Gianforte supports bill that would allow bikes in wilderness

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Pete Costain drops off a rock during the Grizzly Downhill bike race at Whitefish Mountain Resort. (Matt Baldwin/Whitefish Pilot file)

Montana Congressman Greg Gianforte said he supports a bill that would allow bicycles and wheelchairs in designated wilderness areas.

Earlier this month, Gianforte voted for H.R. 1349, a bill that would amend the Wilderness Act of 1964. It adds the language that says “Each agency administering any area designated as wilderness may allow the use of motorized wheelchairs, non-motorized wheelchairs, non-motorized bicycles, strollers, wheelbarrows, survey wheels, measuring wheels, or game carts within any wilderness area.”

“Susan and I raised our kids enjoying Montana’s public lands – hiking, camping, backpacking, and hunting often – and we know the importance of preserving public access to them. This bill restores the original intent of the Wilderness Act. I don’t want to prohibit those with disabilities, including veterans in wheelchairs, from enjoying our nation’s wilderness,” Gainforte said in an email to the Hungry Horse News.

He claims that the Wilderness bill originally allowed bicycles and other mechanical uses up until 1977.

On Dec. 13, the bill passed through the House Natural Resources Committee, with Gianforte’s support.

But the Wilderness Act clearly bans mechanized transport broadly, though it does make some exceptions for existing airfields.

“There shall be no temporary road, no use of motor vehicles, motorized equipment or motorboats, no landing of aircraft, no other form of mechanical transport, and no structure or installation within any such area,” the 1964 original text notes.

“No other form of mechanical transport,” has long been regarded to include bicycles and other mechanized forms of transportation, wilderness advocates note.

The Montana Wilderness Association was quick to criticize the bill.

“The Bob Marshall, Absaroka-Beartooth, Lee Metcalf and 13 other wilderness areas are what make Montana so special, and this bill would forever diminish these areas,” Montana Wilderness Association’s conservation director John Todd said. “That’s why we’re disappointed that Congressman Gianforte voted for it. Mountain bikers, including the International Mountain Biking Association, backcountry horseman, sportsmen, and conservationists all oppose this legislation because it sweeps the rug from under numerous efforts underway in Montana to find consensus over how we manage our public lands. This bill also fails to acknowledge that there’s room on our public lands to accommodate mountain bikers and preserve the places that Montanans hold so dear.”

The Backcountry Horsemen of Montana also oppose the bill.

“The Backcountry Horsemen are against it,” said chairman Brad Pollman. He noted the Wilderness Act is now more than 50 years old and has served the public well.

“Don’t mess with something that isn’t broke,” he said.

He also raised concerns about safety — bicycles move at a high rate of speed and are quiet. Using the same trails as horses can result in collisions. In short, someone could get killed, he noted.

The Flathead Area Mountain Bikers say they support the bill.

“Flathead Area Mountain Bikers doesn’t actively advocate for opening wilderness to bikes, however we feel that there are opportunities for better land management policies,” said program director Rebecca Briber in an email to the Hungry Horse News. “We strongly support land management policies that conserve and protect our nation’s wild places in a way that avoids blanket bans on bicycles.

“HR 1349, as currently drafted, abolishes the blanket ban on bicycles without mandating that all (or any) wilderness be opened to bikes. We support this amendment, as it gets rid of an unnecessary and illogical blanket ban, and allows local land managers to consider the issue on a case-by-case basis and allow bikes where they deem it appropriate,” she added.

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