A proposed trail network near Bigfork supported by a group of local mountain bikers is under fire from the Swan View Coalition conservation group, which says trails in the area are being built illegally while Flathead National Forest officials look the other way.
“There’s all this work going out on the ground and the Forest Service is saying, ‘We’ll start our analysis next winter,’” Keith Hammer, of the Swan View Coalition, said. “We’re trying to make people fully aware that the Forest Service and the proponents of extreme, breakneck mountain biking have gotten totally ahead of the law and the public process.”
At issue are two areas: an illegal trail Kalispell mountain biker Ron Cron built in 2009 on Crane Mountain above Ferndale, and the Beardance, Phillips and Crane Creek trails above the east shore of Flathead Lake, where he and other mountain bikers have been doing volunteer trail maintenance.
Hammer charges that Cron’s establishment of an illegal trail sets a dangerous precedent for recreation plans in the Flathead Forest, and that his work on the Beardance trail goes far beyond mere maintenance.
“We’re not arguing about whether or not a there can be a log to cross a wet area,” Hammer said. “But the proponents and other people have built jumps and ramps and all kinds of breakneck biking stunts on a trail that is supposed to be shared with hikers and horses.”
Cron fires back that Hammer is attempting to stymie the proposed trails, “because I feel that he needs conflict.”
“Basically what we’ve done is the work that needs to be done up to the (National Environmental Policy Act) process,” Cron said of the Crane Mountain trails. “All they are is game trails that downfall has been removed out of.”
In June, Cron held a fundraiser aimed at developing a network of trails on Crane Mountain specifically designed for “freeride” mountain biking, a style that involves descending steep, technical sections of trail on bicycles with advanced suspensions. Cron envisions a network of freeride trails on Crane Mountain drawing mountain bikers from all over the region.
Responding to Hammer, Andrew Johnson, recreation program manager for the Swan Lake District, noted that Cron was charged with a misdemeanor and cited over the illegal trail on Crane Mountain, and described any work on the other three trails that goes beyond maintenance as part of working with dedicated but overzealous volunteers.
“I did definitely have some concerns and still have concerns about what went on,” Johnson said. “It’s been a challenge for us.”
“We don’t want anybody out there building something on the national forest in the hope that it will be made legitimate somewhere down the road,” he continued, but added: “Every day we’re getting closer and closer to the good, working, productive relationship that we want to have with the mountain biking community.”
Earlier this year, Hammer obtained the affidavit by Flathead National Forest special agents related to Cron’s incident on Crane Mountain in 2009, along with several emails between Johnson and other officials regarding those trails, through a Freedom of Information Act request.
The documents show that Cron was fined $300 for three days he spent developing a trail on Crane Mountain after he said he found Swan Lake Ranger District employees unreceptive to his proposals to expand trails there. An agent found his hand tools on the trail, took them as evidence and left a business card. Cron later called and admitted building the trail.
“We purposely left the beginning and end of the trail obscured and not brushed out so it was not obvious because we knew we were doing something illegal,” Cron wrote in the affidavit. “We wanted to build the trail first before telling the Forest Service because we knew once the trail was established it would never be removed.”
Cron said he was motivated to build the trails by “Freedom Riders,” a documentary on the effort by mountain bikers in the Bridger-Teton National Forest to illegally build freeride trails, which eventually became a collaborative effort with the Forest Service.
“There I found a model that worked,” Cron said. “I called up the Forest Service and said I would turn myself in if they could put me in touch with the people I needed to talk to about making these trails legal.”
Hammer believes any future public process considering mountain biking on Crane Mountain is illegitimate while the trail there already exists.
“The trails continue to be used and have been used for over two years,” Hammer said. “So the entire process is biased until the Forest Service goes out and shuts down these illegal trails.”
Johnson said there remains, “no prohibition on cross-country travel by a mountain bike on most of the Flathead National Forest,” and no further trail work has occurred on Crane Mountain.
But internal emails between Johnson and other Forest Service officials, obtained by Hammer and provided to the Beacon, display frustration at the ongoing, unapproved push to develop trails on Crane Mountain. Though names in the email excerpts were redacted, it’s clear Johnson is describing Cron when he writes of the June fundraiser, “I think his decision to raise money is very premature and disingenuous.”
In a later email, Johnson describes discussions over proposed routes on Crane Mountain misinterpreted as approvals to begin trail work.
“His understanding of what has and has not been authorized is out of whack,” Johnson wrote. “The bottom line is that he was tasked with developing a proposal, not building trails … At this point I am still not sure that the idea is even viable at its current location.”
Other emails by Forest Service officials express concern over how freeride mountain biking fits with other uses. That compatibility is what has Hammer concerned about the Beardance Trail, where riding features like elevated logs and other natural obstacles have been incorporated.
Cron defends the work done by him and other volunteers, likening the “bog log” crossings through muddy areas as similar to trail work one might see in the Bob Marshall Wilderness. He disagrees that any technical features increase speed by bicyclists; rather, they decrease speed.
“We are not widening the trail, we are not removing the rocks,” Cron said, “because that helps slow the bike down.”
Johnson conceded that though some of the work on Beardance was “outside the scope of what we wanted to see on the ground,” much of it benefits all users with “great improvements to areas of the trail that were really muddy and rutted.”
The Swan View Coalition argues that a public process discussing freeride mountain biking in the Flathead National Forest is overdue, and Johnson says that discussion needs to occur as a result of the sport’s evolution.
“Like other activities, we have to consider where it’s appropriate,” Johnson said.
Cron, meanwhile, maintains that this discussion wouldn’t even be called for had he not taken the action he did.
“Even with a name like Ron Cron, nobody knew me until I broke the law,” he said.
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