Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Editorial: Wilderness rules’ Trojan bike

Utah’s Republican senators, Mike Lee and Orrin Hatch, are no friends of the environment.

So when you see these two trying to change the rules of wilderness management, you can safely assume it’s a Trojan horse.

In this case, however, the vehicle of choice is a mountain bike.

In the half century since Idaho Sen. Frank Church helped pass the Wilderness Act of 1964, the creed has been clear: “A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the Earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”

Not only has that meant a reprieve from the tyranny of motors and the sounds of modernity, but also an escape from mechanized travel. Mountain bikes weren’t on the horizon when President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the original act. Still, as those devices have evolved, it has become clear they are not welcome in wilderness.

They crowd out hikers, backpackers and horseback riders — and disrupt the solitude people seek in wilderness.

So as Congressman Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, drew up his successful Boulder-White Clouds wilderness plan, some 50,000 acres were withdrawn from wilderness consideration to maintain access to bike trails. Anything within the wilderness boundaries, however, would be off limits.

Even so, trail cyclists are barred from 3,800 miles of trails within Idaho’s wilderness areas. They retain access to some 18,000 miles of trails on Idaho’s national forests, to say nothing of trails supervised by the Bureau of Land Management.

Of course, there is a huge difference between someone using his own muscle to propel a bike and another relying upon an internal combustion engine to do the work. But if that’s the issue, why not debate it in the open — with national legislation that honestly redefines the nation’s commitment to preserving wilderness?

Instead, Lee and Hatch — with the support of Arizona’s Jeff Flake — have resorted to stealth. Their bill gives local land managers two years to decide which wilderness trails shall remain off limits to mountain bikes. If they haven’t opted out by then, the trails open up.

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