Proposed legislation would allow mountain biking, motorized wheelchairs and more in federal wilderness areas, a move supporters say is much needed, while some conservation groups warn it will be detrimental to the country's protected land.
The legislation, House Resolution 1349, attempts to clarify the Wilderness Act, adding that the use of motorized and non-motorized wheelchairs, non-motorized bicycles, strollers, wheelbarrows, survey wheels, measuring wheels and game carts should be allowed in wilderness areas.
"The bill would open America's 110 million acres of wilderness areas to mountain bikes, an unprecedented assault on wilderness nationwide," the Wilderness Society, a conservation organization working to protect wildlands, wrote in a release.
Republican lawmakers on the Committee on Natural Resources argue the bill is needed to clarify the Wilderness Act after a 1977 interpretation universally banned such activity in an effort to keep wheels off public land. Conservationists point to the Americans with Disabilities Act, saying it already protects much of what the new legislation is proposing.
Under the act, nothing in the Wilderness Act can be "construed as prohibiting the use of a wheelchair in a wilderness area by an individual whose disability requires use of a wheelchair." However, the committee cites a 1992 study that found inconsistency across land management agencies regarding the use of motorized and non-motorized wheelchairs.
"Public lands should be open to all Americans," committee Chairman Rob Bishop, R-Utah, wrote. "It is shocking to see self-proclaimed defenders of public lands in Congress vote to perpetuate a permanent ban on bikes, ... the disabled or certain hunters from accessing public lands."
Both sides agree wheelchairs should not be banned from public land. The disagreement comes mainly with mountain bikes.
The proposed legislation would give land managers discretion as to where those items would be allowed, according to Committee on Natural Resources Deputy Press Secretary Katie Schoettler.
"For five decades Congress has resisted efforts to undermine the Wilderness Act by opening wilderness areas to uses that are currently prohibited," according to the release from the Wilderness Society. "These efforts have failed due to strong public support for wilderness. This latest effort deserves to fail as well."