Back in the early 2000s, the Spencer Trails just northwest of Whitefish were slowly becoming a mountain bike mecca as new drops, jumps and features began popping up along the 2,500-acre area of state land just off U.S. Highway 93.
But despite the freeride trail system’s growing popularity among locals, with its steep drops and adrenaline-inducing jumps, it was technically illegal.
The user-built trails weren’t authorized by the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation (DNRC), the state agency in charge of the land, and posed environmental and liability concerns. That meant there was a possibility of the Spencer Trails’ decommission.
It was this potential threat that brought locals together to form Flathead Area Mountain Bikers (FAMB), then known as Flathead Fat Tires, to start managing the trails and prevent their disappearance.
Formed in 2005, the nonprofit now collaborates with the City of Whitefish, Whitefish Legacy Partners and the DNRC to construct safer, higher-quality trails while ensuring they remain environmentally friendly, said Executive Director Becky Briber, FAMB’s only year-round employee.
“I would say that it’s gone from being a more informal riding zone to a much more formalized, safer and higher-quality riding zone than it used to be,” Briber said.
Now, Spencer is home to countless different features, some more than 10 feet off the ground with 25-foot gaps, rated from easy greens to challenging double blacks.
“Historically, the trails at Spencer were all pretty difficult,” FAMB board member Noah Bodman said. “We’ve worked hard to make the trails a bit more accessible with some easier and smaller options while still keeping the difficult features that made the area popular in the first place.”
While FAMB’s nine-member board of directors and trail-maintenance crews have poured most of their energy into the Spencer Trails over the past 15 years, Briber says they are working to expand multiuse trail construction across the valley. This year, the U.S. Forest Service approved two separate projects, which will total roughly 55 miles of new trails, near Columbia Falls and northwest of Whitefish Mountain Resort.
In collaboration with Whitefish Legacy Partners, FAMB and trail crews will begin constructing roughly 28 miles of new trail following commercial logging and hazardous fuel reduction in the Taylor Hellroaring project on the southern front of the Whitefish Mountain Range. New trails will connect to the existing Whitefish Mountain Resort trails and extend northwest, connecting the upper ridgeline trail to the Ralph Thayer Memorial Trail near Werner Peak, creating extensive backcountry rides along with a lower section that will link with Haskill Basin’s trails to join the Whitefish Trail, Bodman said.
“Some of the trails in this network will really open up some options for some bigger, longer backcountry adventures,” Bodman said. “All these trails are multiuse … it should be really good for everyone.”
In addition to trail building, logging and wildfire mitigation, the area is also home to drainages that filter into Whitefish Lake, which Bodman says will benefit from fuels reduction.
About a mile north of Columbia Falls, just west of North Fork Road, the Crystal Cedar project was also approved this year, and it’s gaining traction for a 25-mile trail network. Commonly known as the Cedar Flats Area, FAMB teamed up with the Forest Service and Gateway to Glacier Trail, another nonprofit trail-building organization, to construct a network similar to the Whitefish Trail.
“The hope is that it will essentially be the equivalent of the Whitefish Trail system in Whitefish where people can just ride right from their house in town,” Bodman said. “It’s just super easy access, which is something that’s really gonna benefit Columbia Falls.”
Trail crews plan to create a series of loops in the Lower Cedar Flats area, gaining elevation to the northern hills with scenic views of the valley. FAMB intends to expand off of the existing all-terrain vehicle (ATV) trails and build new trailheads that will accommodate more vehicles.
While trail construction is in limbo until logging and wildfire mitigation is completed, Bodman says FAMB wants to begin within the next few summers. While it will take the better part of a decade to complete the projects, Bodman hopes to have some sections of the trails ready for users in roughly three years.
As FAMB expands its work through more projects, Briber says the board was able to form a paid trail crew this year with funds from the Whitefish Community Foundation’s Great Fish Community Challenge held last summer. FAMB hosts volunteer trail nights every Wednesday and completes more than 600 volunteer hours a year at Spencer, but Briber says they needed a full-time, professional crew to take on bigger projects.
“It’s really awesome to see how much of the community shows up to help out,” Briber said. “But it’s not the same as having a professional trail crew that’s working five days a week.”
With one full-time employee, FAMB’s Flathead Trail Crew leader started clearing and maintaining trails this spring, with help from other part-time crewmembers as needed.
In addition to trail management, FAMB has also established itself as a well-rounded resource for most mountain bike-related activities and programs in the valley, offering free youth and women’s mountain bike skills clinics, group rides and a youth scholarship program. They also built the Armory Pump Track in Whitefish last year.
And while FAMB is known best for its work on Spencer Trails, Briber says the board is working to rebrand itself as a multiuse trail-building organization spanning across the Flathead.
“A lot of people know that we manage and maintain Spencer, and with our Flathead Trail Crew we’re trying to get the message out there that we’re not just working on Spencer anymore,” Briber said. “We’re trying to branch out to work on not just mountain bike trails. We’re maintaining multiuse trails valley-wide.”
For more information or to donate, visit www.flatheadamb.org.
Read more of our best long-form journalism in Flathead Living. Pick up the summer edition, where this story originally appeared, for free on newsstands this month.
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