SALT LAKE CITY — Members of Utah's congressional delegation are sponsoring a proposal that would allow mountain biking in wilderness areas, an effort applauded by recreationists.
But critics say such a measure could be a "slippery slope" leading to other uses that could compromise wilderness areas.
Mountain biking is one of a host of activities prohibited in congressionally designated wilderness, along with motorized travel and using mechanized maintenance equipment. The Wilderness Act was enacted in 1964 as a means of preserving especially pristine or vulnerable natural places.
Utah Republican Sens. Mike Lee and Orrin Hatch introduced a bill this month that would give public land managers a two-year discretionary period of deciding what wilderness areas are open or closed to mountain biking. After that, areas not addressed would become open to biking on established trails by default.
"Our National Wilderness Preservation System was created so that the American people could enjoy the solitude and recreational opportunities of this continents priceless natural areas," Lee said in a prepared statement. "This bill would enrich Americans' enjoyment of the outdoors by making it easier for them to mountain bike in wilderness areas."
Utah currently has 33 wilderness areas with a combined total of more than 2,000 square miles administered by the U.S. Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management and the National Park Service. They span from the Wellsville Mountain Wilderness in Cache County down to the Zion Wilderness in Zion National Park.
"Utah is blessed with an abundance of beautiful wilderness, and Americans should be free to enjoy it," Hatch said in a prepared statement. "This bill presents a reasonable approach to allowing the use of mountain bikes on trails and grants federal land managers the ability to do necessary maintenance."
The bill allows land managers to mitigate environmental impacts or conflicts among recreationists by issuing permits, limiting the number of visitors, establishing speed limits and direction of travel, and other policies. It also permits the use of "small-scale motorized equipment," such as a chainsaw and wheelbarrow, in constructing or improving trails.
For some, the benefits of opening wilderness to mountain biking seem obvious. Michael Engberson enjoys biking in places like American Fork Canyon and the Orem and Provo benches.
"I love to get back in where other people aren't," said Engberson, who owns and manages the Utah Mountain Biking shop in Lehi.
But crowding on some trails is getting worse, making solitude as a biker increasingly elusive. At the same time, Engberson said he can appreciate the challenge of accommodating a variety of recreation styles while maintaining user enjoyment and safety.
"I think there are a lot of trails in wilderness that could sustain biking very well, safely. And they would open up more trails to the growing cycling community," he said. "I would say for the most part, I'm for it. I'm all for fair trail usage.
"Bikes in wilderness should be allowed," he said.
The bill has also been applauded by the Sustainable Trails Coalition, a Colorado-based nonprofit that calls portions of the current wilderness policy "outdated."
But some say the bill is an effort to fracture the National Wilderness Preservation System, opening it to opportunities for resource extraction and other uses.
Scott Groene, executive director of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, said the idea is "not new" and goes well beyond mountain biking.
"This is an effort to undermine the Wilderness Act of 1964, not to enhance mountain biking," Groene said. "If they can make an exception for mountain bikes, then we'll see it'll be the slippery slope until the next exception."
Groene added that the number of trails available to mountain bikers has increased over the past two decades, and the terrain in many of Utah's wilderness areas may be too extreme for biking anyway.
"There's no need to be trying to undo the Wilderness Act for recreation when the opportunities (for recreation) are growing," he said. "It will fail as past efforts to undermine the Wilderness Act have failed. There's too much support across the United States for protecting our wilderness."
The bill has been referred to the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources for further consideration.