IMBA News: Montana Ruling Closes Trails, Says Mountain Biking Ruins Solitude for Others

For Immediate Release 4-10-10
Mark Eller
IMBA Communications Director
markeller@imba.com
303-545-9011 ext. 115

Mountain bikers recently learned that they will see trail access cut from 170 miles to just 20 miles in Montana's Hyalite-Porcupine-Buffalo Horn wilderness study area (WSA). The restrictions stem from a lawsuit that challenged the Forest Service's management of the WSA, setting the stage for similar challenges in Montana, and perhaps across the United States. The plaintiffs — The Greater Yellowstone Coalition, Montana Wilderness Association and The Wilderness Society — contended that the Forest Service failed to preserve the wilderness character of the study area.

The Gallatin National Forest office oversees the Hyalite-Porcupine-Buffalo Horn WSA. Gallatin officials have appealed the ruling, made by U.S. District Judge Donald W. Molloy. Since the appeals process can take 6 months to 2 years to be resolved, the Gallatin officials say they have no choice but to implement an interim strategy, starting May 1. The interim plan will decide access in the Gallatin until it is replaced by congressional action on the management of WSAs — which could take decades. The decision will close the coveted Gallatin Crest and other spectacular high-country trails to bicycling.

"We knew a decision like this was coming," said Mike Van Abel, IMBA's executive director. "IMBA supported the Gallatin office in its attempts to improve the Forest Service's policies regarding WSAs. We joined the legal proceedings and provided written testimony asserting that mountain biking does not compromise a landscape's wilderness attributes, and that bicycling is not equivalent to motorized recreation. Unfortunately the judge did not follow our guidance, which puts mountain bike access in a very precarious place."

Decision Based on User Experience, Not Environmental Impacts

Marna Daley, public affairs officer for the Gallatin National Forest, told the Billings Gazette that the new trail closures are not based on the environmental impacts caused by mountain biking. “Judge Molloy’s decision did not cite a resource concern with regard to wilderness character,” said Daley. "So the only thing we can address is the opportunity for solitude.”

Following that logic, a handful of trails along the fringes of the WSA will be kept open to mountain biking (some will also allow motorized recreation). “By moving use from the core area to the perimeter, the forest has increased the opportunity for solitude in the WSA,” Daley told the Gazette.

There is a growing body of evidence that the environmental impacts of mountain biking are about the same as hiking. The social impacts of shared-use trails are more difficult to quantify, but several studies have concluded that the perception of trail conflicts is often exaggerated.

Next Steps for Mountain Bikers

IMBA and the Montana Mountain Bike Alliance, as well as other Montana-based affiliated clubs, will continue working with the Forest Service to improve their strategies for managing mountain biking. At the same time, re-energized grassroots campaigns will enable mountain bikers to document trail losses, establish dialogues with decision makers and continue asking for fair treatment with regards to trail access.

If you support fair access for mountain bikers in Montana and across the United States, please make a donation to IMBA's Legal Advocacy Fund and the Montana Mountain Bike Alliance.