Strange Bedfellows

The senators sponsoring the STC's bill aren't environmentalists. Does it matter?

Last week, the Sustainable Trails Coalition (STC) announced the introduction of a bill that seeks to modify blanket bans on human-powered travel in federal wilderness areas by allowing local federal officials to determine “the manner in which non-motorized uses may be permitted in wilderness areas, and for other purposes.” Basically, if passed, the bill would put the authority to lift bans on mountain biking in wilderness areas and on several protected backcountry trails in the hands of local land managers.

From the outset of the STC’s crusade against bans on mountain biking in wilderness areas, one of the key arguments from the organization’s detractors has been that legislation seeking to modify the Wilderness Act would weaken the protections that preserve wilderness, and potentially open up those public lands to exploitation by private interests. Those flames were fanned by last week’s bill, which was introduced by senator Mike Lee, and co-sponsored by Orrin Hatch–both Utah Republicans.

Hatch and Lee each are rated with lifetime scores of 10 percent by the League of Conservation Voters, and, notably, both voted for an amendment to the proposed 2016 Senate budget that would have authorized the sale of federal lands to state and local government.

For some critics of the STC, just the image of a mountain bike advocacy group aligning itself with two such senators is troublesome–especially as IMBA continues to work alongside organizations like the Sierra Club. “It is too bad that now we have to circle back and re-earn the trust of the environmental community,” commented Ashley Korenblat, a former IMBA president and one of the STC’s most vocal detractors. “We learned a long time ago that working with the environmental community to support the public land system is how we open trails.”

The STC isn’t concerned by the senators’ records: “Textually, the bill is narrowly written to give on-scene federal land managers the authority to determine what types of human-powered travel, if any, are allowed on local trails, and to use handheld tools to maintain those trails,” said STC president Ted Stroll. “It stops there. There are no hidden agendas, loopholes or other possible negative repercussions from this bill.”


He added that “even if we got someone environmentalists consider a champion (someone like Sen. Tom Udall from New Mexico, for example) to introduce the bill, or an urban Democrat in a non-Wilderness state with no strong feelings about Wilderness (like Rep. Shirley Jackson Lee from Houston, for example), if anti-federal-lands legislators wanted to take advantage of STC’s proposed legislation to advance a bill to give federal public lands to the states, they could simply grab it from that member of Congress and insert it in their own bill anyway.”

When we put the question of the fear that this bill would be used to open up wilderness areas to exploitation by private interests coming to fruition, Stroll replied that “So, it’s either not try to introduce this legislation at all, out of worry that something could go awry, or succeed in introducing it knowing that there’s a theoretical risk it could be abused. I truly believe the risk is just that: theoretical, not realistic.”

An evaluation of the risk associated with this bill might take into account that only 6 percent of bills become resolutions, and a slim 2 percent actually become law. Also, President Obama has generally been strong on preserving public lands, setting aside more than 265 million acres as national monuments–though the vast majority of those acres are ocean–and designating 2 million acres of federal land as wilderness. It seems unlikely that a president with that type of record–one who has described the national park system as “maybe America’s best idea” would sign any legislation making the country’s wilderness areas vulnerable to exploitation.

That, of course, is a double-edged sword for the STC, should a bill it supports make it to the Oval Office this term.

We’ll be following this bill in the coming months, so stay tuned for more on the wilderness access issue.

More on the wilderness issue:
Video: Gathering Storm

IMBA Affirms Stance on Wilderness Access