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Reality Check: Resolution could bring bikers, hikers together on some trails

Under the current Wilderness Act, bicycles are not permitted in designated wilderness areas. However, Congressman Tom McClintock (R-CA) introduced House Resolution 1349 in March of 2017 to change that. (Photo credit: WLOS staff)

It’s the type of place where you have to follow someone that’s already been there. Internet directions and GPS units can’t guide you to Richard Evans’ part of the Appalachian Trail. A little over halfway there you trade pavement for gravel and four lanes for maybe one. Maybe. The reward, however, is complete immersion in nature. “I always tell the guys, if we could eliminate hikers and water from the trails, we'd have perfect trails,” Evans joked. “But, that's not going to happen. So that gives us a job to do.”

Evans is part of the Carolina Mountain Club, a volunteer organization that maintains trails around Western North Carolina. Each member is assigned a specific swath of a given trail and will get assistance from the rest of the group if the job is large enough. “The water has washed all the soil away and exposed roots, and hikers won't hike on the roots,” explained Evans of their task that particular day. “They'll hike at the side where there's no roots, but that deteriorates the side of the trail and caves it in.”

Like the Carolina Mountain Club, Pisgah Area Sorba takes care of trails its members frequent; however, they’re on two wheels instead of two feet. Mountain biking is one of the fastest growing forms of outdoor activity, but it doesn’t come without its fair share of roadblocks. “I think there is…issues with mountain bikers because we're the newest group,” laughed Jeff Keener, president of Pisgah Area Sorba. He went on to explain that there are roughly 380 miles of trail in the Pisgah district of the Pisgah National Forest; more than half of that is designated as hiking-only. “We don't want to argue with hikers, we don't look at it as ‘Us versus Them,’” he opined. “Let's come together, let's partner. How do we actually maintain and build trail that's sustainable for everybody?”

That may become a reality very soon. Under the current Wilderness Act, bicycles are not permitted in designated wilderness areas. However, when the law was originally passed in 1964 there were no such restrictions; it wasn’t until 1986 when the administration reinterpreted the wording of the law to exclude any human-powered forms of transportation. Congressman Tom McClintock (R-CA) introduced House Resolution 1349 in March of 2017 to change that. In his words from a release on his official website, McClintock said. “Specifically, this bill will restore the original intent of the Wilderness Act to allow bicycles in wilderness areas. People who enjoy mountain biking have just as much right to use the public trails as those who enjoy hiking, packing or horseback riding, and our wilderness areas were never intended by Congress to prohibit human-powered mountain bikes.”

The proposed legislation has the normally cohesive outdoor community divided. “Personally, I prefer to not have bikers on hiking trails,” stated Evans. “I'd rather have them separate only because of what bikes can do to a trail.” His point is backed up by fellow CMC member Hugh Hensleigh. “I noticed on my trail, the Mountains-to-Sea Trail, it cuts in a bit more and then that will erode out and pretty soon you just have a cupped out trail,” he referenced.

Keener disagrees. “I'm not a scientist, by any stretch,” he laughed, adding, “It's not really what I've found. There are at least seven studies, independent scientific studies, that I know of which state mountain biking does not cause any more trail damage or soil loss than any other user group.” He pointed out a study conducted by Jeffrey Marion in the Big South Fork Trail area.

The very topic of trail maintenance is actually a missed opportunity in Keener’s eyes. “By allowing bikers access to wilderness areas, you're allowing access from another user group that is well-funded and well-organized that will help assist in the maintenance of those trails,” he emphasized.

Not all trails will magically be open to mountain bikers if HR 1349 passes. Representative McClintock explicitly states that such decisions will be left up to the land manager in each area. “There has been a lot of misinformation over the effect of this bill. It only removes the current blanket prohibition against bicycles and other forms of human-powered locomotion established by bureaucratic regulation,” his website states.

Areas like the Appalachian Trail are unlikely to be opened to mountain bikers simply because of their existing structure. “Sometimes they're only twenty-four inches of walk space, and not enough room for bikers and hikers to be passing each other,” said Evans looking back at the area his crew would be working on that day. Both Evans and Hensleigh added they have no personal aversion to the people who mountain bike. Their feelings come from a place of passion, specifically a place where their passions are allowed to roam free of outside influence. “Oh, this is unique,” smiled Hensleigh. “The forest here, the wildlife. It's just a special place.”

The last action on House Resolution 1349 came in December when it was ordered to be reported by the Committee on Natural Resources. Next up is a presentation to the full chamber, which has yet to be set.

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