It's hard to believe that this battle for trail access in Montana has been going on for nearly ten years. After five years of active public involvement including 16,000 comments, the Gallatin National Forest released their travel plan in 2006. While the mountain biking community wasn't happy to lose 60 miles of trail, it was compromise we thought we could live with. Other groups were not as generous, and shortly thereafter the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, Montana Wilderness Association and The Wilderness Society filed suit to close an additional 220 miles of trail. That lawsuit evolved into a wilderness versus motorized slugfest with no one representing mountain bikes. With no mountain bike at the trial, the conservationists were able to convince the judge that mountain bikes are equivalent to motorized, since both are classified as "mechanized."
It was at this time that we began to organize and in the fall of 2006 the Montana Mountain Bike Alliance (MMBA) took shape. We quickly discovered that seven other national forests were proposing similar bans on bikes. We discovered that the Region 1 National Forests had created a policy, unique to Montana, that they would manage recommended wilderness as "wilderness," not due to any evidence of disproportionate impact from bikes but rather to prevent user groups that might oppose future wilderness designation from becoming organized. With the wilderness groups "alleging that cyclists were "depriving their membership from the ability to find solitude” we realized our group of volunteers would be going up against not just the Region One National Forests, but also the combined opposition of state and national wilderness groups with their paid staff and deep pockets. For a little perspective the Montana Wilderness Association had revenue of $2,000,000 in 2014 and the Wilderness Society nearly $40,000,000. Various mountain groups in Montana may have raised a couple thousand, and IMBA had $4,000,000 in revenue.
The closures picked up steam in 2009, the Beaverhead - Deer Lodge National Forest released their forest plan, closing 320 miles of trail. Ignoring our request, along with IMBA, to leave 30 miles of those trails open to bikes. Additional travel plans were in the draft stage in the Clearwater and Bitterroot National Forests.
In 2011, the Bitterroot Backcountry Cyclists organized to provide a local voice advocating for mountain biking in the Bitterroot Valley and in 2014 became the first IMBA chapter in Montana. This year, the long delayed Bitterroot Travel Plan was released and the number of trails being closed jumped to 178 miles from the 50 initially proposed. Trails that we had been riding and maintaining, officially and unofficially for close to two decades. Now, not only will recommended wilderness be closed to bikes, but so will Wilderness Study Areas. The same thing is occurring farther north near the Canadian border in the Ten Lakes Wilderness Study Area, where 70 out of 86 miles of single track will be lost. With this latest change in the rules even more trails, trails that were left open in the last round of closures, will be at risk.
During the last ten years we have learned more about NEPA, EIS, travel plans, forest plans, minimization protocols than any sane person would want to know. The most important thing we have learned is the Forest Service is not following their own rules or the standards set forth by NEPA, and they have only been able to accomplish this because we have not had the financial wherewithal to force them to abide by their own regulations. Help us roll back this misguided Forest Service policy.
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