While growing up in Elizabethtown, I was regularly ensconced upon a bicycle. Bikes provided me both the freedom and ability to roam far and wide, quickly and easily.
Over the years, I progressed through an eclectic assortment of bikes, mini-bikes, scooters and dirt bikes before finally settling on a 900cc road bike.
Despite my confirmed affinity for motorbikes, I never gave up on the motorless variety. The one I coveted most was a big old 1950s era fat tire clunker, complete with a back rack panniers and a large front basket.
For years, I peddled the old tank along logging roads and fire truck trails with camping gear strapped to the rear rack and other essentials piled into the front basket.
Heavy and slow, the bike had to be pushed up hills, yet it got me into remote locations like Duck Hole, Pharaoh Lake and Shattuck Clearing, where the trout population typically exceeded the human kind.
Settling in the Lake Placid area by the early 1980s, my biking exploits took a back seat to paddling, as canoes and guideboats became the recreational vehicles of choice.
However, at about that time a mechanical genius in California had cross-bred an old fat tire bike with a 10-speed transmission, calling the contraption an off-road bike or mountain bike.
Although not much of a stretch from my old ’50s clunker, the new bikes had gears and when the new-fangled stump jumpers came out in the mid-1980s, my childhood was reborn. The only thing missing were some baseball cards clipped to the forks.
Biking, similar to angling, is an activity that serves to transcend generations. It offers participants a common recreational bond that allows people to travel together, despite disparities of age, ability or endurance levels.
By the mid 1980s, news reports cited the growing popularity of “fat tire” or “all terrain” bikes, while story after story assailed the negative impacts that the new ground-eating machines brought to the delicate environments of National Parks in the West.
Although mountain bikes were credited with reviving a stagnant bicycle industry, the National Forest Service soon began efforts to affect a ban due to perceptions of overuse and potential user conflicts.
The Wilderness Act: Revisited and Revised
To accomplish the task of banning bikes in the wilderness, Forest Service officials looked to the Wilderness Act of 1964, and reinterpreted the Act’s intent. Initially, as designated in the 1964 Act, bicycles were not forbidden from wilderness. However, language was inserted into the Code of Federal Regulations to expand the definition of “mechanized transport.”
In 1984, the Code of Federal Regulations was changed and bicycles were specifically identified as a form of mechanical transport. Regulations were reworded to specifically ban bicycles in designated wilderness areas.
Although bicycling had been permitted in wilderness areas for more than 20 years, by 1984, the first in a series of interpretations of the Wilderness Act by federal agencies began to ban their use.
Prior to an implementation of the ban in 1984, federal agencies had conducted no studies or research to determine the impact of bikes in wilderness. All reports were antidotal.
That year, the Forest Service issued a policy that bicycles and certain other means of transportation considered “mechanized” would be banned from designated wilderness areas.
The Bureau of Land Management in 1985 and the National Park Service in 1987, followed with similar regulations. Their interpretations contributed to a widely held perception that bicycles should be managed as “mechanized.”
However, in numerous studies conducted since that time, researchers have concluded that mountain bikers do not have significantly different impacts from hikers, in most cases. Both uses have fewer impacts than equestrians. In one study, conducted to determine the likelihood of flushing eagles off the nest, mountain bikers were found to be less intrusive than motor boats, hikers, paddlers or birdwatchers.
Today, bicycles remain the most popular and efficient means of transportation worldwide and mountain bikes are widely considered a legitimate and eco-friendly form of recreation and transportation, except in the Adirondack wilderness.
Bans be damned
Despite the facts, and a host of scientific studies detailing the minimal environmental impacts of mountain bikes, bicycles have now been banned in both state and federally designated wilderness areas.
A primary reason often cited for the bike bans are user-conflict issues that call into question the aesthetic or philosophical appropriateness of bikes in the wilderness. Bikes are machines, a vehicle with wheels, brakes and gears that provide riders with a mechanically assisted advantage over foot travelers.
Despite being muscle powered, bikes possess technology that some consider inappropriate in the wilderness. The phrase “mechanized transport” is a definition that the Adirondack Park Agency adopted from federal regulations in a 1993 Memorandum of Understanding with the state Department of Environmental Conservation in an attempt to define new regulations “prohibiting bicycle use in wilderness areas and limiting use in primitive and canoe areas.”
Adopted in 1994 as a provision of the five year revision of the Adirondack Park State Land Use Master Plan, the APA definition reads: “Non-Motorized — A non-motorized vehicle that is completely or partially self propelled by a mechanical system of gears or pulleys that derives energy from either an operator or natural sources such as the wind. This term includes all unicycles, bicycles, tricycles, paddle boats and sailboards; but excludes non-geared push carts, wheel barrows, horse-drawn wagons and canoes as well as guideboats, rowboats, kayaks and unpowered rafts.”
The exclusion of guideboats and rowboats from the ban permits the use of vessels that derive a 7:1 mechanical advantage, accomplished by the use of oars rather than paddles, to travel in the wilderness. Despite the obvious mechanical advantage, it is easy to imagine the clamor that would have resulted if the APA had banned the use of guideboats in the wilderness.
Rowboats and guideboats are not the only mechanical devices that are still permitted in wilderness. By the APA’s own definition, there are a wide assortment of similarly “mechanical” navigation devices in use, including spring loaded camming devices that are used as protection by rock climbers and climbing skins that are employed by backcountry skiers. An argument could even be made that “bent shaft” canoe paddles provide a mechanical advantage over traditional straight shaft paddles.
In fact, it is difficult to find a piece of common backpacking or paddling equipment that does not offer a ‘mechanical advantage’, ranging from ergonomically designed walking poles, ultra-light backpacks, snowshoes, bear canisters, GPS units or other minimalist gear.
Currently, there are more than one thousand convenient conveniences that make wilderness travel easier, lighter and more accessible than ever. Unfortunately, mountain bikes were the easiest and most obvious choice for a ban since users at the time had no organized lobby.
I wonder if the APA will ban the popular self-propelled line of pedal kayaks currently being produced by both Native Canoe and Hobie Cat. The sleek new watercraft permit users to paddle or pedal and shift between high and low gears or reverse.
Despite propulsion by means of a mechanical propeller, these surprisingly swift little boats are self-propelled with either foot power or by a double bladed paddle.
It is important for the public to be aware of how the APA determines what vehicles and devices pass or fail the mechanical advantage litmus test. And where does it end? Are all mechanical devices endangered?
It is interesting to note that it took until August 2007, more than a decade after the APA’s wilderness bike ban was instituted, for Governor Eliot Spitzer to veto a bill that would have permitted electric scooters known as “Segways” to be used virtually anywhere a pedestrian can walk in New York state, including city sidewalks or forest trails. Prior to Spitzer’s veto, the APA had failed to designate Segways as a “mechanical device.”
Photo by Joe Hackett
Despite the obvious environmental, aesthetic and biological impact of a team of horses hauling boats into the ponds, equestrians are allowed a much greater range of access to designated wilderness areas than bikers.