course, not all possible uses occur on each acre—hunting, for example, is not allowed in national parks. Hikers seeking a quiet natural setting do not mix well with off-road vehicle users. Motorboats are out of place in the wilderness of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area in northern Minnesota.

Those who drafted and enacted the 1964 Wilderness Act understood that the hallmark of wilderness areas is that they are places where man and his works do not dominate the landscape. Wilderness areas retain their primeval character and influence. Thus, machinery in any form is simply inconsistent with the very idea of wilderness. The 1964 Act provides that within wilderness areas “there shall be … no use of motor vehicles, motorized equipment or motorboats, no landing of aircraft, no other form of mechanical transport, and no structure or installation….”

This careful wording exemplifies the foresight of those who wrote the Act, who took care to prohibit any “other form of mechanical transport.” At the time, no one had envisioned that bicycles would one day be adapted for use on mountain trails.

Mountain biking is a popular form of recreation and is welcomed on a variety of our public lands. But bicycles are simply incompatible with the idea of wilderness. Congress has consistently stood by the clear meaning of the Wilderness Act in barring bicycle use in wilderness areas. Instead, Congress has frequently dedicated some areas for mountain bike use as part of laws that designate other nearby lands as wilderness. This is the case, for example, with several “scenic areas” established on the Jefferson National Forest in Virginia in a statute which also designated a number of wilderness areas.

In the same way, Congress has often carefully drawn the boundaries of a wilderness area to exclude a ridge-top trail suitable for mountain biking, allowing mountain bikers to enjoy the adjacent wilderness.

In most cases, these kinds of careful accommodations are worked out in direct dialogue between wilderness advocates and local mountain biking groups, an approach to compromise and consensus that is encouraged by national wilderness organizations, including the Campaign for America's Wilderness.