Thus far, 2016 has been a controversial year for federal public lands, especially in Oregon where the federal government manages more than 50 percent of the state's geographic area. First, there was the armed occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge south of Burns. Then, Malheur County residents overwhelmingly voted against creating a possible National Monument in the Owyhee Canyonlands area in a symbolic, non-binding vote, sending a message that they don't want more of their county's lands managed by the federal government.
Now, a group representing mountain bikers—the Sustainable Trails Coalition—wants to change the 1964 Wilderness Act to allow mountain bikes into these secluded areas where no motorized or mechanized travel is allowed. According to the organization's website, "Outdated rules are keeping human-powered travelers from visiting some of America's best public lands, notably its Wilderness areas and National Scenic Trails." The definition of human-powered includes mountain bikes.
Erik Fernandez is wilderness coordinator for Oregon Wild, a leading statewide conservation organization. He feels that the Sustainable Trails proposal represents only a small group of mountain bikers with an extreme view. "I think a lot of mountain bikers are conservationists and want to work to find the right balance for wilderness protection and mountain bike access."
Oregon Wild and mountain bike organizations have worked in partnership to find that balance in OW's National Recreation proposal in the Ochoco National Forest, he says. The proposal creates mountain biking opportunities while protecting new wilderness proposals where bikes would not be allowed. "Going back to try to change the Wilderness Act is not going to bring anyone together," says Fernandez. It would be a controversial fight that no one would win."
Wilderness designations are considered the gold standard of conservation protection. Oregon Wild and other conservation groups fear mountain bikes would be destructive to them. "It's really about balance. Bikes are great in most places, but there are a few places on the landscape where they aren't appropriate."
Central Oregon is considered by many to be Oregon's unofficial capital for mountain biking, boasting hundreds of miles of formal trails on federal lands outside of any wilderness areas. Woody Starr is a well-known mountain biker and the founder and former owner of Cog Wild Mountain Bike Tours, a company in Central Oregon. He believes in human-powered travel including bikes, horses, and hiking, but not motorized travel in wilderness areas. Emphasizing that he speaks as an individual and not on behalf of local mountain bike organizations, he told the Source Weekly, "I don't think the Sustainable Trails Coalition proposal is fringe at all. They seem to have some pretty reasonable arguments." When asked if he favors allowing mountain bikes in wilderness areas, Starr says that in some cases there may be merit to the proposal, but he adds, "I don't think every wilderness trail should be open to mountain bikes."
Starr also sees merit in the Sustainable Trails proposal that would allow federal management agencies to determine on a case-by-case basis whether certain wilderness trails could be compatible with mountain bikes. Locally, he suggests the Corral Lakes trail in the Three Sisters Wilderness near Cultus Lake could be opened to mountain bikes. He says that the trail has largely returned to nature for lack of use and lack of money to maintain it, suggesting that mountain bikers could open and maintain it for all to use. "With the evolution of technology and the way things are spinning, I think an argument can be made that some trails might benefit from mountain bike use being allowed on them," he says.
Managing public lands in a way that balances recreational use with the purpose of wilderness designations will require great consideration. For Oregon Wild's Fernandez, modifying the Wilderness Act is a non-starter. "One of the big concerns with opening up the Wilderness Act to changes is that the current anti-environment Congress would make a host of other changes, likely creating loopholes large enough to drive log trucks through. To think otherwise is politically naïve," he says.