By Charles Pekow
Plenty of unfinished business from the last Congress has come up again early in the new one and even being fast tracked. But western Republicans are trying to block at least some efforts to expand biking opportunities on federal land.
Most notably, the Natural Resources Management Act (S. 47), one of the first bills introduced in the Senate in January, contains a polyglot of goodies for specific public lands around the country. The bill was placed directly on the Senate Legislative Calendar, bypassing committee review. The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee (ENR) had approved most of the components late last year but the full Senate, obsessed with the government shutdown in December, never got around to voting on it. The Senate was considering it the first week of February.
The bill's 10 sponsors include Steve Daines (R-MT), Cory Gardner (R-CO) and Mitt Romney (R-UT). The legislation includes a number of measures blocked last year.
The legislation, for instance, includes the Every Kid Outdoors Act, which passed the House and ENR last year. The bill would give all American fourth-graders (plus 10-year-olds being homeschooled) free access to federal lands where admission is charged – along with up to three adults accompanying them, specifically including those riding bicycles. So if a a fourth-grader bikes into a national park or recreation area that charges an entrance fee, both parents and an uncle can bike in free with him.
The fourth-grader would have to obtain a pass, however, which will start on Sept. 1 of the fourth-grade enrollment and be good through the next summer. The provision would apply in national parks, fish and wildlife preserves, national monuments, national forests, etc. The legislation encourages, but does not require, federal officials to pump state outdoor agencies to participate. The agencies would report to Congress annually on the number of students taking advantage.
The bill would also officially establish a San Rafael Swell Western Heritage & Historic Mining Recreation Area in Utah on land currently administered by the Bureau of Land Management. The legislation calls for a study of recreational opportunities, specifically including bicycle trails, in the area, noting that any new or expanded trails would have to be “consistent with the purposes of the recreation area.” ENR reported a bill specifically calling for this last December; but the Senate, obsessed with the government shutdown, never voted on it.
And the bill would establish the McCoy Flats Trail System on Bureau of Land Management (BLM) property in Uintah County, UT, an area where 35-40 miles of mountain bike trail already exists, stemming from the McCoy Flat Road Trailhead. BLM would officially develop a management plan for the trailhead, working with the county and nearby Indian tribes. The legislation would forbid motorized bikes on the trails. It even allows BLM to obtain other nearby land to extend the system.
The bill would also permanently reauthorize the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which expired last year despite widespread popularity. The fund can be used for recreational projects such as building mountain bike paths and trailheads. The federal government gets about half and states and territories about half. Funds come from fees paid by oil and gas drillers – it doesn't cost taxpayers a dime but Congress let it expire anyway.
An attempt to reauthorize the fund failed last December because Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT) blocked it as he wanted Utah lands exempted because he thinks the federal government already controls too much Utah real estate.
[Editor's Note: S.47 passed the Senate with a vote of 92-8 on February 12, 2019. Utah's Mike Lee was among the no votes. The bill passed the House with a vote of 363-62 on February 26, 2019. All four of Utah's Representives in the House voted in favor of the bill. S.47 was signed into law by President Trump on March 12, 2019.]
See the text at https://tinyurl.com/y7lybmnc.
Senate Bill Would Reauthorize the Land and Water Conservation Fund
If Congress doesn't pass the above bill, reauthorizing the fund on its own might. Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC) introduced S. 302, which would permanently reauthorize the fund (https://tinyurl.com/y8sy72jx). The bill currently sits before ENR. It picked up 13 bipartisan cosponsors. Among mountain west senators, they include Michael Bennet (D-CO), Steve Daines (R-MT), Gardner and Jon Tester (D-MT).
Utah's Mike Lee's Bill Would Hurt Expansion of Biking
Lee is taking other measures to block expansion of biking and other recreational opportunities in Utah. Stung by President' Barack Obama's extension of national monuments in the state, Lee introduced the Protect Utah's Rural Economy Act (S. 90), which would prohibit expanding or starting national monuments in Utah without permission of both Congress and the Utah legislature. Utah's junior senator, Romney sponsored it with him. The bill sits before ENR. (https://tinyurl.com/ycx8n5kt).
House Bill Would Restore Bears Ears National Monument
But over in the House, legislation that would do the opposite has been introduced. Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-AZ) introduced H.R. 871, which would expand Bears Ears National Monument in southeastern Utah to 1.9 million acres. President Barack Obama established the monument but President Donald Trump rescinded its size by 85 percent in 2017.
While the Antiquities Act gives the president the power to create national monuments, it's not clear if a president can rescind a designation. Three lawsuits are currently challenging Trump's move.
The U.S. Forest Service (USFS) and BLM jointly manage Bears Ears. Most mountain biking is done on roads. Expansion could lead to increased signage or creation of trails eventually.
The bill, referred to the Natural Resources Committee, picked up 71 cosponsors, none from Utah.
Most biking in the area is done on roads, says Dustin Randall, owner of Roam Industry, which provides bike trips in the area. And he's not optimistic about getting much new trail. “If the monument is made, the chances of something new being created are probably like zero. It is really hard” to get through the process of working with USFS, he says. In the short run, “they can't do anything because the monument status keeps going back and forth. Even with their cooperation, it will take years to get approval and National Environmental Policy Act studies done.”
House Bill Would Hamper National Monuments in Arizona
While he wants to expand Bears Ears in Utah, Gallego may have to play defense in his home state. Two Republican Arizona representatives, Andy Biggs and Paul Gosar introduced H.R. 79, which would require congressional approval for a new national monument in Arizona. Wyoming already gets such an exemption. The bill was referred to Natural Resources.
Colorado Recreation Bill (CORE) Introduced to Senate
Back in the Senate, Bennet introduced The Colorado Recreation & Economy (CORE) Act, (S. 241), which would designate recreational, conservation and wilderness management areas in Colorado, including nearly 80,000 acres for recreation such as mountain biking. Like the resources bill described above, CORE combines several bills that failed to pass in the last Congress. Rep. Joe Neguse (D-CO) introduced it in the House as H.R. 823, referred to Natural Resources. Neither version picked up any immediate cosponsors.
The bill would create a 16,996-acre recreational management area in the Tenmile Range for mountain biking and other recreation. The area, in White River National Forest, already contains well-used mountain bike trails. But giving it the special designation “may make it easier to get more money from the Forest Service” for recreational enhancements, explains John Whitney, Bennet's Western Slope Regional Director. It would also protect the area from oil and gas drilling and commercial logging.
CORE would also set up a Williams Fork Wildlife Conservation Area in the same forest, where biking would be allowed only on designated trails and roads. Two bisecting roads on the north shore of Green Mountain Reservoir are used for biking. The bill says they could stay open but no new roads or trails could be build.
The bill would also set up a 21,663-acre Sheep Mountain Special Management Area within Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre, Gunnison and San Juan National forests. Biking would only be allowed in the Ophir Valley Area and Liberty Bell Corridor. Bennet worked out the deal to protect mountain biking in the area in conjunction with the San Miguel Bike Alliance while at the same time preserving as much wilderness as possible.
In a letter to Bennet on the predecessor legislation containing this provision last year, Max Cooper, president of the San Miguel Bike Alliance, wrote “some bikers have some concerns about additional wilderness designation. San Miguel Bike Alliance supports this bill as a balanced piece of legislation that will protect our ecosystem in the long term. A reason for our support is the amount of work and compromise that has gone into this legislation with the mountain biking community.” Most of the added wilderness lies in areas too steep for biking anyway, he continues.