ELY, Minn.-A proposal to allow motorized wheelchairs as well as bikes, carts and wheelbarrows in federal wilderness areas - potentially including the Boundary Waters and Isle Royale - is advancing in Washington.
The U.S. House Subcommittee on Federal Lands is scheduled to hold hearing Thursday on H.R 1349 that could open 110 million acres of U.S. wilderness to mountain bikes and other wheeled devices.
The bill calls for both motorized and non-motorized wheelchairs in addition to bikes, strollers, wheelbarrows, game carts and other devices to be allowed in federal wilderness areas.
Of course, much of the 1.1 million acre Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness is not prospective bike country; it's mostly water. But hiking trails within the wilderness certainly could be used by bikes, as could the network of trails on Isle Royale, if the bill passes and becomes law.
There are 192 miles of hiking trails within the BWCAW, including the Kekekabic and Border Route trails, and hundreds of miles of hiking trails on Isle Royale in Lake Superior, which is nearly entirely a designated wilderness area.
Supporters say the bill would only allow the option of bikes but that specific agency land managers still could enact regulations to ban bikes in specific wilderness areas.
"Backcountry cyclists seek the same experiences as backcountry hikers and horseback riders," the Colorado-based Sustainable Trails Coalition posted on its website in support of the bill. "The legislation grants only a possibility" of bikes in wilderness areas.
But a coalition of 133 conservation and wilderness organizations from across the U.S. have asked Congress to reject the "unprecedented" effort to amend the Wilderness Act. The groups said all mechanization, even if non-motorized, was specifically excluded from wilderness areas by Congress.
"Mountain bikes are exactly the kind of mechanical devices and mechanical transport that Congress intended to keep out of Wilderness in passing the Wilderness Act. Bicycles have their place, but that place is not inside Wilderness areas," said Kevin Proescholdt, Minnesota-based conservation director of Wilderness Watch and a longtime activist for the BWCAW. The bill "could impact every wilderness in the country, including the Boundary Waters."
"We see this for what it is: an assault on the very idea of Wilderness and the values of the Wilderness Act," said George Nickas, executive director of Wilderness Watch.
Critics of the bill note that the 1990 amendments to the Americans With Disabilities Act already allowed wheelchairs in wilderness areas and they called the inclusion of wheelchairs in the new legislation a "cynical attempt" to use disabled people to exploit wilderness rules.
A similar bill was introduced in 2016 but never advanced to a hearing.
The bill's exact wording is: "Section 4(c) of the Wilderness Act (16 U.S.C. 1133(c)) is amended by adding at the end the following: 'Nothing in this section shall prohibit the use of motorized wheelchairs, non-motorized wheelchairs, non-motorized bicycles, strollers, wheelbarrows, survey wheels, measuring wheels, or game carts within any wilderness area.' "
The bill is sponsored by Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Calif., who is also chairman of the subcommittee.