Utah’s very own Mike Lee has reintroduced the Human-Powered Travel in Wilderness Areas Act. The Republican Senator had previously introduced an identical bill in May 2019, but legislators ran out of time to vote on it before the congressional session ended. The bill—S.B. 1686—would revise language in the 1964 Wilderness Act prohibiting the use of motor vehicles, motorized equipment, motorboats and other forms of mechanical transport in wilderness areas. S.B. 1686 only seeks to amend the part regarding “mechanical transport”—which currently includes items such as non-motorized mountain bikes and game carts—such that non-motorized travel in which the sole propulsive power is one or more persons would be allowed at the discretion of local managers of designated wilderness areas.
The bill may sound relatively innocuous but it’s garnering intense scrutiny and inspired debate. The issue of bicycles in wilderness areas has been a touchy subject, especially after some places which were home to mountain established bike trails were included in newly designated wilderness areas, thus closing access for cyclists. Some argue a non-motorized bicycle doesn’t have any more impact than travel on horseback, which is still permitted in wilderness areas. People and organizations opposing that viewpoint argue designated wilderness areas—composing just 2.7% of land in the continental United States—should simply be off limits to bicycles, game carts, strollers, etc. to protect them from excessive human impact.
Sen. Lee’s involvement is certainly complicating debate. Lee has been historically hostile to federal control of land and is a proponent of handing over control to state and local authorities. In Utah, the Bureau of Land Management controls 42% of the state’s total area, which largely protects it from sale to developers or extractive industries. Federally-managed public lands belong equally to all Americans. Lee’s critics point out that transferring land from federal to state and local control would risk taking it from the public for the sole economic benefit of the few who have no historical or other claim to public land (aside from living near it). This bill does not strip federal control over designated wilderness areas, but conservationists worry a slow chipping away at federal regulations and protections in favor of local control is a slippery slope.
It’s important to note the bill would not be a blanket allowance for non-motorized travel in which the sole propulsive power is one or more humans in wilderness areas. It would allow local managers who are still federal land managers to decide on a case-by-case basis whether it’s prudent to allow bikes, game carts and the rest in the designated wilderness areas they oversee.
Sen. Lee on his website promotes the bill with the following language: “The National Wilderness Preservation System was created so that the American people could enjoy our country’s priceless natural areas. This bill would enrich Americans’ enjoyment of the outdoors by expanding recreational opportunities in wilderness areas.” The U.S. Forest Service and the Department of the Interior supported the original bill in 2019 but have yet to update a public stance on the bill’s reintroduction. Some conservation groups including the Sierra Club oppose the bill. Many are caught in the middle, supporting protection of federally managed lands while still wishing to be able to use those lands to bike, hunt and otherwise access those lands in a low-impact manner.
We will update this piece as the legislation moves forward. Read more about the outdoors in Utah.