When the ice is solid and snow is light, it would be fun to ride a fat-tire bicycle across the quiet lakes of the Boundary Waters, Steve Piragis said recently as he pedaled atop Burntside Lake just outside of Ely, the tracks of deer, otter and fox scattered in the snow around him: “It would be tempting.”
But as a man who regularly ventures into the non-mechanized solitude of the federal wilderness and earns his livelihood as an outfitter, Piragis simply can’t see bicycles and the Boundary Waters mixing.
“We send people in for a true wilderness experience, which is as pure of an experience as you can get,” he said. “Bicycles would just be another infringement.”
A bill in Congress would clear a path to allow bicycles and some other nonmotorized wheeled vehicles into wilderness areas around the country. It is churning up unusual tension among cyclists and conservationists in Minnesota — two groups often aligned — as well as sparking internal conflict for people who consider themselves part of both.
The measure aims to amend the Wilderness Act so federal land managers could allow nonmotorized bicycles, adaptive cycles, strollers, wheelbarrows, game carts and some other wheeled equipment into designated federal wilderness areas. It passed through the House Committee on Natural Resources last week, though it has both supporters and detractors in the nation’s biking community.
“We’re just delighted beyond all description,” said Ted Stroll, who in 2015 co-founded the Sustainable Trails Coalition, a Colorado group dedicated to changing the rules for some wilderness areas. “We were tired of the … universal federal agency bans on human-powered travel in the wilderness unless you’re walking or paddling a canoe.”
The long-established International Mountain Bicycling Association, however, weighed in against any changes:
“Mountain bikers and the recreation community depend on public lands and thoughtful conservation,” Executive Director Dave Wiens said in a statement. “Public lands are being threatened at an unprecedented level right now, and it’s imperative that public land users come together to protect these cherished places.”
‘Bikes ... don’t float’
Minnesota may see less conflict between biking and wilderness. Although the bill has the potential to affect the more than million acres of woods and lakes that make up the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness along the Canadian border, local cyclists and conservationists say the conditions often aren’t suited for wheels of almost any type.
Boundary Waters travelers spend most of their time paddling canoes and carrying them and gear across portages from one lake to the next. Many of those portages are just several hundred yards, and many are rocky and steep.
Though there are several long hiking trails such as the Kekekabic and Border Route, they would also be difficult places to ride a mountain bike, cyclists say.
“For Minnesota, no, it doesn’t make a lot of sense,” said Marty Larson, a mountain bike enthusiast from Northfield, who is chapter president of Cannon River Offroad Cycling & Trails, and who otherwise favors the bill. “It’s a canoe area. There’s a lot of lakes, there’s a lot of water, and mountain bikes generally don’t float.”
Although some small corners of the Boundary Waters could be conducive to mountain biking, cyclist say, most of them would be attracted to the area in the winter. And then, conditions would have to be just right, with lakes frozen solid enough to support a bicyclist but clear of snow so deep it would impede pedaling.
“It’s a paddling place. Bikes don’t need to be everywhere, is my opinion,” said Hansi Johnson, director of recreational lands for the Minnesota Land Trust and a former regional director for International Mountain Bicycling Association. In Minnesota, he said, “I don’t know of anybody that’s standing up and stomping their feet and saying we should have bikes in the Boundary Waters. There’s no organized effort around that.”
Carts and other wheels
Though few may be pushing for bicycles in the Boundary Waters, some would welcome other types of wheels.
Game carts, which hunters could use to transport large game, would make the wilderness more accessible for some, said Todd Larson, owner of Basswood Trails Guide Service in Ely. He quit guiding clients into the wilderness for bear hunts partly because it’s too difficult logistically, he said.
“If they did legalize [carts], I think a few people would use” them, including people with disabilities, Larson said. “But most of the portages … they’re so rugged and rough.”
The same goes for portage carts, which are not mentioned in the bill but which some advocates anticipate could be allowed. Such carts allow paddlers to wheel canoes over ground.
“Somebody would probably sell a lot of portage carts until anyone actually got one up here,” said Bob McCloughan, owner of Bearskin Lodge off the Gunflint Trail. “Our portages are pretty rugged.”
The bill, sponsored by Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Calif., includes language allowing motorized wheelchairs and nonmotorized wheelchairs.
But both human and battery-powered wheelchairs are already allowed, officials said. Wheelchairs must follow two criteria: They must be designed solely for the use of a person with mobility impairment and they must be suitable for indoor pedestrian use, said Greg Lais, founder of Minnesota-based Wilderness Inquiry, a nonprofit that provides outdoor adventures for people of all ages and abilities. The criteria are designed to prevent people from using ATV-like vehicles as wheelchairs, he said.
“It’s a nonissue,” Lais said.
Committee spokeswoman Katie Schoettler, said in an e-mail, however, that ambiguity exists about whether both motorized and nonmotorized wheelchairs are allowed in some areas. She said the bill clarifies that.
Peace, quiet, bikes?
Several Minnesota conservation groups signed a national letter opposing the bill, arguing that it would “undermine” the Wilderness Act.
“I think the underlying purpose of the bill is to weaken wilderness protections,” said Matt Norton, policy director for Northeastern Minnesotans for Wilderness. “There’s plenty of public land open right now to mountain biking in the United States, in fact far, far more than is protected as wilderness.”
Norton said he enjoys riding his two mountain bikes, but they don’t belong everywhere. Wilderness is “a place where you can find solitude, tranquillity,” he said. “Some of that involves quiet; some of that involves the speed at which things move.”
National wilderness standards should not be left up to “the whims of supervisors” in wilderness areas who would face local pressures, he added.
Marty Larson, a self-described conservationist who calls the woods his “happy spot” whether atop a bicycle or not, said he supports the federal bill because he’s seen established mountain biking trails in places such as Montana get overtaken by newly designated wilderness areas. Mountain bicyclists worked hard to build those trails and then lost them, he said.
While he doesn’t want biking allowed in every wilderness area, he said, he believes individual land managers can decide what works best in specific areas.
“I trust land managers to do their job,” Larson said.
The issue, he said, can be conflicting to the many who love quiet outdoor sports.
“It does put a lot of us in a strange spot,” he said.