In Kootenai Forest, a Test Case for Mountain Bike Access

By Beacon Staff

A proposed travel and recreation plan for a section of the Kootenai National Forest has some mountain bikers in northwest Montana concerned that they could lose access to trails they have ridden for years. And though any new restrictions on trail access for cyclists are far from finalized, the case demonstrates how mountain biking, a relatively new sport when compared to uses like horseback riding or snowmobiling, can prove difficult for federal land managers to categorize.

The area in question is known as the Galton Project, a section of the Fortine Ranger District stretching from U.S. Highway 93 to the edge of the Kootenai Forest south of Dickey Lake. The Galton Project encompasses the Ten Lakes Wilderness Study Area, which was established in 1977. After a 2007 lawsuit settlement with the Montana Wilderness Association, the U.S. Forest Service is moving more quickly to establish travel plans for the Ten Lakes WSA.

But when a proposed action plan for the Galton Project was released in June, mountain bikers in northwest Montana did not like the restrictions it included on cyclists. Out of the roughly 176 miles of single-track trails affected by the plan, 37 miles would allow for mountain biking. According to Pete Costain, president of Flathead Fat Tires, a local mountain biking advocacy group, closing trails to bikes in WSAs is fairly standard, but the Galton Project would close many trails that are outside the Ten Lakes area to cyclists.

“It’s going to, I think, unfairly restrict quite a bit of mountain biking that’s been ride-able basically forever,” Costain said. “It’s a really odd proposal that the Forest Service came up with.”

He also called it a “slap in the face” for mountain bikers that the Galton plan proposes allowing snowmobiles in some parts of the Ten Lakes WSA.

“I have a really hard time with an agency, that’s willing to give carte blanche to snowmobiling, putting restrictions on bikes,” Costain added.

Just north of Fortine, Todd Tanner offers lodging at his Grave Creek Cabins. He is also in the process of launching a mountain bike guiding business, and envisions offering multi-day, ultra-light “bike-packing” trips into the backcountry. But Tanner believes the proposed restrictions on mountain biking in the Galton Project could effectively prevent him from getting his guiding business off the ground.

“The proposed Galton Project, the way it is now, would completely shut me down,” Tanner said. “I was shocked at what was in the proposal.”

Though both Tanner and Costain have objections to some of the proposals in the Galton Project, neither thinks it’s due to any conscious discrimination against mountain bikers by the Forest Service. Rather, as travel plans are drawn up around Montana, no real precedent exists for fitting mountain bicycling into the “multiple use” mix.

Betty Holder, district ranger at the Murphy Lake station, said she was surprised by the number of letters she received from mountain bikers during the public comment period for the Galton Project, which wrapped up Aug. 31. In determining a travel plan for the Ten Lakes area, the Forest Service generally tries to determine what uses the area was allowing in 1977, when the law set up the WSA designation. Snowmobiles were allowed at that time in Ten Lakes, but mountain biking didn’t exist in northwest Montana at that time, so she is trying to determine where motorized dirt bikes were allowed.

“If there were trails open to motorcycles, then a similar number of trails would be open to mountain bikes,” Holder said. But with little documentation of the allowed uses in these areas, she has gone so far as to try to interview the district ranger during the 1970s to see if he can fill her in on what was allowed during that period.

“We don’t have great records back from 1977,” Holder said. “It’s very difficult to determine where certain uses were allowed.”

Holder hopes to have a draft environmental impact statement issued by this spring, and said she is open to changes, alternatives and compromises based on the feedback she has received – the majority of which has come from the mountain biking community so far.

“This was the first proposal and we’re looking for these comments back from the public on how they would do it differently and why,” Holder said. “If there are particular trails or areas that are of interest to folks then we are interested in hearing that.”

How mountain bikers fit into travel plans on federal lands is an issue likely to be cropping up all over the state, particularly in the wake of the Forest Jobs bill by U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., which seeks to establish new Wilderness areas in Montana.

Bob Allen, co-president of the Montana Mountain Bike Alliance, said his group is attempting to provide a consistent voice for mountain bikers in the state, one that is willing to work on a “trail-by-trail” basis with federal agencies in specific areas to preserve certain rides. But like any other multiple use group, mountain bikers are not going to willingly relinquish access to treasured trails.

“It’s not 1977 anymore and we have a huge conservation-based, very active constituency in this state in the form of mountain bikers,” Allen said. “Asking for a few of these trails here and there for bicyclists in Montana is not an unreachable stretch.”