Any opinions expressed in this story are the author’s own, and may or may not represent the opinions of Singletracks.com.
In August of 2018, Sharon and I went on a road trip to Montana to ride some of the best mountain bike trails before they disappear.
Montana boasts a disproportionate share of mountain-bike-able alpine trails compared to other US states, and many of these trails are located in federal lands administered by the United States Forest Service. Sadly, the USFS in this area is embarking on various courses of actions which are likely to close some of these trails to mountain-biking over the next few years. For this reason, we felt we had to see these gems before mountain bikers became lumped in with common criminals for the act of riding bikes on trails.
USFS lands are administered by different Regions which have broad discretion in making land-use decisions. Most of Montana is under USFS Region 1. To many mountain bikers, especially those in our group, USFS Region 1 seems to be the unit most opposed to mountain biking.
In addition to sharing information about the great mountain bike trails we experienced on our trip, this three-part series will also explore how the USFS Region 1 manages recreation in the lands under its jurisdiction. Sadly it appears this region of the USFS tends to exclude mountain bikers and other groups from public lands while giving preference to hikers and horseback riders.
Our fear is that some (or possibly all) of the trails featured in this series may be closed to mountain-biking for reasons of “preservation.” (Preservation for what, and for whom, are valid questions.)
The Bitterroot Valley
I don’t feel compelled to ride alpine or subalpine trails regularly. These are rare treasures enjoyed when weather is good and conditions are perfect. Alpine trails are fragile beasts, not to be ridden (and consequently abused) when wet. In Montana, like other areas, alpine access generally isn’t easy, and the riding season is short due to the need to wait for snowmelt. This means the window to ride in the alpine is narrow.
Our first stop was the Bitterroot Valley close to Hamilton, Montana in the southwestern corner of the state. Here, two groups who both enjoy the outdoors have clashed with lawsuits, suing one another to press their views.
On one side, mountain bikers and motorized users local to the Valley have a broad view that they should be allowed to recreate on federal lands. On the other side, Wilderness advocates have a more restrictive view asserting that hiking, skiing, and horseback riding are the only activities that should be allowed.
Mountain bikers and motorized trail users won a short-lived reprieve following an early July 2018 court decision holding that the US Forest Service process closing trails to biking was broken. However, Wilderness advocates are tenacious litigants. Mountain bikers enjoyed sanctioned riding along the 110 miles of alpine Montana trails in the Bitterroot valley for all of one day. These trails were once again shut down in early August 2018 following Wilderness advocates’ lawsuits to close bike trails while the Forest Service “fixes” their broken process by pretending to consult the public.
Roostercomb – Kent Lake
Rooster Comb to Kent Lake via 313 – Bitterroot Valley Montana August 10, 2018
On the first day in Montana we rode Roostercomb – 313 – Kent Lake as an out-and-back with Lance Pysher of the Bitterroot Backcountry Cyclists who showed us around. These are uncrowded trails with a wonderfully technical backcountry flavor; there’s not a berm in sight.
For us sea-level-dwellers, this ride is surprisingly hard starting at 2,300m and topping out at 2,650m (about 8,700ft.). It is an out-and-back 14km, which sounds relatively short. However, Bitterroot trails are quite technical and you’ll always find yourself fighting for speed amongst all the roots and rocks. Lance cautions that many visitors to the region consistently overestimate the amount of ground they will cover. Anticipate this and budget your time accordingly.
Of note, the 313 Trail (aka Rock Creek Divide Trail) is rarely ridden in its full length — we sampled but a small section. The length — about 50km — is not the issue. The issue is its remoteness and the haphazard nature of its maintenance. Mountain bikers were the primary maintainers of this trail, and following their exclusion were forbidden from doing any work. The USFS is, of course, under-resourced. Accordingly, Trail #313 is mostly used as a connector for other trails, as in this ride.
On this day of our trip, 180km (110mi) in the Montana Bitterroots, representing a quarter of the singletrack in the area and some of the best alpine trails, became illegal.
In the spirit of cooperation and goodwill to all, the Wilderness movement obtained a trail closure order banning bikes and motos from a good chunk of US Forest Service lands. We were camping at Como Lake without cell service and only found out about this after aborting a ride due to a rear shock hardware explosion on (the suddenly illegal) Razorback Ridge. This was a shame as Razorback had just recently seen tons of maintenance by mountain bikers following the short-lived re-opening and bike legitimization earlier in the summer.
We made do by heading off to ride the still-legal Crystal Creek trail and found that the quality of trails in the area is still acceptable with a good level of jank and a distinct absence of golden berms. Crystal Creek is a short ride that can be made much longer as part of a route that the BBTC has dubbed “Macho Nachos,” a 43.2km-long ride with 1,200m of climbing and 2,290m of descending, a healthy ratio!
On the downhill
Wilderness and the Bitterroots
Bitterroot trails were re-opened in early July 2018 then subsequently closed in August 10, 2018. In announcing this closure, the Bitterroot National Forest (which is part of US Forest Service Region 1), confirmed that “trails in Bitterroot WSAs are closed to mountain bikes.” There is an opportunity for mountain-bikers to provide comments on the US Forest Service’s decision (comment by November 18, 2018) about closing trails in the Bitterroots. Whether the USFS will be swayed or politely shelve input into G for Garbage is to be seen.
One might ask why these trail are forbidden for mountain-biking? Crowds aren’t the issue; there aren’t enough users in the Bitterroot valley to create conflict. Hamilton is the largest town in the valley with 4,700 people. Missoula has 73,000 people but at 55km away, it’s far enough that riding the Bitterroot trails is a weekend endeavor.
Maintenance isn’t the issue; mountain-bikers contribute overwhelming volunteer resources. Following the month and a half of trails being legitimized for biking, the small (approximately 50 person) Bitterroot Backcountry Cyclists mountain-bike volunteer group managed to put in some 250 volunteer hours, clearing 500 trees and 20+ miles of trail.
The issue is the US Forest Service Region 1. Their default position is to manage public use of public land as anti-bike. Look for more on the the US Forest Service (Region 1)’s anti-bike stance and the alphabet soup of wilderness designations in part 2 of this series.
Great article. I enjoyed reading this.
My question to you is about the local wildlife. Do you take any precautions due to the grizzly bear and mountain lion populations in the area?
In the Bitterroots wildlife encounters are with black bears mostly and for them keep the noise level high and keep alert (as always). Further east it’s grizzlys which may be also encountered. For that be even more careful. It does not hurt to carry bear spray and bangers and know how to use them
Great article. So sad. They just keep banging and banging and spending and spending…….and we lose.
It all starts with the head of USFS R1. Horribly opinionated about bikes, and how they should be restricted.
I’m a passionate mountain biker–along with skiing, whitewater boating, and hiking, I’m mad with the joy riding provides. I also believe the more wilderness designation, the healthier the ecosystems remain. While I don’t like losing trails, the health of the earth is most important. Impact matters. I get really sad to see MT bikers align with ATVs, ATVers who are aligned with extractive industries. If we can’t ride our bikes in certain areas, so be it. We’re strong enough to walk.
Yes we worked with motorized groups to share legal fees. We are a small mountain biking group with limited funds, I agree impact matters, and the Forest Service in the Travel Plan could show any impact. We want the areas protected as well. We also believe that wilderness exists outside wilderness designations. We agree that large areas of un-roaded un-developed areas are critical for the health of the ecosystem. That is a different question than excluding bikes in the name of wilderness designation. The last 30 years are proof of that. We have been riding the Sapphires and Blue Joint are since they were designation WSAs and they are as wild and healthy as they were in 1977. Let’s protect these areas and allow continued bike access.
In reply to ahoffman; that’s all very well. However note that in the Bitterroots USFS Region 1 is prohibiting mountainbikers from areas that are NOT wilderness. Mountain-bikers are being cut out from areas that are in the beginning processes of being studied for wilderness consideration (hence the Wilderness Study Area designation). That’s the kick in the nuts – overreach by government bureaucracy
Here’s an online form that you can submit to help voice our opposition to closing these trails.
Done. Thanks for making it easy!
In all things, balance. Hiking, equestrian, biking, moto, etc.– there is room for all in Montana, and taking back historically open, and minimally impacted trails is unforgivable.
Sorry, Kosmo, but you might get a bit more cosmic in your reply. The only thing unforgivable is the notion that landscapes don’t evolve. Is climate change not happening in your world? You really are perpetuating the argument of scorchers. Hope your karma hangs in. Thanks.
And riding my bike in Montana alpine country has exactly what impact on climate change?!
Sheesh. I’m out.
Kosmo, are you really unable to see the earth beyond yourself? No ability to make connections? Really? Study harder.
I looked up Testers Bill. It is called the Forest Jobs and Recreation Act. Here are a few of the gems from this bill:
Section 101 Purpose: This includes high timber mandates based on numbers not science.
“to create an immediate, predictable, and increased flow of wood fiber with commercial value”
Section 205: Releases all Montana WSAs managed by the BLM
Section 206: Releases all of the Sapphire WSA on Bitterroot National Forest Land
Gosh guys, this article is deplorable and riddled with untrue statements.
“Mountain bikers and motorized trail users won a short-lived reprieve following an early July 2018 court decision holding that the US Forest Service process closing trails to biking was broken”
Motorized users didn’t win any reprieve. Sadly, the bikers allied with the motorized users in their lawsuit. If they had won then these pristine areas would now be motorized areas.
“However, Wilderness advocates are tenacious litigants.”
Wilderness advocates did not litigate this case. The mountain bikers, atv’ers and snowmobilers did. They sued the US Forest Service and wilderness advocates joined the case as amicus to the defendant.
“ Mountain bikers enjoyed sanctioned riding along the 110 miles of alpine Montana trails in the Bitterroot valley for all of one day.”
Not that it matters but they were allowed to ride in the areas until the judge’s clarification which was about one month.
“These trails were once again shut down in early August 2018 following Wilderness advocates’ lawsuits to close bike trails while the Forest Service “fixes” their broken process by pretending to consult the public.”
Again, wilderness advocates did not sue anybody but asked the judge for a clarification on his ruling.
“In the spirit of cooperation and goodwill to all, the Wilderness movement obtained a trail closure order banning bikes and motos from a good chunk of US Forest Service lands.”
The wilderness movement did not obtain a trail closure – the judge closed the trails until the Forest Service takes comments from the public on the trails and issues a decision. They have only the ability to ask the Forest Service and the Courts that the laws be followed and enforced. The mountain bike community is harming their credibility with this kind of stuff and should rein it in.
As one of the intervenors, the Friends of the Bitterroot knows we that out lawsuit had several separate claims and it was possible to to win access for mountain bikers without winning access for motorized used. Unlike the Friends of the Bitterroot and MWA we don’t have an organization like Earth Justice willing to bankroll our litigation. So, yes we made a tactical decision to work with motorized groups to litigate. Our yearly budget of $2000 does pay for much in the way of legal fees.
You also know we have tried to work with you and members of other quiet use coalition to find a solution for the Sapphires and Blue Joint WSA. The answer from FOB and MWA continues be that the only acceptable designation you will accept is wilderness designation for all of it. That doesn’t leave much room for dialog. We are willing to sit down any time with you, FOB, the backcountry horsemen, and MWA to find a solution that finds some new wilderness and some alternative designations that keep these areas wild, protect corridors for Grizzlies like the one that made it as far as Stevensville, and also acknowledges that bike have been a compatible quiet use for 30 years
I love mountain biking, but I also love Wilderness. I notice when you say there is room for all in Montana, you are not mentioning bears, wolverines, lynx, bobcats, bull trout et al. These animals rely on untouched roadless areas. They need Wilderness. There is plenty of riding in the Bitterroot outside the Wilderness Study Areas. I enjoy it every day.
The Mountain Bikers are being manipulated by Senator Daines and Rep Gianforte who want to release those WSAs to logging. There are lots of big trees up there and if those WSAs are designated Wilderness as they should be, logging will never happen. If bikers have access to WSAs, they will fight to keep them out of the Wilderness system. Then, Daines and Gianforte can get them released by Congress. Don’t believe they will be protected by the Roadless Rule. Utah and Alaska are working to change that designation to allow logging even as we speak.
This is really about leaving some places untouched so wildlife can thrive and natural processes can occur without human intervention. The forest protects our water sources that protect our fisheries that protect us. We have to leave something untouched and untrammeled. That is what the Wilderness act is all about. It is not about access.
Wilderness Advocate, Can you tell me where else in the Bitterroot we can ride big backcountry rides comparable to the Sapphires and Blue Joint. We already lost pretty much the entire west side of the valley to wilderness and recommended wilderness. Weasel and Railroad Creeks were super technical rides that never saw horse or hiker traffic. The only reason any one could access Kent Lake or Rooster Comb in the Sapphire was because mountain bikers cleared the trail. BBC loves wilderness as much as the FOB. I agree we are concerned about the IRA rule now that Murkowski is trying to remove in Alaska. There might be some big trees up there, but if have been in the WSAs as much as we have been, the vast majority of Razorback and Little Blue Joint has already burned. Same thing for the Sapphires. Pretty much every thing north of Rooster Comb has burned. Last year the area around sign creek burned. You want it protected so do we. We want the area left unroaded for wildlife as well. As the recent Grizzly showed, they will eventually be re-estabished. Where we disagree is that wilderness is the same thing as designated wilderness. We believe we can keep the Sapphires and Blue Joint wild and still maintain bike access. The two do not need be exclusive of each other. We believe that wilderness designation similar to what Tester proposed in his Forest Recreation and Restoration Act is a reasonable start. Once again we ask you and the other members of FOB to work together for what both want the area protected for future generations of the Bitterroot Valley, human and otherwise.
Wildlife matters to you only when bicycle access is involved right? Are you willing to kick hikers out of 200,000 acres of designated Wilderness for wildlife values? Haven’t seen it yet.
Our Congressmen are not manipulating mountain bikers. When there are multimillion dollar industries (I’m talking about Wilderness groups) pushing to remove bicycles from every inch with no compromise and no proof of environmental degradation… this is what happens.
The Montana Wilderness Study Area Act of 1977 clearly says the Wilderness Study Areas must be administered to “maintain their presently existing wilderness character and potential for inclusion in the National Wilderness Preservation System.” It’s obvious that allowing mountain biking in these areas is not maintaining “their presently existing wilderness character and potential for inclusion.”
The first reason it’s obvious is that Mountain Bikes are not allowed in Wilderness Areas. All agencies that manage Wilderness Areas (National Park Service, Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Land Management and even the Forest Service) agree that mountain bikes are banned from Wilderness Areas. Therefore allowing mountain bikes in the WSA’s created by the Montana Wilderness Study Area Act of 1977 would not be maintaining the “Wilderness Character” of those Areas.
Also, letting mountain bikers continue to ride in these WSAs will make them become more attached to these areas. They will become more opposed to the creation of those Wilderness Areas. This is not maintaining the “potential for inclusion in the Wilderness Preservation System.”
The Sapphire and Blue Joint Wilderness Study Areas were created by an Act of Congress in 1977. The comment period for that law was in 1977. Nothing that happens in a Travel Plan in 2018 should have any effect on those Wilderness Study Areas.
The only way the status of those two Wilderness Study Areas will change is if Congress decides on whether they should become Wilderness Areas. In the meantime, the Forest Service must follow the Montana Wilderness Study Area Act of 1977 when managing these areas.
Here’s a false statement in the article: “The issue is the US Forest Service Region 1. Their default position is to manage public use of public land as anti-bike.” Sorry, but this is not the case. The Forest Service is just following the law. Maybe mountain bikers just need to read the Montana Wilderness Study Area Act of 1977. It clearly says those WSA must be managed to keep their “Wilderness Character.” Everybody knows that mountain biking is banned in Wilderness Areas. Having a non-conforming activity in these areas is not keeping their Wilderness Character.