--
SHARES
  

Just one small part of what stands to be lost to cyclists (photo: Bitterroot Backcountry Cyclists)

Just one small part of what stands to be lost to cyclists (photo: Bitterroot Backcountry Cyclists)

Editor’s Note: John Fisch is an avid backcountry enthusiast who hikes, bikes and backpacks at every opportunity. While John is a regular contributor to Singletracks.com, the opinions expressed in this commentary are his alone and do not necessarily represent the opinions of Singletracks.com.

Anti-cycling forces have long used lobbying clout and legal action to close longstanding cycling routes to cyclists.  Nowhere have they been as successful in doing so as they have in Montana, which has seen the loss of hundreds of miles of outstanding singletrack access to cyclists in recent years.  In a state which already has Wilderness area totaling more than 3.4 million acres, including a single Wilderness complex as large as the entire state of Delaware, anti-cycling lobbies have teamed with sympathetic judges to remove quiet, human-powered, low-impact mountain biking from vast tracts of non-Wilderness land as well.  The trend has carried over into recent United States Forest Service (USFS) travel plans governing non-Wilderness lands.  The most recent losses come courtesy of the Bitterroot National Forest Travel Plan.  The Bitterroot National Forest, which is already comprised of nearly 50% Wilderness, increases mechanized restriction to an additional 200,000 acres, all of which was previously accessible to motorized and mechanized travel.

(photo: Bitterroot Backcountry Cyclists)

(photo: Bitterroot Backcountry Cyclists)

Now, a consortium of affected user groups has sought to challenge this trend in court by bringing suit against the USFS for their “arbitrary and capricious decision.” Not just a mountain bike issue, the suit is brought forth on behalf of seven recreation groups with total membership in excess of 13,000 individuals, including the Bitterroot Ridge Runners Snowmobile Club; Ravalli County Off-road User Association; Bitterroot Backcountry Cyclists; Montana Trail Vehicle Riders Association; Montana Snowmobile Association; Citizens for Balanced Use; and Backcountry Sled Patriots.  IMBA opposed the decision and coauthored a letter of objection to the USFS, but has not chosen to be a party to the recently filed suit.

Thanks to anti bike lobbies, uninformed judges, and a myopic USFS, Big Sky Country has been getting much smaller for cyclists. (photo: Bitterroot Backcountry Cyclists)

Thanks to anti-bike lobbies, uninformed judges, and a myopic USFS, Big Sky Country has been getting much smaller for cyclists.
(photo: Bitterroot Backcountry Cyclists)

The travel plan bans all mechanized travel, including mountain bikes, in Recommended Wilderness Areas (RWA) or establish Wilderness Study Areas (WSA).  Wilderness law is clear in that only Congress can designate federally protected Wilderness.  The USFS may establish WSAs or nominate RWAs, but wilderness law is clear in that only Congress can designate federally protected Wilderness.  When the USFS designates a WSA or RWA, and unilaterally decides to administer it just as they would a legally designated WA, they have created de facto Wilderness, usurping Congressional authority, and overreaching their legal authority.

(photo: Bitterroot Backcountry Cyclists)

(photo: Bitterroot Backcountry Cyclists)

In addition to the usurping of Congressional authority, there are a multitude of problems with the USFS Final Record of Decision in this matter.

  • In justifying their action, they lump in mountain bikes with motorcycles, creating a single category for all wheeled vehicles whether human- or artificially-powered, despite the differences in impact.
  • The decision to exclude mountain bikes from RWAs/WSAs is worse than arbitrary; it goes against all scientifically assessed impacts of cycling as well as precedent.  The theory is that cycling may “degrade wilderness character,” and therefore must be banned from any area under consideration for future Wilderness designation.  However, scientific tests show cycling impact to be similar to hiking and far less than equestrian use.  Moreover, in terms of practical implication, recent additions to the Wilderness catalog have included many routes popular with cyclists for decades; yet those areas were deemed to have adequate “wilderness character” for formal designation.  In fact, no area ever considered for formal designation has ever been denied based on previous cycling use.
  • The decision seeks to preserve the “wilderness character” of the area as it was in its pre-1977 state.  This means restricting motorized/mechanized use to pre-1977 levels.  Again, this lumping of motorized and mechanized together creates a false equivalency.  Furthermore, the assumption is that mountain biking didn’t exist at that time which is false; while the first purpose-built and marketed mountain bikes hadn’t yet appeared, there is ample photographic record that people had been riding bicycles in Montana’s wild places since at least the 1890s.  In addition, no baseline data exists for the amount of use/impact by both motorized and non-motorized vehicles in 1977, so how can this be assessed?  Lastly, if increased use since 1977 is cause for restriction, that rationale would also have to apply to hiking as well.  Montana’s population has increased by over 1/3 since 1977; presumably, this would indicate Montana’s trails are getting more use from all user groups, not just cyclists.
  • The bike ban is predicated upon removing “non-conforming uses” from potential Wilderness lands.  However, in the one and only piece of Wilderness legislation that specifically addressed cycling, it was included as a wilderness use and called out as “primitive recreation” in accordance with the original 1964 Wilderness Act.
  • The only “impact” the USFS quotes in justifying banning bikes is a single unscientific survey in which 30% of hikers expressed a diminishing experience when encountering a bike on the trails.  So less than one third of just one user group gets to determine policy for everyone?  This also gives undue credence to two unfounded assumptions; first, that there is something inherently offensive about the bike itself rather than the complainant simply choosing to be offended and second, that the only redress is to ban bikes rather than seek some sort of middle ground (i.e. a shared use schedule that would allow cycling use on some days and provide those offended a bike-free experience on other days).
Even winter can't stop the hardy from riding the Montana mountains -- but now, a USFS ruling may. (photo: Bitterroot Backcountry Cyclists)

Even winter can’t stop the hardy from riding the Montana mountains — but now, a USFS ruling may.
(photo: Bitterroot Backcountry Cyclists)

The bottom line is that it appears the USFS has neither scientific nor legal basis for their decision and these user groups are going to test that in court.  The scientific side has, unfortunately, not carried much sway in access decisions to date.  As for the legal side, that will be a tough go as well.  I wish the Bitterroot Bakcountry Cyclists (and, in this case, their motorized allies), the best in their endeavor.  It is time to set a proper precedent regarding access for all low-impact, human-powered travel in our backcountry areas and reign in the minority-driven, selfish management of our public lands.

For a complete copy of the USFS decision and formal letters in support of, or against the decision, click this link.

Riding off into the sunset . . . for the last time? (photo: Bitterroot Backcountry Cyclists)

Riding off into the sunset . . . for the last time?
(photo: Bitterroot Backcountry Cyclists)

 

--
SHARES
  
# Comments

  • mongwolf

    GREAT write up John. Thank you for the information and effort.

  • mongwolf

    John, I was just riding some local trails here in COS yesterday and earlier this week. I couldn’t believe how much more damage hikers have done to the trails recently than bikers. On three different trails many hikers have apparently carelessly gotten on the trails while they were very soft. They also seemed to just carelessly walk right through muddy spots instead of carefully doing so. I am a hiker, trail runner and mtb biker. No matter what activity I’m doing, if I’m on a trail that still has some muddy places, I always carefully work my way through them. It’s amazing how much a little caution can help. If biking, that often means I dismount. I”m sure many mountain bikers do the same in the COS area. I also fix any significant marks/imprints I make hiking. It is VERY apparent that many hikers don’t care enough to take this little extra effort. All in all it seems maybe hikers need to “patrol” their own crowd more and improve their own “use culture”. It seems rather “holier art thou” to criticize bikers when hikers do so much damage themselves.

    • Joel DH

      I have also seen damage hikers do without caring. What really burns me up is trash and wrappers on the trail. I pedal along, enjoying the beautiful browns, greens, and other woodsy colors, when BANG! My view is spoiled by a bright blue/green/red wrapper proudly displaying another unhealthful product name. Grrrrrrrrrr…..

  • mongwolf

    John, I thought you might be interested in noting in the top photo of the article the yellow conifers. Those are the larch tree (deciduous conifers) we talked about earlier this year. There are eleven species in the world, inhabiting the US, Canada, Northern Europe, Siberia ( and Mongolia), China and Japan. It is a northern latitude or high elevation species. It has a very heavy dense wood for a conifer.

    • bitterroot

      And that is why we were riding there that weekend. We don’t have aspens, but Larch have their own special magic

  • Joel DH

    Things like these have happened for years. Hiker/equestrian vs happy mountain bikers. However, I always am really surprised by the fact that the selfish motives of a few individuals [and a few others who jumped on the bandwagon] have shut down trail access to mountain bikers [again]. This time, the bikers are fighting back though. Unfortunately, I’ve seen that happen before, and the bikers are often ignored. Maybe this time, it’ll be different. I sincerely hope so.
    Anybody know a way to show support for these fight’in bikers? The more people who know about this, the better.

    • John Fisch

      Unfortunately, this is now beyond the “public comment” stage as the USFS has already released their “final decision,” hence the use of a lawsuit as the recourse of last resort.

      For anyone looking to support those fighting the good fight in the toughest such battles, I recommend supporting Bitterroot Backcountry Cyclists and Montana Mountain Bike Association, two of the most active groups, fighting some of the most unfair battles I’ve seen.

    • Joel DH

      All right thanks. And you.re right, this is very unfair.

    • bitterroot

      And there will be a chance to comment on another 80 miles of trail they are trying to close in the Ten Lakes WSA. We are working on organizing the suggested comments and will have them ready soon

    • John Fisch

      I was stoked to see that video–I’ve ridden a few trails in the Tobacco Roots (my favorite range)–but not much looked familiar. It was never that wet when I rode there. Always gorgeous but never that lush.

  • wyomont

    Unfortunately, the “Roots” have many scars from mining activity and many of the lakes have been modified to hold more water and control it’s output. In spite of this, one can still have a remote, wilderness type experience there.
    If you couldn’t tell from my comments, that vid disturbs me deeply. There is also a comment on the vimeo page that parallels my feelings.
    Thanks for giving me a platform to vent.
    Happy 2017!

  • Scott Cotter

    Not sure I’m ever a fan of banding together with motorized groups. This has the potential to underscore the belief that we are one in the same, which couldn’t be further from the truth; however, I realize and appreciate that something had to be done. And we are stronger together than we are apart.

    • bitterroot

      While lumping us with motorized groups makes no logical sense, that it is the belief for the conservation groups here in Montana and they have convinced the FS that their opinion is correct. In the travel plan that closed that closed our trails, the one word that almost never appears is bicycle. It is almost always mechanized, usually in the phrase, “motorized and mechanized.” In 2006 there was another lawsuit battle royale (McCallister between motorized groups and wilderness groups over the Gallatin Travel Plan that mountain bikers decided to sit out since we didn’t want to get involved, but that didn’t stop the wilderness groups from lumping us with motorized and managed to convince the judge the mountain bikes should be managed as dirt bikes and that when it comes to recommended wilderness and WSA the impact of motorized use and mountain bikes needs to aggregated to assess impact.

      Before joining with the motorized groups, we hope to file a separate lawsuit, but that would have required raising $100,000 -200,000. We tried. We raised less than $10,000. It became clear that the fundraising required was far beyond the means of the 50 members of our chapter. You have to realize this is rural Montana. No one has deep pockets. There are no corporations to hit up. We did what we could to make this a national issue without much success. I have discovered that it is easy to get moral support. Financial support, well that is another story.

      Sitting on the sideline simply is not an option anymore. We have been roped into the motorized vs wilderness battle whether we like it or not, and the side we are on was chosen for us. I’m hoping by being involved we can chart a middle course and be a voice for reason, but to have a voice you need to be willing to get dirty and not just sit back and hope for the best.

  • gidani

    I have been a dirt biker for many years but probably ride my mountain bike more these days. Mountain bikers are now getting a first hand education on the leftist radical environmentalist agenda or locking up forests and deserts as tree and rock museums to be accessible only to those who share their agenda. Many mountain bikers in the past have tried to align themselves with the radical environmentalists in their quest to eliminate motorized access. Now these cyclists are finding out they are on the same radar as the motorized groups. Also, keep in mind that a large number of mountain bikers are also dirt bikers, snowmobilers, 4 wheel drive enthusiats and yes, hikers too. Public lands should be for all the public not just a couple of selected groups. There is plenty of land and trails available to satisfy all user groups. Designatin huge tracts of previously accessible land and trails as off limits to all but hikers and equestrians is not good public policy and is in direct opposition to the notion of public use of public lands. As for trail and land damage all user groups have some irresponsible individuals. I would urge mountain biking groups to embrace coalitions with motorized users rather than hoping these so called environmental groups will leave mountain bikers alone. We have a common interest in preserving public lands for the public as opposed to locking them up.

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.


Trending