The battle for wilderness access in parts of Montana’s Bitterroot National Forest seemed all but lost, but a recent court ruling has given mountain bikers permission to ride in 110 miles of previously closed trails. At least for now.
Chief Judge Dana L. Christensen this month ruled to re-open a comment period pertaining to the Forest’s 10-year travel plan, and to re-open roughly 110 miles of trail at the center of the debate while the objection process is ongoing.
For 40 years, the Bitterroot National Forest on the Montana-Idaho border encompassed miles of remote, backcountry riding. But, two years ago, at the conclusion of a 10-year travel plan process, Bitterroot was named a Wilderness Study Area (WSA) , effectively banning bikes since WSAs are often managed like Wilderness.
The judge’s ruling came after the local mountain-bike association, Bitterroot Backcountry Cyclists (BBC), joined forces with a number of motorized groups to sue the Forest Service over the Bitterroot travel plan. The case made two main complaints.
First, BBC argued the analysis of mountain-bike impacts did not show any hard data that riding had a lasting effect on wilderness characteristics. The argument continued, stating instead of hard data, the travel plan based its conclusion off national riding trends and did not make an attempt to assess where, and how much, the trails were being ridden. On this argument BBC and its partners lost.
The second argument focused on the lack of a comment period for the closure of trails in the WSA. The original proposal only closed Recommended Wilderness to bikes. During the 10 years it took to finish the travel plan, the Forest Service expanded the closure from Recommended Wilderness to include WSAs. This change took closures from 60 miles of trail to almost 180 miles, and it happened after the public comment period had closed. Here the judge ruled in favor of BBC, stating the restriction on riding in WSAs was unlawful since there was insufficient public comment period.
Despite the decision, the re-opened access is a temporary win. Both sides have a 60-day window for appeals. After the 60-day window, it’s possible for the objection period to begin the next day. The objection period is another 30 days, after which comments would need to be reviewed and a new decision would be made. According to Lance Pysher, the president of BBC, that would be the fast-track. “Probably it would be a bit more protracted,” says Pysher. “If an appeal happens, I'm told it takes two years to be heard and a few more months for the decision. In this case the objection process would wait until after the appeal.”
The Bitterroot Backcountry Cyclists aren’t waiting to see what happens in the courts. They’re taking action. Most of the trails have seen little-to-no use over the last two years and are covered with downed trees and branches. After the decision, BBC quickly pulled together a group of 10 volunteers to begin clearing trail. Over the first weekend, they cleared close to 300 trees off a 5-mile section known as the Weasel Railroad Loop. And they’ll be out there again next weekend clearing more.
“I doubt we will get to all 100-plus miles, but I expect we will get the most popular loops cleared of downfall by August,” says Pysher. He has his work cut out for him. When Pysher says the trails have seen almost no use, he means it. Only a mile-and-a-half from the trailhead, a volunteer found a pair of matched elk antlers shed in early spring, sitting in the middle of the trail. “Anyone from Montana knows that no one leaves a pair of matched sheds behind. Those are treasures,” says Pysher. “Which means no one had been on that trail since early spring.”
Apart from making the trails rideable, BBC doesn’t have big plans for the area. As long as access is temporary, nothing long-term is going to happen, and that’s OK. Pysher says there isn’t much demand for more trail in the area. “These areas are Wilderness Study Areas for a reason, they are wild, remote places and the trails should reflect that adventurous spirit.”
For now, BBC is going to work on reconnecting long-lost loops, opening the most remote sections of trail, and getting the word out. BBC wants people to come ride the trails regularly, so when a it does come time to comment, there is data backing up claims that mountain bikers can enjoy WSA land in a low-impact, sustainable fashion.
Pysher is optimistic that the work of the BBC is turning the tide in their favor. By working with the Forest Service, BBC is building a strong relationship rooted in trail stewardship and better-maintained trails--something a number of users have commented on to Pysher. “In general, Montanans want the Wilderness Study Areas protected from logging, mining and roads, but also open to recreation. So I think the longer we are out there maintaining trails and riding respectfully in search of quiet adventure, the tide is with us.”