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Op-ed: Allowing wheels in wilderness would benefit lands and Utah economy

Published August 21, 2016 2:00 pm
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2016, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

People could be forgiven for thinking most conservation news these days is gloomy. From global warming to species depletion, the problems are complex and solutions difficult. Happily, our Utah senators have brightened the picture with a bill they brought to Congress on July 13: the Human-Powered Travel in Wilderness Areas Act.

To the benefit of outdoor adventurers — mountain bikers, hikers, equestrians, canoeists and climbers — the bill will restore Utah's Wilderness areas to the glory Congress envisioned in 1964 when it passed the Wilderness Act, a conservation landmark that continues to enjoy bipartisan support.

The bill will reconnect Utahns with our federal lands in two ways:



1. Its travel aspect will let us explore local areas, under federal supervision, if we're willing to move about on our own. It applies to all federal trails, not just those in wildernesses.

2. Its maintenance aspect will restore overgrown and lost trails.

It will do this by letting local Forest Service, National Park Service and Bureau of Land Management employees decide if human-powered travelers can use wilderness trails and letting employees use modern small-scale tools to restore them.

The main beneficiaries will be backcountry mountain bikers. In an area larger than California and Maryland combined, mountain biking is forbidden in wilderness. But other self-powered explorers will benefit, too. Parents with baby strollers, canoeists with portage wheels and hunters with hand-wheeled game carriers will be able to visit wilderness if the nearby federal land manager allows it.

The Forest Service admits it's reducing trail maintenance. Wilderness trails may be the most neglected of all. Oddly, the agency ordinarily doesn't let its employees use wheelbarrows in wilderness and requires deadfalls be removed with giant Paul Bunyan–style handsaws, even though the Wilderness Act authorizes modern tools if they're of "minimum" scale. This bill will correct the misunderstanding.

Utah is rife with controversies about public lands. People debate whether federal land should be returned to the state, whether new wildernesses and national monuments should be created and whether federal land ownership helps or hurts the economy. The bill has no connection to any of these disputes. It doesn't provide for motorized travel, grazing, mining or sale of federal land. It keeps wilderness intact and indeed strengthens the case for it by allowing rugged travelers to explore it in ways Congress foresaw in 1964.

What our senators have in mind is the success of Moab. They'd like to see more Moabs arise, whether in Vernal, Blanding or Loa. Agencies' neglect of wilderness trails and barring human-powered visitors stifles economic development in areas around the state. The bill aims to fix that.

A recent Tribune news story on the bill generated complaints about overcrowding and the occasional speeding mountain biker in nearby mountains. If an area is too popular already, federal land managers can continue to exclude bicyclists and likely will. Where the bill can make a difference is in places like the remote High Uintas. Rangers and volunteers will be better able to maintain trails there but mountain bikers will be few. The Forest Service reports, "Trail conditions in the High Uintas Wilderness are generally poor. Expect muddy, rocky, trenched and sometimes submerged trails." It's the same all over the western United States. This bill is a first step toward fixing these problems.

The bill does not amend the Wilderness Act substantively. It adds a few sentences to the 52-year-old text to reinstate those aspects of Congress's intent that federal agencies have forgotten or misunderstood, restoring the act's original function.

As many of you have seen, our outdoor recreation areas are becoming over-crowded. The population is booming in Utah, and the interest in outdoor spaces is booming right along with it, yet we have seen little to no expansion of outdoor recreation spaces in the last few decades. We have so much to explore in Utah, while still being the conscientious conservationists that we are.

Hikers, equestrians, mountain bikers and conservationists: Please read the bill. Once you do, I hope you'll see the benefit to you.

Wes Swenson lives in Payson. He is a lifetime resident of Utah, an entrepreneur and a passionate outdoor enthusiast and conservationist.

 

 

 

 

 

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