Reducing Mountain Bike Access on National Forests: How Widespread?

Photo thanks to Bitterroot Backcountry Cyclists

I’ve been researching access issues related to National Forests for outdoor recreation and other personal uses (think berry picking, or firewood cutting). In my efforts to give examples of the Forest Service reducing access, I found this piece by John Fisch in 2016.

Since I know many Montanans read and contribute to this blog, I’m especially interested in your opinions of this piece.

Anti-cycling forces have long used lobbying clout and legal action to close longstanding cycling routes to cyclists. Nowhere have they been as successful in doing so as they have in Montana, which has seen the loss of hundreds of miles of outstanding singletrack access to cyclists in recent years. In a state which already has Wilderness area totaling more than 3.4 million acres, including a single Wilderness complex as large as the entire state of Delaware, anti-cycling lobbies have teamed with sympathetic judges to remove quiet, human-powered, low-impact mountain biking from vast tracts of non-Wilderness land as well. The trend has carried over into recent United States Forest Service (USFS) travel plans governing non-Wilderness lands. The most recent losses come courtesy of the Bitterroot National Forest Travel Plan. The Bitterroot National Forest, which is already comprised of nearly 50% Wilderness, increases mechanized restriction to an additional 200,000 acres, all of which was previously accessible to motorized and mechanized travel.

Now, a consortium of affected user groups has sought to challenge this trend in court by bringing suit against the USFS for their “arbitrary and capricious decision.” Not just a mountain bike issue, the suit is brought forth on behalf of seven recreation groups with total membership in excess of 13,000 individuals, including the Bitterroot Ridge Runners Snowmobile Club; Ravalli County Off-road User Association; Bitterroot Backcountry Cyclists; Montana Trail Vehicle Riders Association; Montana Snowmobile Association; Citizens for Balanced Use; and Backcountry Sled Patriots. IMBA opposed the decision and coauthored a letter of objection to the USFS, but has not chosen to be a party to the recently filed suit.

Fisch’s critiques of the decision are found later in the piece. I don’t really want to talk about the Bikes in Wilderness controversy here, but I’m interested in what you all know about this and other FS decisions (around the country) that have reduced mountain bike access.

4 Comments

  1. I can’t speak to situation in Montana but do have experience with Mt. Hood NF. A few, less popular MTB trails were closed due to designation as Wilderness.
    The Hood River Ranger District has an excellent, active partnership with 44 Trails Association and has built some new MTB trails to improve the network of existing trails. The agency somewhat reluctantly agreed to leave a no-cut buffer along an extremely popular MTB trail in the upcoming Polallie-Cooper timber sale but is going ahead with plans to build two new haul roads across the Dog River Trail and convert the main trailhead to a log landing. The EA says the trailhead will be “restored” though didn’t specify how the mature trees surrounding the small parking area will be replaced.
    In another part of HRRD a coalition of recreation groups wants to persuade the agency to decommission old roads as part of creating a new network of non-motorized trails that would be optimized for bikepacking (backpacking by bike). Currently, there is no comparable network in MHNF or other NFs in Oregon.

  2. OW- it’s very handy that you know this about the Mt. Hood. I have another question about them. I read this piece by a professional writer. Aaron Teasdale in Sierra, the National Sierra Club mag
    https://www.sierraclub.org/sierra/do-bikes-belong-wilderness-areas
    I tried to find an email to ask him about it, but couldn’t find one.

    “Whether or not you’re sympathetic to the complaints from mountain bikers, it’s important for conservationists to understand the frustrations of the mountain bike community. In recent years, cyclists have lost access to 110 miles of prized trails in the Mt. Hood National Forest, roughly half of the trail mileage open to bikes there. In Montana, mountain bikers have been booted from over 700 miles of trail in the last several years.”

    Do you have an idea where this “110” miles might have come from?

  3. Maybe while looking into trails allegedly lost to mountain bikers, you should also investigate the proliferation of trails illegally constructed (mountain bikers like to say “pioneered”) by mountain bikers on public lands? One example is a bike trail illegally built in the Palisades Wilderness Study Area in Wyoming, which was then “adopted” by the Bridger-Teton National Forest as a system trail, closed to all users except mountain bikes. The Forest Service also signed a memorandum of agreement with a local mountain bike group giving them authority to maintain and improve the trail. So the mountain bikers feel they own this trail, and by rewarding their illegal trail-building and entrenching them as users within the WSA the Forest Service has also effectively eliminated the possibility of this part of the Palisades ever receiving designation as Wilderness. There are numerous examples of user-built bike trails on public lands all across the West, as well as bikers taking over trails originally built for hiking and horseback riding. Anyone trying to ride a horse on a trail that has become popular for biking is taking their life in their hands. I would bet that the miles of trails that have been constructed by, or for, mountain bikers, or that have been opened to them, far surpass miles lost by agencies’ attempts to protect wilderness-quality lands by restricting mechanized use. You should look at the picture as a whole.

  4. Al- I am indeed trying to look at the “picture as a whole” which is difficult because it doesn’t seem easy to get information on this topic. Maybe there’s a database somewhere? The Forest Service? The biking community?

    I’m thinking people (hikers, horsefolks, ATVs “create” trails just by riding somewhere there isn’t an existing trail, if they travel it enough. Are you saying that mountain bikers go in and “construct” trails in some way without approval? Like these folks in Wales https://www.ibikeride.com/news/2966-work-starts-to-remove-unofficial-mountain-bike-trails-in-wales ?

    From my experience, mountain bikers and horses can coexist if mountain bikers follow trail rules and etiquette.. but perhaps mountain bikers feel freer to go fast on trails that are restricted to them. I don’t know of any “mountain biker only” trails around here.. but then I’m not a mountain biker.

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