Wilderness bill roils California mountain bikers

In California -- the birthplace of mountain biking -- controversy over a wilderness bike ban has flared due to legislation introduced by Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif.
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The first 10 years must have been great. After mountain biking was born in the '70s, riders freely roamed wilderness areas for nearly a decade. But in 1984, the Forest Service changed the code of regulations for designated wilderness, banning "mechanical" devices, including mountain bikes. In California -- the birthplace of mountain biking -- controversy over the bike ban has flared due to legislation introduced by Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif. The California Wild Heritage Act of 2002 (S2535) introduced in May would protect 2.5 million acres of federal land and portions of 22 rivers, from the northern California border to San Diego. The wilderness designation provides the highest level of protection. That means no logging, no mining, no off-roading, and to the dismay of many -- no mountain bikes.

The legislation has fragmented the bicycling community as riders must choose whether to support wilderness preservation or fight to preserve their bike trails. Tim Blumenthal, executive director of the International Mountain Biking Association (IMBA), said some riders refuse to support any legislation that shuts out mountain biking, even if it preserves wild lands. "But, most bikers take that intermediate position, saying, 'We will support most of this bill, but we need to make sure the most significant rides remain open to our use,' " Blumenthal said.

When asked about IMBA's position on the matter, Blumenthal said, "We want to maintain access to trails we have been riding for years, but we will support wilderness and will almost always support land protection measures." Blumenthal said that IMBA supports wilderness designations for two-thirds of the areas proposed in the legislation. But he said about 20 percent of the designated land overlaps "important and significant" mountain biking areas. In about 15 percent of the areas, mountain biking could be preserved by adjusting wilderness boundaries.

IMBA, which has 450 clubs in the United States, and other organizations such as the California Wilderness Coalition and Sierra Club, have worked with federal officials to develop compromises to move the wilderness boundaries and preserve some trails. The July 25 edition of The Union newspaper in Nevada County, Calif., reported, "Wilderness boundaries were redrawn to leave some popular mountain biking trails out of the 25,000 acres of Nevada County land in two separate areas proposed for the designation."

While Blumenthal is happy for these compromises, he proposes an alternative. "I wish that some areas could receive Protection Area designations rather than Wilderness," he said. "What we like about a Protection Area is you can write specific language to get exactly what you like." Language could include mountain bikes, but exclude other intrusions. But when asked how Boxer's camps feels about such alternatives he said, "They're not too enthusiastic about it."

 Anticipating a significant population increase over the next 10 years, California officials and conservation groups say that it's vital to set aside as much land as possible, and ensure that it remains protected. At least one mountain biking group fully supports the legislation. Boxer's website includes a link to Mountain Bikers 4 Wilderness, a group of about 125 riders. On the group's website (www.mb4w.org), a letter to Boxer states, "We acknowledge that our pastime, mountain biking, is not allowed in Wilderness. However, we feel that setting aside special areas so they may remain in a pristine, non-impacted state is more important."

However, The Warriors Society, a bike organization based in Orange County, Calif., claims that Mountain Bikers 4 Wilderness is a puppet organization, created by Boxer's group to influence public opinion. Chris Vargas of The Warriors Society told SNEWS that his group had never heard of Mountain Bikers 4 Wilderness prior to the Boxer legislation. "And if you look at their website, it's a one-issue site. They don't do trail maintenance or anything else," Vargas said.

Tom Bohigian, deputy state director for Boxer, refuted claims of The Warriors Society in the San Francisco Chronicle. Tom Stienstra's Oct. 3 article quotes Bohigian as saying, "We did not engineer the creation of this group or any other group." Of course, mountain bikers represent one small faction of groups fighting the legislation. Off-road enthusiasts and equestrians oppose the bill, in addition to more formidable groups, like ranchers, timber companies and the hydroelectric industry.

While no action is expected on the legislation this year, it is expected to be re-introduced next year. Blumenthal said he thinks it has a good chance of passing. "I expect that a wilderness bill will be passed, and we will continue to hammer out compromises," Blumenthal said. "The ultimate acreage will be smaller than is currently in the bill. But a significant amount of California land -- a couple million acres or so -- will be protected as wilderness and will maintain access to the trails that are most important to us."

SNEWS View: While the mountain biking community won't likely prevent the legislation from passing, there is some good news. Blumenthal said that Boxer has listened carefully to mountain bikers' concerns and some trails will be preserved. "The level of dialogue has been very good," he said. Also many people agree that trail access for mountain biking has improved. Land managers better understand the activity and are more open to looking for solutions. Also, in more places, an increased number of bike clubs are more organized and more effective at voicing their concerns. (IMBA had fewer than 1,000 members 10 years ago and now has 32,000 members.) Plus, people who enjoy mountain biking have moved into elected positions of power or hold positions of power on trail committees. The result is that mountain bikers might lose certain trails, but fewer entire bike trail systems are closed.

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