Editor's note: This is the third installment of our four-part series, 'Lines in the Dirt,' chronicling mountain bike access around the U.S. You can read the first two chapters here and here. Up next on April 11: how a watershed in central Massachusetts became the fiercest fat-tire battleground in America.
"Access is not a God-given right," Eric Melson declares. "It's ours to go and get."
Melson, the 30-year-old advocacy manager of the International Mountain Bicycling Association, is standing next to a bike-legal trail surrounded by Wilderness four miles north of Missoula, Montana, where he lives. It's a toasty mid-August morning in the Rattlesnake National Recreation Area, not to be confused with the adjacent Rattlesnake Wilderness, which encompasses 33,000 acres to the north. Congress designated both areas with one act in 1980, and 37 years later, the national rec area remains a rare companion designation to Wilderness—basically an inholding where the ban on activities including mountain biking doesn't apply.
Savvy bike advocates will highlight the wording Congress used in the Rattlesnake act, which identifies bicycling as a form of "primitive recreation" akin to "hiking, camping, backpacking, hunting, fishing, and horseback riding." All of those activities are permitted in Wilderness, of course, except for biking, which was banned four years after the Rattlesnake bill passed.
As Melson points out, it is significant that Congress provided a way for mountain bikers and wilderness to coexist here. Missoula is where the Wilderness movement was born. The Wilderness Institute is based here. So is Wilderness Watch and the U.S. Forest Service's Region One headquarters, by many accounts the most pro-Wilderness region in America (and the launching pad for the last three Forest Service chiefs).
Thanks to a spate of recent forest plan revisions and lawsuits brought by the environmental community, as well as a groundbreaking lawsuit from the bike community, Montana remains the controversial epicenter of mountain-bike access on federal land. Depending on whom you ask, mountain bikers in Montana have lost access to between 700 and 1,000 miles of trail in the past decade. Much of that has been high-alpine singletrack in recommended wilderness areas, or RWAs, where the future is as fuzzy as the Forest Service's management doctrine.
Melson understands the equation better than almost anyone. Prior to IMBA, he worked as a Wilderness ranger and as program director for the Selway-Bitterroot Frank Church Foundation, which caretakes nearly four million acres of Wilderness near Missoula. He spoke at Wilderness stewardship conferences, won the Forest Service's Bob Marshall Award for championing Wilderness and quickly gained a reputation as a rising star in conservation.
Which is why, when he accepted the IMBA job in 2015, he recalls, some of his colleagues were taken aback. "So," one sniffed upon bumping into Melson at a brewery, "you're working for the enemy now?"
Melson, a smooth and sharp talker who has also worked as a bike mechanic and enjoyed a successful amateur racing career, doesn't mince words when describing how mountain bikers have handled recent access challenges.
"You can't wait until the end to throw your hands up and call bullshit," he says. "You have to be there from the beginning as a productive member in the conversation, with reasonable solutions. You can't expect everything is going to go your way. You need to understand the other side, sympathize with their needs and help them achieve their goals, because they're going to end up helping you in the long run. And mountain bikers in Montana and largely the United States haven't flipped that switch yet."
Melson believes in the power of economy—3 percent of Montana tourists in 2014 were mountain bikers, he touts, generating $13 million in revenue—and he brings something sorely lacking in bike advocacy: the verve of youth. Most important, people on both sides take him seriously, as do the decision makers at the Forest Service. It is not hard to see why his hiring by IMBA, two years ago, brought hope to a beat-down group of volunteers.
"We felt like the cavalry had arrived," says Bob Allen, a longtime bike advocate and photographer based in Bozeman. "Like the bigger bike industry that I knew had finally come to Montana."
One of the areas most in need of the cavalry happens to be situated an hour south of Missoula. If the state is a lightning rod nationally, the Bitterroot National Forest serves that role locally and has received ample media coverage as a result. A revised travel plan released in April 2015—the first revision in 39 years—banned bikes from 178 miles of trail that locals had ridden and maintained for decades. Not many locals, mind you; that was part of the problem when requesting that their access remain—and part of their contention that no measurable impact justified the closures.
Lance Pysher, president of the Bitterroot Backcountry Cyclists (BBC), an IMBA chapter that counts 45 members and was formed to combat the travel plan restrictions, says he rode almost every trail that was to be closed to bikes the summer before the plan was released. "I encountered zero people," he says. "No hikers, no horses, no mountain bikers, no dirt bikes, but I did see two black bears." Meanwhile, the Wilderness Institute commissioned its own survey by hikers, who recorded just one group of two mountain bikers over more than 100 miles of then-bike-legal trail within the Bitterroot 'wilderness study areas,' or WSAs.
On a 90-degree day last summer, Pysher, a radiologist who moved to sleepy Hamilton from Denver, is churning up a dirt road to a trail called Buttercup, one of the most popular trails in the area, he says. "It gets ridden every couple of days."
Across the valley, a smoldering wildfire has charred much of Ward Mountain, home to one of the last remaining bike-legal alpine trails here. Pysher sighs, obviously exasperated. "People outside the state don't understand how rural this area really is," he says. "It's a world where you're by yourself 99.9 percent of the time. It's not a matter of us buzzing hikers or hikers setting up booby traps. It's still the frontier, essentially."
Locals compare their fate to skiers' being told they can only ski groomed runs at a resort, not the backcountry runs that make them feel free. There is already four million acres of Wilderness within an hour's drive from the Bitterroot Valley, they say. If they never see anyone on the trails and comprise such a low-impact user group, why must they be banned?
Jeff Kern, a chemist who serves as BBC's vice president, feels mountain bikers were often lumped in with motorized users during the planning process, to their detriment. "It was always 'motorized-slash-mechanized,'" he says. Their value as stewards—they ride with custom chainsaw and hand-saw mounts and clear downed trees during their rides—does not factor into a travel plan, Darby district ranger Eric Winthers explains in his office. Winthers admits, however, that without mountain bikers maintaining trails where they are now banned, those trails will likely fall into disrepair since the Forest Service does not have the resources to maintain them.
Locals know that phenomenon well. The past two summers, Kern, Pysher and other club members cleared 1,500 downed trees from a 2.5-mile trail that had not been maintained for 10 years. They did it out of necessity: "We had to find new trails somewhere," Pysher says.
In late December, BBC took a more drastic step—one the club had contemplated for years as a last resort. They joined six motorized groups and sued the Forest Service in U.S. District Court in Missoula to get the travel plan reversed. IMBA government relations director Aaron Clark says it was the first time he has heard of mountain bikers suing for access. The group filed suit reluctantly.
"All we really want is the status quo," Pysher says. "Go back to what we've been riding for so long. We're not trying to gain new access."
Much of the trail mileage lost to bikes over the past decade has been due to a highly controversial—some even say illegal—directive from Region One of the Forest Service about managing RWAs. Unlike wilderness study areas, which are protected by an act of Congress (the 1977 Montana Wilderness Study Act) and must be managed in a way that does not diminish their Wilderness character, RWAs are basically just tracts of roadless land that a forest supervisor believes have Wilderness potential. There is no law governing how they must be managed.
The process works like this: Every time a forest goes through a travel or forest planning process, its administrators decide whether to recommend any lands to Congress as suitable for a Wilderness designation. Before that happens, advocates on both sides argue over trails and terrain that they deem vital to their interests; sometimes they agree, more often they don't. If they cannot come to an agreement, it is up to the forest supervisor to determine whether an area will be recommended for Wilderness and, if it is, whether to manage it as de-facto Wilderness until Congress considers it—a process that could take decades.
For a long time, RWAs in Region One—which includes 12 forests in six states, notably Montana and northern Idaho—were managed as standard forestland with existing mechanized and motorized use allowed to continue. Many of them still are managed that way. But 15 years ago, during a Forest Service leadership gathering in the West Big Hole—a stunning alpine landscape near the small community of Jackson, Montana—something changed.
The massive Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest was beginning a forest plan revision, and the regional forester at the time, Brad Powell, drove down to meet with local staff. Powell was accompanied by, among others, Chris Ryan, the region's Wilderness programs manager. Ryan retired from the Forest Service in 2012, but she met for an interview in Missoula last summer to discuss that meeting and its fallout.
Local staff said they could not decide how to manage an area that had been recommended for Wilderness in the '80s and had since become a high-mark snowmobiling hotspot. Ryan told them the answer was simple: Either recommend it for Wilderness again and kick out all non-conforming uses, including snowmobiling; or don't recommend it. "You can't have it both ways," Ryan told them.
The forest decided not to recommend the West Big Hole due to its economic importance to Jackson as a snowmobiling destination. But on the way home, Powell and Ryan realized other forests were likely to confront the same issue as they revised their plans. Ryan was adamant that RWAs should be managed like Wilderness, both to maintain their purity and also to prevent non-conforming uses like mountain biking from becoming established—and giving riders a history to leverage when it came time for Congress to weigh the forest's recommendation. Powell agreed and instructed Ryan to meet with other staff and put together a "white paper," or internal memo, directing all forests in Region One to manage RWAs like Wilderness. The instructions on the paper, dated June 30, 2003, were simple: "Generally prohibit motorized and mechanized travel year-round."
Ryan explains: "If you're saying to Congress, 'We think this area should be included in the National Wilderness Preservation System,' why would you then allow uses that were contrary to that, to become established?" She pauses. "Honestly, it wasn't a hard sell. I worked for three subsequent regional foresters who all agreed that it was the best approach."
The problem, as mountain bikers and motorized users see it, was that by preventing a constituency from forming in opposition, the Forest Service abandoned its impartial position as a land manager and became a political entity, with a stated goal of swaying Congress' decision. The white paper did not constitute an official policy; if it had, it would have been subject to public comment and scrutiny. Instead, it is referred to by current and former Forest Service staff, as well as the public, as a "philosophy," an "unspoken tradition," a "guidance" and an "unwritten policy."
"A lot of us contend that was an illegal way to do it," says Greg Beardslee, cofounder of the Montana Mountain Bike Alliance in Bozeman. "They're using that white paper as policy. The nuance of that is virtually anyone with enough authority in the Forest Service could send out a memo, and that memo could have sweeping and upsetting ramifications across an entire state or a couple of states. And that aspect has not quite been addressed in courts yet."
For years after the white paper's existence became known to advocates, the Forest Service maintained that each forest supervisor had discretion: He or she could follow the guidance or ignore it. Advocates drove across the state to attend meetings and comment on forest plans because, they say, they believed in that discretion. Yet when the Beaverhead-Deerlodge Forest Plan was signed in 2009, it banned bikes from 367 miles of trail, much of that in RWAs, with virtually no concessions. "It was like four or five Boulder-White Clouds," Beardslee says, referencing the now-infamous Wilderness bill that passed in 2015 and eliminated mountain bike access from revered alpine trails near Sun Valley, Idaho.
"The system didn't work," adds Corey Biggers, another Bozeman advocate. "It didn't matter what we came up with; the final outcome was we were booted from recommended wilderness. We asked for specific trails, we tried everything in our power, and it did not work."
Other forests followed suit in their plans. Almost without exception, RWAs in Region One were managed like Wilderness and continue to be. Nevertheless, Jimmy Gaudry, the current Region One Wilderness program manager, says all regions are the same and that each forest supervisor remains "the decision maker regarding the management of recommended wilderness." (The Bureau of Land Management manages RWAs on a case-by-case basis.)
So, did forest supervisors actually have discretion, or was the regional office kicking out recreationists to serve a political agenda? The closest that question came to being answered in court was during a lawsuit filed by the Idaho State Snowmobile Association (ISSA) against the Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forest in 2012. The agency claimed there was no regional directive, but a judge saw reason to believe there was. ISSA won the right to depose three people from the Forest Service: Chris Ryan, regional forester Tom Tidwell (who is now the Forest Service chief), and Clearwater forest supervisor Rick Brazell.
Just before the depositions, the Forest Service settled. (The agency paid some of ISSA's court costs but otherwise the case remains mired in legal sludge.)
ISSA public lands director Sandra Mitchell has a hunch about what she would have heard in the depositions: "That the 'policy' existed and that Rick Brazell was told he had to manage recommended wilderness as Wilderness—he had no choice. That's why the forest settled. There's no question in my mind."
Ryan seemed to confirm as much when she leaned forward and almost whispered, near the end of a 45-minute interview, "Yeah, I guess there really wasn't a lot of discretion."
Looking back, Ryan laments that the white paper caused so much friction with mountain bikers. "I think we all have the same desire, which is for quiet recreation," she says. Still, there is reason to question the process when you consider Ryan's personal interests and influence on those whose interests differed from hers. She refers to herself as a "Wilderness advocate," says she hopes the amount of RWA acreage in Region One doubles, and gets visibly animated when describing how mountain bikers startle her during hikes on Missoula's frontcountry trails.
"They're supposed to yield to us, but we always gather up our dogs, get 'em off the trail. And we rarely have anybody say, 'Good morning, thank you,' nothing. They just zoom right on by," she says. "It kind of pisses me off a little bit, to tell you the truth. But, I mean, it's open to them, so it is what it is."
A few minutes later, she adds, "I'm not anti-mountain bike."
In contentious situations related to access, the Forest Service often relies on users to settle their own disputes. In Montana, that usually means John Gatchell is involved. Gatchell, the senior conservation advisor at the Montana Wilderness Association, grew up in Detroit and hitchhiked to Montana via Canada in 1972, at age 19. Protecting Wilderness became his life's work soon after, he says.
He doesn't look like much of a villain in his office, perched above Helena in an 1889 blue granite building, with rolled-up maps in the corners and a worn ballcap over a sleepy smile. But thanks to shrewd maneuvering behind the scenes and what more than one mountain biker claimed to be questionable ethics, the former auto assembly line worker and logger has become a polarizing figure.
He is respected enough at the Forest Service that he's been known to walk into a supervisor's office and alter proposed Wilderness boundaries on a map to fit an agreement he forged with mountain bikers. "If he's willing to wheel and deal, any arrangement that we make with him still results in less trails to ride," says Pete 'Sven' Kurtz, who owns Sven's Bicycles of Anaconda and has negotiated access with Gatchell. "The only nice thing is he can use his leverage to work with the Forest Service to get trails put in or restored, that we don't locally have the leverage to do ourselves."
Gatchell's notoriety mostly stems from the fact that he—and, by extension, the Wilderness movement—rarely ends up without a significant gain in territory during forest planning processes. He has recruited allies in longtime bike advocates Mike Borduin of Butte and Eric Grove of Helena. Together they and a handful of others, including backcountry horsemen, formed Montana High Divide Trails in 2009 to present a unified voice to land managers and "bring their job into the realm of the possible," Gatchell says. But some say Gatchell puppeteers and that Borduin and Grove misrepresent the majority of mountain bikers when they support an agreement conceived by Gatchell.
"All of us are pariahs to certain people within our constituencies," Grove, a former shop owner who was raised by ardent conservationists, concedes over a beer in Helena. "But if you can't get past that, you're never going to get to a solution."
High Divide Trails has been involved with a handful of collaborations that even staunch bike advocates cite as reasons to be hopeful. The Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act in 2013—the first Wilderness designated in Montana in 31 years—was hardly perfect; it eliminated bike access from a classic alpine ride called Green to Rierdon, six years after Helena-Lewis and Clark forest supervisor Spike Thompson had banned bikes from 60 miles of trail within RWAs. But the act also required the Forest Service to work with mountain bikers and determine which existing routes could be improved to help make up for what was lost.
"The conservation community signed off on a companion designation that helped them get new Wilderness," Bob Allen says. "So we really need to hold their feet to the fire and say, 'OK, if it's good enough in the beautiful Rocky Mountain Front, it's good enough in the Gallatin, it's good enough in the Blackfoot, it's good enough in the Bitterroot.'"
Last December, the Blackfoot Clearwater Stewardship Project, a coalition of user groups that included Eric Melson, did one better. In a landmark compromise that Melson calls "the biggest success I've had in the conservation-recreation realm," mountain bikers retained access to a spectacular ridge ride on the edge of the Bob Marshall Wilderness and above the budding destination town of Seeley Lake. "We were going to lose everything. All the trails were on the chopping block," Melson says. "Instead, we preserved 30 miles of trail as a companion designation in a national recreation area specifically for mountain biking."
And now, with the Blackfoot decided, everyone has turned their attention to a segment of the Continental Divide Trail (CDT) outside Yellowstone National Park that Allen calls "one of the most endangered trails in America." It is also, in the context of everything that has transpired in Montana, one of the most symbolic.
Twenty years ago, the Custer Gallatin National Forest hired legendary mountain-bike trail builder Terry Johnson to link the CDT to the Idaho border in an area called Lionhead, which straddles Regions One and Four of the Forest Service. Johnson spent two summers constructing his masterpiece, complete with 50 switchbacks up to 10,000 feet and flow before the term existed. Altogether, the 35-mile loop includes 7,000 feet of climbing and some of the best views in Montana.
It is a two-hour drive from Bozeman to Lionhead, and when the Forest Service lost a suit brought by three wilderness groups and closed the Gallatin Crest Trail to bikes in 2009, many of the Crest's devotees shifted to Lionhead. Mountain bikers have maintained the trail ever since and consider it one of the state's crown jewels.
The only problem? Lionhead sits smack in the middle of a Region One RWA, and with the 30-year-old forest plan set to be revised by 2020, a showdown looms.
It would appear to be a perfect opportunity for Melson to work his magic and keep the cavalry rolling. Except that IMBA, still reeling from the unexpected loss of Subaru as a prime sponsor, laid off Melson in December. Advocates across Montana petitioned IMBA to reconsider, to no avail. As of this writing, Melson was considering how he might crowdfund his position to stay in the bike advocacy world. He was also fielding overtures from conservation groups.
Meanwhile, Montana's mountain bikers are preparing for another round in a never-ending bout. The weekend before he met for an interview last August, Corey Biggers had planned to poach Italian Peaks, a spectacular loop above treeline that got closed to bikes in the Beaverhead-Deerlodge forest plan because it fell within an RWA. The 58-year-old business owner changed his mind at the last minute and stayed home.
"People have stood up for me at the Forest Service. I don't want to embarrass them," Biggers says. He grits his teeth. "But I've already told them if they take away Lionhead, they're going to have to arrest me."