Montana Riders Sue Forest Service Over Access

The lawsuit seeks to reverse a plan that bans bikes from 178 miles of trail

By: Devon O’Neil

Seven months after the U.S. Forest Service in Montana's Bitterroot Valley announced a controversial new travel plan that cuts 178 miles of longstanding mountain-bike access, an IMBA chapter called the Bitterroot Backcountry Cyclists (BBC) has filed suit with six motorized groups to get the plan reversed.

The coalition filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court on Wednesday, Dec. 28. The Forest Service's plan in the Bitterroot National Forest bans the groups, who claim to represent 13,000 members, from many of the roads and trails where they have recreated for decades. Roughly 45 of those members belong to BBC, which formed to unite local riders when it became clear that they might lose wide-ranging access due to this plan. The plan bans bikes from nearly 190,000 acres of forest land.

Much of that is due to the land's designation as either ‘wilderness study areas’ or ‘recommended wilderness areas,’ which are essentially managed as wilderness. In the complaint, the plaintiffs—who don't include IMBA; only the local chapter is part of the lawsuit—make the case that the Forest Service's Record of Decision was based on beliefs within the agency and Northern Region (Region 1 is also a defendant), not on factual data.

"The Forest Service has a multi-use mandate, and they need to figure out a way to manage recreation and maintain wilderness potential at the same time," BBC president Lance Pysher told Bike.

Pysher and others claim the Forest Service did no evaluation of impacts to the trails that are now closed to bikes. In the press release the plaintiffs released this week detailing their suit, they call the Forest Service's decisions "arbitrary and capricious."

IMBA's director of government relations, Aaron Clark, told Bike the suit is "the first lawsuit from the mountain-bike community that I know of."

Lance Pysher

Lance Pysher

Pysher said he and other club members debated for a long time whether it was in their best interest to partner with motorized groups on the suit, which they have been considering for years. The reasons for doing so were primarily financial, and came "with some reluctance," he said. "We simply could not raise the $100,000 to $200,000 it would cost to do it ourselves, and IMBA doesn't have the financial resources to contribute. We also knew the motorized groups were going to file a lawsuit regardless of what we did, and mountain bikes would get dragged into the wilderness versus motorized and now mechanized battle. We felt it was best to get involved and advocate for mountain bikes as best we could."

In a statement to the Missoulian newspaper, which is located an hour north of Hamilton, the biggest town in the Bitterroot Valley, Forest Service spokesman Todd McKay said the agency extended the comment period twice during the planning process, held dozens of public meetings and fielded a record number of comments. McKay could not comment on the lawsuit itself.

Watch for more on this story as part of a four-part feature on mountain-bike access nationwide coming soon to bikemag.com.