Jace Ives has experienced some of Oregon's wildest places wearing running shoes and hiking boots.
Now a national organization wants Ives and others to get the chance to enter federally designated wilderness areas on mountain bikes, which have been banned along with other mechanized equipment in wilderness areas for more than three decades.
It's a conundrum for Ives, who recognizes that some wilderness areas are more wild than others and that some might be a good fit for trails with tire treads.
"For certain trails in certain wildernesses, I think there can be good results for cycling and the community," says Ives, 32, of Talent. "It's definitely one to try to figure out, work through and make sure it's not causing user conflicts."
The U.S. Senate is in the midst of revisiting whether bikes should come back to at least some trails, in the hopes that more people enjoying more wilderness trails will also lead to better maintenance of these backwoods thoroughfares that have fallen into disrepair across the country.
The so-called “Human-Powered Travel in Wilderness Areas Act” would allow wilderness managers to decide which trails should be open to mechanized travel such as bikes in 759 federally designated wilderness areas totaling almost 110 million acres.
Those include 13 wilderness areas covering nearly a million acres in southwest Oregon and Siskiyou County, California.
Known formally as S. 3205, the bill was written by a year-old nonprofit organization called the Sustainable Trails Coalition, which formed largely to push this legislation through, says Jackson Ratcliffe, a coalition board member from the San Francisco Bay Area.
The bill, sponsored by Republican Utah Sen. Mike Lee, was assigned to the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee but has yet to get a hearing.
In its current form, the act would give local wilderness managers two years to decide which wilderness trails should be open to bikes and which should not. If no trails are designated during that time frame, then all trails in that wilderness would be open to bikes.
The act would not otherwise alter the original goal of primitive and unconfined recreation without motors in wilderness, Ratcliffe says.
"Unconfined recreation," Ratcliffe says. "That sounds like mountain biking to me."
But it's not that simple, warns U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat who is the former chair of the Senate committee and currently serves on it.
"Senator Wyden recognizes there is an honest difference of opinion between wilderness advocates and enthusiasts of mountain biking and all forms of recreation," Wyden spokesman Hank Stern says in an email. "He is reviewing the bill, which tries to address those differences between people who share a love of special outdoor places in Oregon and around the country.”
The federal government was all over the map on whether bikes belonged in wilderness areas during the first 20 years of the Wilderness Act of 1964.
The Forest Service in 1966 operated under language that allowed bicycles in wilderness areas, then a rewrite of those rules in 1977 banned them. Four years later, the Forest Service followed rules similar to the ones now proposed by allowing bikes but giving wilderness managers the authority to ban them.
The current rules banning all mechanized equipment from bikes to chainsaws and strollers began in 1984.
"That's what we want to get back to, that local control," Ratcliffe says.
George Sexton, executive director of the Ashland-based conservation group KS Wild, says he believes local mountain bikers and the wilderness-minded community as a whole would offer a resounding no to wilderness biking.
Sexton believes this is more about eroding public-lands protection by attempting to pit mountain bikers against hikers, and it would be better for mountain bikers instead to focus their attention on designated federal recreation areas for riding instead of wilderness.
"This isn't grassroots, local mountain bikers trying to get it passed," Sexton says. "I know hundreds of mountain bikers, and nobody's clamoring for it.
"It looks like it's trying to address a problem that doesn't exist," he says.
Southern Oregon is unique in that it not only sports 11 wilderness areas, it also has very accessible single-track trails through national forest land specifically set aside for mountain biking, such as the Ashland Watershed.
In fact, KS Wild and the Forest Service recently worked closely with local mountain bikers to designate some of those trails, and also to create new trails that keep the bikers and hikers from crossing paths.
Ratcliffe says the act, if adopted, would simply give local communities a chance to have this public debate with wilderness managers. Restoring bike traffic — and chainsaw use for trail maintenance — would improve trails and allow more people to experience America's true backwoods.
For decades the varying sides have argued over whether Congress intended to ban mountain bikes from wilderness areas even before mountain biking took hold in the United States. Instead of a straight yes or no, the current debate will center on whether maybe some wilderness trails fit this particular bill.
"We don't believe a blanket ban was intended by Congress," Ratcliffe says. "Certainly there are some trails where mountain bikes don't belong. But a wilderness area isn't a terrarium to be looked at from the outside."
Reach Mail Tribune reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MTwriterFreeman.