Aspen cyclists opposed to national group’s push for bikes in wilderness

Scott Condon
The Aspen Times
A mountain biker soaks in the stunning scenery of the Monarch Crest Trail on Monarch Pass. The trail has a wilderness feel because of lack of roads, but bike travel is legal. Some cyclists want mountain biking allowed on wilderness land.
Keith Rice |


For more information on Sustainable Trail Coalition’s plan to open designated wilderness trails to mountain bikers, go to

To learn more about International Mountain Bicycling Association’s position, go to

A new national advocacy group’s effort to undo the blanket ban on bicycles in federally designated wilderness areas has received a chilly reception in the Roaring Fork Valley.

An organization called the Sustainable Trails Coalition is raising funds to hire a lobbyist in Washington, D.C., and start the long, arduous process of trying to alter the Wilderness Act of 1964. It will require an act of Congress.

The coalition notes that cycling was allowed in all wildernesses prior to 1977 — before mountain biking soared in popularity in the mid-1980s. All public-land management agencies, such as the U.S. Forest Service, banned bikes in 1984, interpreting that the intent of the Wilderness Act 20 years earlier was to prohibit all mechanized uses and provide access via foot power only.

The Sustainable Trails Coalition contends the original intent was misinterpreted and that bicycles shouldn’t be prohibited from trails in wilderness.

“We are seeking only the restoration of local forest managers’ discretion to allow mountain biking where it can be accommodated alongside other uses,” the coalition says on its website.

debate sparks firestorm

The issue sparked controversy this fall when the International Mountain Bicycling Association weighed in on the coalition’s plan in an article by Outside Online.

The International Mountain Bicycling Association, the most active and highly respected mountain-biking advocacy group in the country, didn’t dismiss the wilderness effort but “does not fully embrace the STC’s tactics, especially the notion that mountain bikers will benefit from an attempt to force the federal land managing agencies to change the way that they interpret the Wilderness Act as banning bicycling.”

The Aspen-based Roaring Fork Mountain Biking Association is aligned with the international association and doesn’t support the effort to open wilderness trails to mountain bikes, said Mike Pritchard, the local organization’s executive director.

“We’re all about access, but we’re about strategic access,” Pritchard said.

The Roaring Fork advocacy group carefully analyzes plans such as the Hidden Gems Wilderness Proposal from earlier this decade and weighs in on areas where it wants to maintain access on trails. It’s been able to broker agreements acceptable to bikers and conservation groups.

Pritchard and the board of directors also are concerned with blanket bans on bicycles in Wilderness Study Areas, where the federal government is contemplating the wilderness designation but hasn’t moved in that direction yet. Often, the agencies just manage those areas as wilderness to simplify their approach.

Plenty of issues on non-wilderness lands

The Roaring Fork Mountain Biking Association also focuses on adding trails on federal lands that aren’t wilderness areas. It played a major role in adding the Hummingbird Trail to the Hunter Creek Valley network last year, and it is working to relocate one trail section and build another on the midvalley’s Crown, administered by the Bureau of Land Management.

Pritchard said there are plenty of access issues for him to work on without targeting wilderness areas. The Roaring Fork Mountain Biking Association board of directors did discuss the Sustainable Trails Coalition proposal at a recent meeting.

“Nobody has gotten riled up over it,” he said. That includes members he has spoken with.

Many mountain bikers also are hikers and backpackers, he said, and they appreciate wilderness for its solitude and lack of motorized and mechanized travel.

“Given that a majority of our local wilderness trails are either already crowded with hikers or are simply a goat path up to a scree-filled summit, it will be hard to justify a big access fight to gain that ground,” Pritchard wrote in an email to The Aspen Times.

Pritchard said he believes the Sustainable Trail’s Coalition’s effort is a “long shot.” Nevertheless, he is concerned that just the debate could splinter the national mountain-biking community. He hopes divisiveness can be avoided because there are a lot of issues to work on and cohesiveness is a must.

Aspen Ranger opposed

Aspen-Sopris District Ranger Karen Schroyer was exasperated at the thought of dealing with mountain bikes in wilderness areas. The Forest Service already is dealing with high use and environmental damage in some parts of the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness. The Aspen office is working on a permit system to regulate use and abuse of high-use areas like Conundrum Hot Springs and Four Pass Loop. The agency says too few people are following the Leave No Trace standards.

When created, wilderness was meant to provide solitude or primitive and unconfined recreation, she noted.

“It becomes tougher and tougher to manage for solitude and primitive and unconfined recreation when our visitor numbers continue to increase,” Schroyer said.

The cash-strapped agency would also face a tough time maintaining trails if use was opened to bicycles.

“They are not designed to accommodate mountain bikes. It’s hard to imagine the impact on our wilderness trail system if mountain bikes were allowed,” Schroyer said.

Not a top concern

The Sustainable Trail Coalition’s plan has been noted but isn’t a top concern for Carbondale-based Wilderness Workshop, the oldest local advocacy group.

“We haven’t seen much interest in allowing bikes in wilderness,” said Will Roush, the organization’s conservation director.

The Sustainable Trails Coalition is undaunted by the challenge. No one else has succeeded in getting wilderness uses changed, it says on its website, because no one else has tried.

“The political stars are currently aligned in our favor on Capitol Hill,” the Sustainable Trails Coalition said on its website. “We will be working with a Republican-controlled U.S. House and Senate that philosophically favor limited government and oppose severe and overzealous regulation, a category that includes the federal-agency regulations prohibiting mountain bikers’ access to wildernesses and other areas.”

If the idea advances, it’s a safe bet that Wilderness Workshop will fight it. To retroactively allow mechanized uses is counter to the wilderness goal, Roush said, and would deliver an ecological impact.

Only 2.5 percent of the land in the country is designated wilderness, Roush noted. Easing protection and opening access isn’t necessary.

“We don’t actually have much conflict on the trails” in the wilderness around Aspen, he said. “You’d probably get it by allowing biking to Crater Lake.”


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