Contentious wilderness bill resurfaces in Congress

Mountain bikers argue that nearly 400,000 acres of public land in the Lake Tahoe area that is off limits to them is more than enough.

Wilderness advocates argue that plenty of mountain bike trails exist in the area. It's more important, they say, to protect Lake Tahoe watersheds like Meiss Meadows from the disruption of machinery, whether it be a snowmobile or a mountain bike.

A proposal to classify 9,500 acres of the southwestern rim of Tahoe Basin as a protected wilderness has the two groups butting heads. The debate heated up last spring and is heating up again now that Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., has reintroduced her wilderness bill to protect 2.5 million acres in that state.

"We're not debating value of wilderness," said Becky Bell of the Tahoe Area Mountain Bike Association. "We know how important it is. The debate is about the right to access in a responsible manner."

The bill was introduced in the Senate last week, and is expected to be introduced in the House in September. The California Wild Heritage Wilderness Act of 2003 would ban mountain bikes and snowmobiles from the land, while allowing access for hikers, horseback riders and other nonmotorized recreation.

"I'm for a balanced approach," said John Brissenden, owner of Sorenson's Resort in Alpine County on Highway 88. "There's only so much real estate in this country. I think it's important to protect that. It's also important to the watersheds. For the Tahoe area, that part of Meiss is one of the most critical ones."

The bill has been about two years in the making while Boxer's office identified and eliminated land that could be classified as wilderness. It will likely take even longer for the bill to be debated in Congress.

The bill was introduced by Boxer last year. In November, a chunk of it became law. Now, 57,000 acres of forest near Big Sur, south of Carmel in California's Los Padres National Forest, is protected as wilderness.

California Sen. Dianne Feinstein has not yet supported the bill. Her staff has recently been in the area gathering information about land that would be affected -- more than 28,000 acres in the Eldorado National Forest referred to as Caples Creek and more than 19,000 acres that are part of the Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit, which includes Meiss Meadows.

Freel Peak, a 31,000-acre area, home to the mountain bike trail called Mr. Toad's Wild Ride, was included in the bill, but outcries from South Shore residents caused Boxer's staff to remove the land.


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