Wilderness bill gives rare access to mountain bikers

A 50-year-old wilderness boundary will be redrawn near Taos, New Mexico

President Obama signed the annual defense spending act into law last Friday, and along with it, a bill that accomplishes the near impossible–adjusting a 50-year-old wilderness area boundary line to allow access to mountain bikers.

If you follow mountain bike advocacy, you know how incredibly rare any such adjustment is to the pristine land protected under the 1964 Wilderness Act, particularly for purposes of the trail riding sort. Land conservationists and mountain bikers have never been the closest of chums.

But if last week’s bill is any indication, relations between the two passionate outdoor-loving populations could be warming.

Here’s what happened. The Columbine-Hondo Wilderness Act was one of several recreation and conservation-related bills to piggyback on the National Defense Authorization Act, the annual spending bill for the U.S. Department of Defense. The Columbine-Hondo Wilderness Act permanently protects 45,000 acres in Northern New Mexico’s Carson National Forest that has been classified since 1980 as a Wilderness Study Area. The Act ups that protection to the highest level possible, assuring that the land’s beauty is preserved in perpetuity. In order to get broad support for the Act, thus giving it a better chance of passing in Washington, the Columbine Hondo Wilderness Coalition brought mountain bikers into the fold. Together, they negotiated a deal whereby a section of less than a mile of trail that travels through the nearby Wheeler Peak Wilderness, interrupting a popular high-alpine singletrack near the town of Red River, would be opened to mountain bikers if they backed the Act to fully protect the study area.

“It’s unique,” said Aaron Clark, conservation manager for the International Mountain Bicycling Association, or IMBA, of the Act. “It’s also an example of how far we have come by working together. We’ve never even had a seat at the table for the conversation, much less be able to get anything through.”

The Wilderness boundary will be redrawn in the Wheeler Peak Wilderness to allow mountain bikers access to less than a mile of trail that was previously off limits.
The Wilderness boundary will be redrawn in the Wheeler Peak Wilderness to allow mountain bikers access to less than a mile of trail that was previously off limits.
The 45,000-acre Columbine-Hondo Study Area will turn into a federally protected Wilderness Area.
The 45,000-acre Columbine-Hondo Study Area will turn into a federally protected Wilderness Area.

In the deal, mountain bikers will also get support to build a new trail from Taos Ski Valley (outside of Wilderness) that would create an all-day epic ride of 20-plus miles and 5,000 feet of climbing connecting to Red River and the stunning Lost Lake trail.

For local mountain bikers, the move is important, but it’s largely symbolic, said Doug Pickett, owner of Taos Cyclery.

“It puts us at the table with this wilderness alliance. Before they didn’t want anything to do with us. Through this whole process, I figured out that mountain bikers aren’t particularly liked. … Now we’re a member, we’re considered a member of the alliance and anything they do down the road, we have a say.”

But “it’s a loss as far as terrain goes,” he says.

That’s because Taos-area mountain bikers for three decades had been riding the 75 miles of trails in the Columbine-Hondo Wilderness Study Area. According to Pickett, the rules in a study area are grayer than those dubbed ‘wilderness’ and the Forest Service historically didn’t manage that 45,000 acres in a way that prohibited mountain biking, so it was a common place to ride. With the new wilderness designation, riding there is strictly off-limits.

The redrawn wilderness boundary, though, means peace of mind to ride one of the valley’s best rides without worry of being fined or having your bike confiscated for poaching. Mountain bikers can now link up East Fork to Lost Lake and Middle Fork to create a 15 or so mile, three-hour jaunt above 10,000 feet on ripping-fast singletrack.

Several other bills were also passed as part of the defense spending bill that directly impact mountain bike access including one in Washington state that shapes wilderness boundaries in order to keep the Middle Fork Snoqualmie trail open and a bill in Montana that provides continued access to mountain bike trails in the Lewis and Clark National Forest. Congress also passed legislation that funds the Recreational Trails until at least the end of next September. That programs appropriates money from the federal transportation bill to recreation programs, including trails, and has contributed to some of the best trail networks in the country like Brown County in Indiana, Coldwater Mountain in Alabama and the Forks Area Trail System in South Carolina.