Bridging the Divide

Mountain Biking and the Wilderness Question
TEXT by Benjamin Donatelle

Descending a hill, fueled by gravity, gears and momentum, the scenery blurs and narrows the riders focus to a small point about half a second ahead of the front wheel. This realization came to me a few years ago while descending the Gallatin National Forest’s Big Creek Trail in Paradise Valley. Near the bottom of a tight rocky turn, the trail is obscured by a large clump of willows. As I raced around the corner, I suddenly found myself face-to-face with a giant palomino horse lumbering up the trail under the burden of its rider. I squeezed my brake levers to the handlebars and skidded to a stop, inches from a fuzzy confrontation I wasn’t going to win. This close call reminded me of the many different people using the forest today and the need to be extremely careful when gravity takes over.

Part of the allure of mountain biking in the Gallatin National Forest is its tremendous variety of terrain and trails. From the Bridgers and Bangtails to the Gallatin and Madison ranges, over 1,000 miles of single track lead through spectacular forests and alpine terrain. These trails connect us to our natural heritage and provide an opportunity to ride for hours without seeing anything but the wildness of Montana. But as our population grows, our impact on the wild lands we love increases and like my near run-in with the horse, conflict is inevitable.

When we widen our focus and recognize the different needs of the increasing number of people recreating in the Gallatin National Forest, it’s clear that cooperation is essential to secure a wild future and ensure a safe experience for all.

Wilderness anchors our wild heritage, provides wildlife space to roam, and leaves a clean environment for future generations.

Last fall, Federal District Judge Donald Molloy agreed with a lawsuit that claimed the Gallatin National Forest’s 2006 Travel Management Plan did not adequately protect the 155,000-acre Hyalite-Porcupine-Buffalo Horn Wilderness Study Area as intended by The Montana Wilderness Study Act.  Passed by Congress in 1977, the Act designated nine areas in the state to be managed to “…maintain their presently existing wilderness character and potential for inclusion in the National Wilderness Preservation System (section 3c).”

Despite decades of effort, the Hyalite-Porcupine-Buffalo Horn Wilderness Study Area has not yet received the protection Congress intended. In the years following the 1977 Act, Forest Service practice allowed increased trail usage by motorcycles, ATV’s and mountain bikes, none of which are compatible with wilderness designation.  This violation of the 1977 law was never challenged until it became official policy under the Gallatin National Forest Travel Management Plan of 2006. By then, many of these trail users – including mountain bikers – had established a precedent of riding trails that should have been off-limits under the requirements of the law. The Gallatin National Forest is now trying to comply with the court ruling by concentrating the heaviest use away from the sensitive central core of the Wilderness Study Area.

The word is out; bicycle access in the Hyalite-Porcupine-Buffalo Horn Wilderness Study Area (WSA) has changed this year. As a result, many bikers are confused about which trails are open and closed. If you’re wondering where you can and cannot ride, take a look at the map, or call the Bozeman Ranger District for a complete list of the 60 miles of trails within the WSA that are still open to mountain bikes.

To break it down, Emerald Lake (East Fork Hyalite Creek), Hyalite Creek, History Rock to S. Cottonwood, Storm Castle Creek (From the top of Hyalite Peak out Storm Castle Creek), Mount Blackmore (formerly closed under the 2006 travel plan), Portal Creek to Hidden Lakes and First Creek, Porcupine to Buffalo Horn, Dry Creek and Donahue Creek are all still open for business.

Outside the Wilderness Study Area nothing has changed. All trails in the Gallatin that were open to mountain bikes are still open. Trails around the edge including Mystic Lake and the Wall of Death (Bozeman Creek), Storm Castle, Garnet Mountain, Moser Creek and Hood Creek were not affected by the closures. Classic alpine rides in the Taylor Fork drainage and Yellow Mule near Big Sky are not affected, nor will they be affected anytime in the foreseeable future. The only trails closed by the Forest Service’s recent order are the Gallatin Crest Trail between Hyalite Peak and Ramshorn Lake, Big Creek in Paradise Valley, and a few spur trails that cut directly into the heart of the WSA.

Some people are unhappy about the new restrictions and oppose any Wilderness designation in the Gallatin Range, claiming it will lead to more conflict by concentrating use in already congested areas. On the other hand, some advocates want bicycle access restricted even further, proposing to expand the boundaries of the Gallatin Wilderness to the foothills south of Bozeman and to the Gallatin River near Big Sky. But many others see an opportunity to work with the community at large to finally protect a wild, roadless landscape and alleviate conflicts by improving our existing mountain bike trails.

The debate over riding bicycles in Wilderness has been argued in courtrooms and on bar stools since people began putting knobby tires on small rims and riding on dirt. For clarification, the big “W” denotes federally designated Wilderness Areas, as opposed to the more general wilderness concept.
The question repeatedly comes up: why are bicycles prohibited from Wilderness while horses are allowed? Strong evidence supports the argument that bicycles do far less damage to trails and produce less impact on the land than horses, yet this prohibition is still in place.  The simple answer comes down to the mechanical advantage of gears and wheels, which is expressly prohibited in the Wilderness Act of 1964, “…there shall be no temporary road, no use of motor vehicles, motorized equipment or motorboats, no landing of aircraft, no other form of mechanical transport, and no structure or installation within any such area (Section 4c).”

The fact is, wheels plus gears equals a machine, and unless Congress rewrites the Wilderness Act to specifically include mountain bikes, we won’t be riding our wire donkeys there. Even the International Mountain Bike Association (IMBA) “…respects the federal land agencies’ regulation that bicycles are not allowed in existing Wilderness. [2]”

Opening up the Wilderness Act for revision isn’t on any credible agenda. Revising it would weaken one of the most successful conservation laws in the world. Allowing access by one machine, human powered or not, wedges open the door to any and all other forms of machinery. The Wilderness Act is successful because of its acknowledgment of the earth in its most pristine condition. Altering the Act would destroy the legacy left to us by Emerson and Thoreau, Leopold and Muir, Abbey and Brower – the very people who instilled the value of Wilderness in the character of our country.

‘WRP’ hopes to one day establish an inter-connected network of looped trails that can be ridden from each community around the big “W” Wilderness core of the Gallatin Crest.

Mountain bikers can work with the Forest Service, conservation organizations and other recreational users to find reasonable and intelligent solutions to conflicting points of view. Within the framework of existing laws and Forest Plans, we can adjust boundaries to Wilderness proposals around cherished trails, add companion designations like National Recreation Areas to prevent closures, and open up opportunities for non-motorized trail construction to connect new and better routes. Without the cooperation of all players in the game, the cycle of animosity and conflict will continue.

Wilderness advocates don’t want to see mountain bikes banned from all our public lands; they are simply trying to get the law protecting the WSA enforced as it was intended by Congress. IMBA, meanwhile, doesn’t want to open existing Wilderness to mountain biking and has a history of working with conservation organizations to reroute trails and adjust proposed boundaries to protect mountain bike access in established areas.  The key to finding the balance is a difficult emotional process. Both sides will have to concede some of their priorities, but we have much more to gain by working together. Mountain bikers can support the effort by helping the Forest Service maintain existing trails and complete some of the projects already begun. Seven employees of the Gallatin National Forest are responsible for maintaining 1,500 miles of single track, an overwhelming job at best. Participating in projects that emphasize environmental stewardship and cooperation between user groups will help motivate the Forest Service to build new trails.

Leverich was rerouted because the old trail eroded into a creek that is home to the endangered westslope cutthroat trout. Built with the help of an IMBA trail crew, the new Leverich Trail (L2) is much more sustainable. Complete with banked corners and jumps the downhill is now one of the most popular bike trails in the valley and routes traffic to avoid hazardous conflicts with other users. The uphill no longer dumps sediment into the creek and is easier to ascend for bikers and hikers alike. When biologists, land managers, mountain bikers and other forest users work together, the result can be incredible, but this trail needs completion before we can move ahead with other projects. The Dirt Concern of the Gallatin Valley Bike Club has taken the lead on maintenance and completion of this very successful project – and can use all the help they can get to finish the job.

The precedent has been set elsewhere around the country in all the places we read about and see in the videos. Moab and Jackson Hole, Boise and Sun Valley, Bend and Hood River, Tahoe, Fruita, Durango and Aspen all have mountain bike trail networks connecting their communities to the surrounding mountains and work around substantial Wilderness Areas. Many recent Wilderness bills in Virginia, Oregon, Colorado and Utah have gotten congressional support because mountain bikers, conservationists and other recreationists have worked together to create cooperative plans. Our challenge in Montana is to find those places where Wilderness is appropriate, and balance them with improved trail access and companion designations.

As our population grows and urban areas expand further into the surrounding wild lands, we need Wilderness designations to protect sensitive ecosystems for wildlife and the natural beauty we humans cherish. Wilderness anchors our wild heritage, provides wildlife space to roam, and leaves a clean environment for future generations. Without Wilderness, our quality of life suffers.

The Wilderness and Recreation Partnership is a fledgling organization of mountain bikers who support wilderness. Using the Montana High Divide Trails Agreement as motivation, the group’s vision is to connect Bozeman, Livingston, Big Sky and West Yellowstone through a network of mountain bike trails around the Hyalite-Porcupine-Buffalo Horn Wilderness. Working with the conservation community, Forest Service and other recreation groups, WRP hopes to one day establish an interconnected network of looped trails that can be ridden from each community around the big “W” Wilderness core of the Gallatin Crest.

In the Gallatin Range, WRP hopes to adjust the boundaries of the current WSA so that a final Wilderness proposal includes companion designations that preserve mountain bike access forever. Together, we can find an intelligent solution to the Hyalite-Porcupine-Buffalo Horn Wilderness Study Area that preserves mountain bike access to the best trails and permanently protects the most sensitive areas of The Crest as Wilderness. If we join forces, the Gallatin Valley can assume the ranks of other destination mountain bike areas that have already taken the lead on trail networking and construction.
Montana is the “last best place” partly because there is so much wildness left and partly because so many diverse interests play a roll in keeping it that way. Government agencies and non-profit conservation groups, for-profit businesses and recreation user groups have collaborated over the years to protect Montana’s public lands. Mountain Bikers are a relatively recent addition to this conversation but due to sheer numbers and energy can have a tremendous impact on the future. It’s up to us to make sure it happens.

I grew up around the pine forests, prairies, lakes, and rivers of northern Wisconsin where I cultivated my reverence for all things living and wild. I got my first Huffy Dirt Bike on my 5th birthday and from then on spent my days terrorizing the neighborhood and riding on roads and trails around the Midwest. I moved “out west” after I graduated from the University of Wisconsin to learn to better appreciate the mountains and low humidity. For the past eight years I have lived and played around Bozeman MT. I like to ride mountain bikes, wrench on mechanical contraptions, ski, snowboard, garden, and arrange words to create meaningful ideas. I helped to co-found the Wilderness and Recreation Partnership partly to help build and maintain mountain bike trails in the Gallatin National Forest and partly to talk about preserving it in the face of our ever expanding population. I also like my peanut butter and jelly sandwiches extra gloppy.  - BEN


Wilderness and Recreation Partnership
Montana High Divide Trails Agreement
International Mountain Bike Association
Gallatin National Forest
Montanans For Gallatin Wilderness

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