Riding Free

By Beacon Staff

WHITEFISH – For nearly two decades the finest freeride mountain biking in the Flathead Valley has been happening on an illicit network of trails and technical features spider-webbing Spencer Mountain west of Whitefish.

Built by a clandestine group of local riders, the trails were the worst kept secret in town, and, as the state Department of Natural Resources and Conservation moved forward with a pair of timber sales, an expiration date to the cloak-and-dagger arrangement seemed inevitable.

“They were doing it secretly and it was unauthorized, meaning that if they got caught the DNRC could fine them and rip out the features,” Heidi Van Everen, executive director of the Whitefish Legacy Partners, said.

On Aug. 19, the end drew near, but it wasn’t the doomsday conclusion that locals had been dreading since the state first obliterated the trails and features in 2001.

With unanimous support, the Whitefish City Council sanctioned Spencer Mountain by issuing a 10-year recreational use license, legitimizing 15 miles of trail and monetizing the land by allowing the DNRC to generate revenues for State School Trust Lands through the timber sales, while the nonprofit group Whitefish Legacy Partners will raise the money to pay the annual recreation use fees.

The end result is a marriage of a traditional State School Trust Lands revenue-generating mechanism like logging with the more progressive notion that recreation can be a lucrative use of public lands.

Under the plan, the city will hold the recreation license, as they do for the Whitefish Trail near Beaver Lake, while Whitefish Legacy Partners will work to raise the funds needed to pay the annual license fee – about $7,500, including a base fee of $4,500 and an additional $200 per mile.

A key element of the agreement involves the DNRC and Whitefish Legacy Partners collaborating to develop land-use strategies that don’t compromise the recreational quality of the mountain. A south timber sale will take place this winter and a north timber sale will follow shortly after. Both sales require winter logging and commercial thins, along with extensive recreation mitigation strategies.

Meanwhile, the city of Whitefish, Flathead Fat Tires and Whitefish Legacy Partners will begin developing recreation amenities – reworking the trailhead, building a kiosk and adding signage that includes maps and difficulty levels.

User groups like the Flathead Fat Tires and Friends of Spencer have long argued that the pair of proposed timber sales would depreciate the recreational value of the land, even though recreational management was ostensibly one of six objectives identified in the timber sale.

“We wanted to prove that recreation is valuable on public lands and we want to encourage the DNRC to accommodate it because it does generate revenue,” Van Everen said. “But we also need timber management. It was a matter of striking a balance and meeting everyone’s needs.”

Although the city takes ownership of the trails under the arrangement, Flathead Fat Tires will serve as the responsible maintenance entity. The group’s members, both past and present, are responsible for building most of the existing trails, like Spooky Pete’s, Otter Pop, Malice in Plunderland, Maple Syrup and Flowfactory.

The 2,500-acre Spencer Mountain area is filigreed with more than 30 miles of user-built trails, and former Flathead Fat Tires president and professional trail builder Pete Costain said the existing stunt features will not only stay up, but can be enhanced.

“It’s amazing that this actually happened. Anyone who has even a vague interest in traditional rugged mountain biking will love it,” Costain said.

A cyclist descends a rugged trail on Spencer Mountain. – Photo courtesy of Flathead Fat Tires

The recreational use license adds seven miles of freeride trails and eight miles of natural surface trails to the list of sustainable trails authorized on the state school trust lands surrounding Whitefish, bringing the mileage of the Whitefish Trail to more than 40 miles.
Of the 30 miles of trail on Spencer Mountain, the recreational use license applies to 15 miles, with an option of adding additional mileage in the future.

“We tried to focus on what we think is the most critical, and an amount of trails that we can afford,” Van Everen said.

Cycling aficionados familiar with Spencer Mountain will surely notice differences after the timber sales take place, but a wintertime harvest means the trails will not be closed during the busy season.

“It is going to be different. Of the total acreage, 1,600 acres will be impacted by the timber sales. We think the outcome will fit with Spencer Mountain,” Van Everen said.

The recreational use license also calls for the installation of signage and maps at the trail and at trail junctions, similar to those along the Whitefish Trail, but they will also warn riders of the difficulty levels. All stunt features will offer “ride-arounds” as an alternative to cyclists.

“We want to uphold the character of Spencer but we want to give it a flavor of the Whitefish Trail, too,” Van Everen said.

Kyle Watkins, a board member of Flathead Fat Tires who has been riding the trails on Spencer Mountain for years, said the license would only improve the trails.

“From a riding standpoint, the trails are going to ride better. Logging is part of where we live. It will change the landscape but it will not affect the trail. It’s a win-win,” he said.

Erin Bodman, president of Flathead Fat Tires, and her husband, Noah Bodman, an attorney and an avid mountain biker, collaborated for months with the DNRC and Whitefish Legacy Partners to craft an arrangement that suited the needs of everyone, including cross-country cyclists, hikers and equestrians.

“I only see benefits to this license. We are making the features safer, people are able to get out there and actively maintain the trails. I only see change for the better,” Erin Bodman said.

Flathead Fat Tires will be holding fundraising events and looking for volunteers to help improve trails. Anyone interested in making a donation or volunteering should contact the group at [email protected].