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December 10, 2017 - WASHINGTON, D.C., Last week on Thursday, the Subcommittee on Federal Lands held a legislative hearing on four bills. Among those bills considered at the hearing, H.R. 1349, introduced by Subcommittee Chairman Tom McClintock (R-CA), would restore the original intent of the Wilderness Act and improve land access to disabled veterans, families and the elderly by clarifying that bicycles, strollers and wheelchairs are permitted in wilderness areas.

tom mcclintock congressmanCongress enacted the Wilderness Act in 1964 to create a National Wilderness Preservation System that would “secure for the American people of present and future generations the benefits of an enduring resource of wilderness.” Generally, the law prohibits commercial activities and motorized uses in wilderness areas.   

Non-motorized bicycles were allowed in wilderness areas from the inception of the Act, until 1977, when the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) reinterpreted the law to ban them. 

“Congress meant to exclude roads, permanent infrastructure and motors, not human-powered visitors who leave no permanent trace,” Ted Stroll, President of the Sustainable Trails Coalition, said. “Thus, H.R. 1349 does not materially amend the Wilderness Act of 1964. Rather, it restores the Act to its original meaning.”

Rep. McClintock pressed the panel on how the bicycle ban was originally implemented: “So the ban was strictly imposed by an unelected bureaucrat, is that correct?,” McClintock asked. “Yes,” Stroll responded.

Conservationists like Stroll and key legislative backers of the original law, including Senator Frank F. Church (D-ID), have criticized restrictive interpretations as contrary to the law’s intent.  “If Congress had intended that wilderness be administered in so stringent a manner, we would never have written the law as we did,” Church stated, following USFS’s 1977 interpretation.

At the time he signed the Wilderness Act, President Lyndon B. Johnson noted, “[For cyclists and others] we must have trails as well as highways.”

Nevertheless, under the prevailing interpretation, “bicycles, strollers, and any human-powered wheeled conveyance are banned in an area larger than all of California, for no environmental reason,” Stroll stated.

“[The predictable opposition to H.R. 1349] will come from the Wilderness industry, an enterprise comprising people with strong ideological opposition to human activity in public lands, commercial pack outfitters, and organizations that raise money by scaring people that Congress will abolish Wilderness or dilute it of all recognition,” Stroll added. “The latter are almost certain to tell the gullible that H.R. 1349 is part of that ultimate goal.”
Source: Subcommittee on Federal Lands

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