News‎ > ‎

Flathead Forest Plan Letter

posted Sep 30, 2016, 2:07 PM by Lance Pysher

Chip Weber

Forest Supervisor

Flathead National Forest

650 Wolfpack Way

Kalispell, MT 59901


Forest Supervisor Weber;

It is frequently claimed that mountain biking was invented in northern California in the late 1970s by a group of individuals riding “klunkers.” Those of us in Montana with our love of the outdoors know better.  In 1896, the Buffalo Soldiers of Fort Missoula were well documented bikepacking from Missoula to McDonald Lake in the Mission Mountains of the Flathead and later the same year to Yellowstone and back.  Subsequently in 1897 they performed an adventurous trek to St. Louis with conditions and marginal dirt roads nearly as challenging as anything modern mountain bikers attempt.  The digital archives of the Mansfield library document that using bikes to access Montana’s natural wonders was not limited to these soldiers.  Photos such as “The Lonely Wheelman Fording a  Mountain Stream” (http://mtmemory.org/cdm/singleitem/collection/p16013coll27/id/2272/rec/5) and “Woman on a bicycle” (http://mtmemory.org/cdm/singleitem/collection/p16013coll27/id/2266/rec/52) demonstrate that over a century ago, people had discovered the joys of exploring Montana’s backcountry by bike.


This history of seeking human powered bike adventure continues in the Flathead where rides in Swan Range and Whitefish Range continue to be rated as some of the premier backcountry rides in the state, allowing for a high alpine experience increasing difficult to access in Montana outside of designated Wilderness. As such we request continued access to the Alpine #7 trail along with the related trails used for access, including: Six Mile, Hall Lake, Bond Creek, Jimmie Ridge, Doris Creek, Columbia Mountain, Napa Point, Middle Fork Bunker Creek, Bunker Creek, Chipmunk Peak, and Bruce Creek. While Jewel Basin Hiking Area has been traditionally restricted mountain  bike access, we request accommodation either through a boundary adjustment or “non-conforming” use on short segments along the Alpine #7 trail to allow connection between the north and south portions of the trail.


In the Whitefish Range, we support the Whitefish Range Partnership proposal for front country recreation at the southern end of the range. Farther north in the range, access to the Pacific Northwest Trail (#26) should maintain it’s Backcountry Non-Motorized designation with a small adjustment to the MA1b boundary from the junction with the Kootenai National Forest Trail #372 to near Whale Creek.


U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell was recently quoted as saying, “his agency is trying to manage 60 million acres in need of restoration with 40 percent fewer staff and dollars than he had a decade ago.” (http://missoulian.com/news/local/forest-service-chief-looks-to-partnerships-for-forest-management/article_5af508ac-65fc-5ebf-97cc-bee77f48d7ec.html)  Mountain Bikers nationwide have proven to be dedicated and responsible stewards of our wild lands. Given these current budgetary restraints it is clear that managing our trails will require harnessing the enthusiasm of the mountain biking community as represented by the Flathead Flat Tires and other non-profits.  Furthermore, restricting trail access to these passionate advocates of the forest is short sighted and limits the pool of individuals who could potentially volunteer to restore and maintain trails most in need of help.


The intent of the Wilderness Act regarding bike access is inconclusive,  however the one mention of bicycles in the legislative record reflects the long history of seeking adventure on two wheels in Montana. The Rattlesnake National Recreation Area and Wilderness Act of 1980 recognized bikes as a form of primitive recreation appropriate for wilderness.  Over the last decade hundreds of miles of trails in Recommended Wilderness and Wilderness Study Areas managed by the USFS have been closed to mountain bikes under the belief that “non-conforming uses” should be excluded from these areas. We strongly support the Alternative B inclusion of existing levels of non-conforming uses in recommended wilderness areas. First and foremost as the impact from bikes, hikers, and horse is similar, and as the DEIS reports,  “In heavily timbered landscapes such as the Flathead National Forest, there is no scientific evidence that dispersed mountain bike use, horse use, or hiking has any significant effect on wildlife populations.”  While the USFS is mandated to maintain the wilderness character of these lands, and the appellate decision for the McAllister, et al litigation in the Gallatin N.F. requires the assessment of impact of bikes use on both the physical and social character, this decision recommended again blanket restrictions as the preferred policy.  Furthermore the “Wilderness Management” manual by Hendee recommends using the minimum amount of regulation to achieve management goals. However it appears that Region One is using this decision to reinforce a policy to exclude bikes not on measurable impacts but rather to influence future legislative action on future wilderness designations. Statements from numerous sources such as Dave Bull,  director for recreation, minerals, lands, heritage and wilderness for the Northern Region from a New York Times article (http://www.nytimes.com/2009/10/11/sports/11bikes.html)  from 2007, “We can reduce the level of nonconforming uses so there’s not a contingency that then would cause Congress to have second thoughts on our recommendation,” and from the Bitterroot National Forest Travel Management Plan, “...allowing uses that do not conform to wilderness character creates a constituency that will have a strong propensity to oppose recommendation and any subsequent designation legislation. Management actions that create this operating environment will complicate the decision process for Forest Service managers and members of Congress. It is important that when the wilderness recommendations are made to Congress that they be unencumbered with issues that are exclusive to the wilderness allocation decision. Congress is not the appropriate forum in which to debate travel management decisions.”  Prior to the passage of the Wilderness Act in 1964, one of the key areas of debate was whether the executive branch or the legislative branch should be in charge of wilderness designation, and one of the compromises made was transferring the authority to designate wilderness to congress (http://elawreview.org/articles/volume-44/issue-44-2/wilderness-exceptions/). The prior statements appear to reflect concerns at the time of passage,  “that requiring congressional approval of each individual area could prove to be a cumbersome barrier to rapid and equitable wilderness designation.”  The history of subsequent wilderness designations indicates that these concerns were well founded, but regardless congress recognized that wilderness allocation is a political decision and that the best arena for debate is the legislative branch. By claiming that the political climate is part of “social character” this policy expands the concept far beyond what the appellate court envisioned. In the precedents used by the appellate court in the previously mentioned McAllister litigation the impacts were direct and measurable such as the noise and visual disturbance of helicopters. We encourage the Flathead National Forest to manage Recommended Wilderness with a deft touch and restrict  “non-conforming uses”  only as the last option when no other options are available to maintain wilderness character.  A proactive analytic approach based on “right sizing” regulations can better manage these areas to allow continued multi-use recreation without jeopardizing the current social and physical wilderness character


Lance Pysher

President, Bitterroot Backcountry Cyclists



Comments