Energy

GOP Overcomes Dem Resistance To Letting Wheelchairs On Federal Lands

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Tim Pearce Energy Reporter
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Democrats tried unsuccessfully Thursday to sink a bill that would allow bikes, game carts, strollers and wheelchairs in federally protected wilderness areas.

The legislation, introduced by GOP Rep. Tom McClintock of California, was passed through the House Natural Resources Committee during a markup on 15 separate bills. McClintock’s bill originally gave motorized wheelchairs and many non-motorized, wheeled devices full access to wilderness areas, but it was amended to allow area’s managing agency to reject or restrict the use of certain devices.

“Public lands should be open to all Americans,” GOP Rep. Rob Bishop of Utah, chairman of the committee, said in a statement. “It is shocking to see self-proclaimed defenders of public lands in Congress vote to perpetuate a permanent ban on bikers, parents, the disabled, or certain hunters from accessing public lands.”

Democratic Rep. Niki Tsongas of Massachusetts criticized the bill for not appropriately balancing the public’s access with the environment’s protection.

“We must work to find a balance between compelling, yet sometime competing interest,” Tsongas said. “This requires balancing access for high impact recreation activities, like mountain biking, and those simply seeking solitude in some of our nations wildest and most remote landscapes.”

The Wilderness Act of 1964 was never meant to restrict access of non-motorized vehicles, McClintock said during the hearing. The act’s targets were more damaging and high impact motorized vehicle like ATVs and motorcycles.

Bicycles were banned years after the act took effect, McClintock said, because the U.S. Forest Service reinterpreted the Wilderness Act against the advice of former Democratic Rep. Frank Church of Idaho, one of the original sponsors of the act.

“The agencies are applying provisions of the Wilderness Act Too strictly and misconstruing the intent of Congress as to how these areas should be managed,” Church said, according to McClintock.

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