Preserving mountain bike access to recommended wilderness areas: The unwritten story

IMBA is telling mountain bikers to support a proposal to manage three million acres of recommended wilderness areas as official wilderness areas.

Mountain bikes are currently allowed in some of the recommended wilderness areas. They are not allowed in any wilderness areas.

What’s going on here? Has IMBA made a huge concession, or even a mistake? Here’s the story behind the press release.

Basic history

The Forest Service has recommended more than three million acres of forest lands as wilderness areas. This land is currently classified as recommended wilderness area (RWA).

Wilderness is the most restrictive land management designation on the planet. Among the things banned in wilderness areas are roads, motorized vehicles and mountain bikes.

Congress is the only body that can designate new wilderness areas. This decision will be made primarily based on politics — what are the desires of the constituents in that area? — but also the character of the land. Some of the RWAs are currently being used in ways that could jeopardize their wilderness status. For example, if someone cuts a road into an area, that area may lose the qualities that make it a candidate for wilderness designation.

In an effort to keep the RWAs as pristine as possible, Congressman Raul Grijalva (D – AZ), Chairman of the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Public Lands, is asking Tom Tidwell, Chief of the United States Forest Service, to manage all RWAs as wilderness.

IMBA steps in

The original draft letter from Grijalva to Tidwell included mountain biking on a list of activities that should be banned from the RWAs.

IMBA, who of course supports mountain biking in these areas, issued an action alert asking its members to oppose Grijalva’s recommendation.

According to IMBA Communications Director Mark Eller, Grijalva’s staff saw this action alert and asked IMBA how they could earn IMBA’s support. As Eller said, this request alone counts as a victory.

Eller said Grijalva’s staff didn’t have an accurate picture of the role of mountain bikes on public lands. IMBA brought Grijalva’s staff up to speed — explaining that mountain bikes don’t cause long term damage to wilderness — and convinced them to alter the wording of the letter.

IMBA wanted the new wording to explicitly allow mountain bikes. Something like:

“Mountain bicycling may continue where currently permitted, pending a Wilderness designation. Such a designation can only be made by the Congress.”

Here is the final wording in Grijalva’s letter to Tidwell, revised Jan. 19:

“We are concerned that the agency’s management of some of these areas may be adversely impacting their wilderness character, while making wilderness designation more difficult. In particular, we are concerned about the agency’s continued authorization of activities that are disallowed in wilderness areas, including the use of motorized vehicles.”

This wording doesn’t explicitly allow mountain bikes, but it doesn’t explicitly ban them either.

Eller says IMBA would have preferred the stronger wording, but there is good news:

1) Grijalva’s staff now understands that mountain bikes do belong in the RWAs.

2) The wording to ban mountain bikes from RWAs has been removed from Grijalva’s communications.

3) Grijalva’s staff has pledged, when they meet with Tidwell to enact their recommendations, to support mountain bikers.

This long process is just beginning. IMBA is working closely with Grijalva’s staff to keep mountain bikes rolling in the RWAs.

What about moto riders?

Grijalva’s letter explicitly bans motorcycle riders from the RWAs. Many moto riders, as well mountain bikers who also ride moto, are perplexed. Why would IMBA take trails away from us?

Says IMBA’s Eller:

“IMBA exists for mountain bike access. We’re not out there to hinder or help motorcycle access. Some of our members ride motorcycles, and some hate motorcycles.

“It is important for us not to speak for a group that has not signed us up to speak for them. We’ll focus on mountain bike use.”

What you can do

IMBA is the official political voice of mountain bikers. For that reason, I suggest you follow their advice:

1) Be an IMBA member. As Eller says, politics will always be the primary deciding factor in wilderness issues. The more IMBA members there are in a Congressman’s district, the more likely he will consider IMBA’s position. Even if you don’t agree with the national decisions, consider how IMBA helps your local riding.

2) Call or email your representative. Tell him or her to support the request from U.S. Rep. Raul Grijalva to sign his “Dear Colleague” letter. By signing this letter, your congressman will support Grijalva’s request for Tidwell to manage the RWAs as wilderness (but hopefully with mountain bikes allowed). For more info, see the IMBA press release below.


Ordinarily I let the IMBA press releases pass by without comment, but this story had a hole that needed filling.

In politics, the unwritten alliances and agreements can be more powerful than the written ones. I appreciate Mark Eller filling us in.

I’m bummed about the moto angle. Motorcyclists and mountain bikers have been and can be powerful allies. But I understand that motos are an even tougher sell than bikes in these areas, and I understand IMBA’s desire to focus on its own members.

I hope, in areas where motos and bicycles are compatible, that the two groups can keep working together. This move definitely alienates some moto/MTB riders who were IMBA supporters. It angers some of my friends, and that’s hard to see.

Grijalva’s wilderness-protection train is rolling, and IMBA can’t stop it. But IMBA did manage to get mountain bikers off the tracks.

That’s a nice win, but if the RWAs become wilderness areas, mountain bikes will be banned from them. So it’s a temporary win.

Will this compromise lead to real victories in the future? Is it worth alienating moto riders? I this the best IMBA can do in this tough situation? I don’t know.

The best case scenario for mountain biking access is that 1) mountain bike access continues in the RWAs and 2) this land never gets wilderness status.

Regarding #1 above: I hope that Grijalva’s staff keeps their word and truly helps mountain bikers in Washington. The groups pushing for wilderness status support zero mechanized use. They won’t let you use a chain saw during a forest fire; will they ever let you ride your mountain bike on a beautiful day?

And now for some supporting documentation:

Here is the IMBA press release


Contact Mark Eller
IMBA Communications Director
303-545-9011 x115

Congressman Raul Grijalva (D – AZ), Chairman of the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Public Lands, is generating increased Congressional attention on protecting national forest lands that have been recommended for Wilderness designations.

Mountain bicycling is a traditional use in many national forests. Bicyclists value these special lands for the same reasons as hikers and equestrians — the opportunity for a healthy, low-impact recreational experience. We seek the freedom, solitude, clean air, clean water and healthy forests that bring us closer to nature.

Chairman Grijalva is now circulating a draft letter among members of the House of Representatives. His letter, addressed to the Chief of the Forest Service, urges that the Forest Service issue national guidance to all forests that would prohibit activities — such as use of motorized vehicles, mining, logging and road building — that adversely, and significantly, affect the Wilderness qualities of areas of national forests recommended for Wilderness designation.

IMBA worked with Chairman Grijalva to craft substitute language for the letter to the Chief, clarifying that the suggested guidance should not prohibit bicycle access. The new letter is intended to provide the Forest Service with sufficient flexibility to allow continued mountain bicycling in areas where it currently exists. This change reflects current Forest Service policy in many national forests. Forest Service regulations are clear that existing uses may continue as long as they don’t impair the land for future designation. (FSM 1923.03)

IMBA is asking all mountain bikers to call their member of Congress and ask them to support the request from U.S. Rep. Raul Grijalva to sign this “Dear Colleague” letter.

Take Action!

1) Call — phone calls are best!

Call your representatives and urge them to sign the letter from U.S. Rep. Raul Grijalva.

2) Email

Use IMBA’s easy online form to send a fast e-mail to your member of Congress.

3) Track Developments

Look for developments by staying tuned to IMBA’s website.

Here is Grijalva’s “Dear Colleague” Letter


Dear Colleague,

America’s wilderness quality land is a precious resource that continues to vanish at a rapid pace. I am writing to request your support for the attached letter to Chief Tidwell calling on him to administratively protect those lands that the Forest Service has recommended for wilderness designation until Congress can act.

The National Forest System contains over 60 million acres of wilderness quality land managed by the United States Forest Service. As a part of its regular planning process, the agency reviews these lands for their wilderness character and recommends to Congress some of these lands for wilderness designation.

To date, the agency has recommended that Congress designate over three million acres of national forest wilderness nationwide. Stretching from Alaska to Vermont, these lands are truly the crown jewels of the National Forest System and are pending Congressional action.

As Congress considers these areas, is imperative that the Forest Service refrain from taking actions that may undermine Congress from acting on the agency’s recommendations. Unfortunately, agency guidelines currently allow for a wide array of non-conforming uses within their own recommended wilderness areas. These uses—which include widespread use of motorized vehicles—undermine the agency’s recommendations, and may impede Congressional action.

A new direction is needed that ensures that wilderness caliber lands that have received an agency recommendation are properly managed to maintain their wilderness character and values until Congress can act. Please join me in urging Forest Service Chief Tidwell do adopt such a policy.


Raúl M. Grijalva

Text of Chairman Grijalva’s Letter to Forest Service Chief Tidwell

January XX, 2010

The Honorable Tom Tidwell, Chief
United States Forest Service
1400 Independence Ave., SW
Washington, D.C. 20250

Dear Chief Tidwell:

We appreciate your leadership and commitment to the United States Forest Service wilderness program, and are writing to call your attention to a pressing issue regarding the management of areas the agency has recommended for wilderness designation.

As you know, currently pending before Congress are over three million acres of forest lands which the Forest Service has recommended as wilderness. As Congress deliberates on whether to enact these proposals, it is essential that the Forest Service refrain from taking actions that may undermine Congress from acting on the agency’s recommendations.

We are concerned that the agency’s management of some of these areas may be adversely impacting their wilderness character, while making wilderness designation more difficult. In particular, we are concerned about the agency’s continued authorization of activities that are disallowed in wilderness areas, including the use of motorized vehicles.

The agency is currently undertaking an important nationwide effort to designate routes of travel for motorized vehicles. The scope of this effort underscores the need to apply consistent guidance in managing agency-recommended wilderness lands.

We ask that you take immediate steps to preserve the Congressional prerogative to designate wilderness by issuing national guidance on the management of agency-recommended wilderness. This guidance should prohibit the authorization of activities, such as use of motorized vehicles, that adversely affect the wilderness qualities of the recommended areas to a significant degree.

Thank you for your consideration of this request.

2 replies
  1. electric says:

    I’ll never be a hiker, can’t afford a horse. How do I get into the wilderness without my mountain bike?

    I am still disheartened by the banning of something as simple and low-impact as the 30lb bicycle from the real wilderness areas. I guess because mountain biking is more and more popular way to get out there we have to end up facing retro-grouch hikers who have dug in deeper than an Alabama tick into the upper echelons of the forestry services and share little in common with what mountain biking is and means to many younger people.

    So I donate to the IMBA and get out the tick pliers!

  2. WTW15 says:

    Thanks for putting this on your site. It’s a hot topic for many of us that are both Moto & MTB Riders, as well enjoy hiking, fishing, camping and overall use of our National Forests.

    While the thought is that IMBA can temporarily try to keep access to the RWA should the “Dear Colleague” letter get any traction, isn’t it true that the RWA land IS OPEN now?!? So – by selling out their membership in hopes that if this ploy will work to keep MTBs in RWAs, they are setting up to allow the FS to take illegal actions by closing out the RWAs to the rest of the legitimate, legal users, by today’s laws.

    Isn’t the real issue here keeping public land open to all users?

    While I agree there are some areas that should be WA, it is becoming a ridiculous plot by a few wealthy environmental groups to take EVERYTHING away from us taxpayers.

    IMBA’s barking up the wrong tree here. IF this gets passed, there are still very strick rules for making an area a WA, and it’s highly likely, with all the lobbying power that those in support of WAs have, MTBs will continue to be excluded. Take that back to your membership…..we gambled, we won a temporary battle, but now your trails are gone – and they still don’t “like us” any more than before. Because you still remain the enemy of the forest in their eyes.

    A less-selfish approach by IMBA to work with those who want to keep these processes legal and not sell-short would have been much more appealing to those of us who do more than just MTB, which I feel is a lot more than IMBA thinks. As for his choice of words: “Some of our members ride motorcycles, and some hate motorcycles” we know where Ellers stands on the moto topic. Too bad. I once was an IMBA member. I’m sure once other folks get the jist of this, they will be making their choices accordingly as well.

    I’ve already asked my representative to Just Say No to this Dear Colleague Letter. I guess this is the way True Democracy works – front and center. We all have a chance to voice our views to our elected officials and ask that they do the work of the majority of their constituents. We can all thank our Founding Fathers and the Constitution for that!

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