Flathead National Forest Considers Flood of Requests for Recreation Permits

An uptick in applications for special-use permits includes proposals for guided e-bike tours, shuttles, outfitter services, races, retreats and events

By Tristan Scott
A campsite along the Upper Middle Fork of the Flathead River. Courtesy Flathead National Forest

As if residents of Northwest Montana need further evidence that outdoor recreation is on the rise in the region, the Flathead National Forest is processing a flood of requests for events and outfitting services this summer, with proposals ranging from guided e-bike and ATV tours spanning 200 “service days” in the Whitefish Range to single-day foot races, bicycle rides, wellness retreats and shuttle services.

The deluge of proposals comes as both state and federal public land managers grapple with an uptick in outdoor recreation uses and predict record-breaking visitation this summer. Over the past year, the COVID-19 pandemic has driven the public outdoors in unprecedented numbers, and regions like Northwest Montana, which already accommodates a robust outdoor-recreation economy, has at times been overrun.

Although issues related to congestion have been most prominent in places like Glacier National Park and the state parks girding Flathead Lake, they’ve also surfaced across the Flathead National Forest’s 2.4 million-acre footprint, which includes the Whitefish Range, the Swan Range and the Mission Mountains.

Agency officials are engaged in a constant juggling act to balance priorities like recreation, timber, fire, resource conservation and education. As outdoor recreation makes sharp gains, it’s become a prominent pillar in the U.S. Forest Service’s mission, forcing land managers to reconcile existing accommodations with the surge in demand. Meanwhile, as the suite of recreational uses becomes more diverse, agency officials are expanding the parameters of what they consider permissible activities.

According to Forest officials seeking input on this year’s slate of 19 proposed recreation events and guiding services, which would take place between May and October, the “events and activities would provide a spectrum of opportunities like livery services, trail running and races, guided mountain biking, bike races, motorized tours, among others.”

“Interest in outdoor recreation continues to grow in our area and we are excited to see so many people getting out and enjoying their national forest,” Flathead National Forest Supervisor Kurt Steele stated in a news release. “Our permit holders provide an amazing opportunity for connecting people with nature and are great partners in offering the public a wide variety of recreation opportunities.”

Based upon preliminary analysis, Steele said the projects likely fall within the agency’s category of actions that would exclude either an environmental assessment (EA) or an environmental impact statement (EIS) and that “no extraordinary circumstances exist which would preclude use of this category.” Even under a categorical exclusion, the proposals require some degree of assessment, but it falls well below the rigorous standard required under an EA or EIS.

Among the proposed projects is a request by Northwest Montana Adventures, an outfitter requesting 200 service days to provide guided ATV/UTV tours on the Tally Lake and Glacier View Ranger Districts. The applicant has proposed guided tours along existing motorized routes, including Taylor Creek Road to the Big Mountain summit house at Whitefish Mountain Resort, as well as guided routes to Werner Peak and Red Meadow Lake.

Similarly, the applicant Snowbike Nation is proposing e-bike and motorized tours on the Hungry Horse, Glacier View, Tally Lake, and Swan Lake Ranger Districts. The tours would include between one and six clients and occur over the course of 200 service days.

Whitefish Shuttle is requesting shuttle services, guided van tours, guided mountain biking, and hiking trips on the Tally Lake and Hungry Horse and Glacier View network of roads, while Alpine Running Guides has proposed offering guided trail-running trips on the Danny On and Reid Divide trails. That request is for 100 service days, with between 10 and 14 participants on each trip, with one or two guides.

Other applicants are seeking permits for single-day uses, including gravel bike rides like the Joe Cosley Pancake Ride and the Last Best Ride, which occur on Forest roads around Whitefish, as well as a one-day mountain bike race on trails and roads that adjoin the Foy’s to Blacktail Trail system and Herron Park.

The organizers of the Whitefish Trail Legacy Run, which includes a 50-kilometer ultramarathon to the summit of Big Mountain, and the Foy’s to Blacktail Marathon are seeking five-year permits for their one-day events under operating plans that have been submitted and approved in past years.

According to Steele, the Forest Service authorizes outfitters and guides to provide “specialized knowledge, skills, experience and equipment that general recreationists might not otherwise possess.” This contributes to high-quality opportunities for people to recreate on public lands regardless of their skill level or prior experience. In addition, these types of activities expand recreation access to the public and provide jobs for the local economy.  

One of the applicants, Kurt Schram, the owner of Whitefish Outfitters and Tours, is quoted in the Forest Service’s announcement as an example of how public-private partnerships can lead to a better recreation experience.

“We’re excited to once again be working with the fine folks at the Flathead National Forest. Through Special Use Permits, the Flathead National Forest provides good paying jobs for our local employees, endless recreational opportunities for our guests, and an uncrowded option for locals to find solitude and adventure right out their backdoor,” Schram stated. “We look forward to educating our guests on responsible tourism, while taking them mountain biking, hiking, and sightseeing in the Flathead.”

The public has until May 12 to comment on the projects, more details on which can be found on the Flathead National Forest website.

But according to Keith Hammer, chair of the Swan View Coalition, the federal agency has provided an incomplete picture of the scope of the proposals, and should post links to permit applications and operating plans in their entirety before beginning the public comment period.

“This amounts to keeping the public in the dark so it can’t provide fully informed and timely comments,” Hammer wrote in an email.

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