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.

15 thoughts on “Reducing Mountain Bike Access on National Forests: How Widespread?”

  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
    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 ?

    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.

  5. i am a mountain biker who lives in montana. i recently became aware of a group of mountain bikers whose sentiments are expressed in your piece. i can’t say that the views of this group are widely held across the entire mountain biking community in montana. there appears to be a subset of bikers that wants the ability to bike on very long trips that involve wilderness type areas. they are what i would call a special user group within the mountain biking community. folks in my local cycling club do not agree with the sentiment voiced in the piece about loss of access, in fact some vehemently disagree. i am fortunate to live in an area with unbelievable mountain biking opportunities and trail access. and with an active local club that works to cross administrative boundaries and foster collaboration and stewardship. this discussion has come up recently on facebook in the biking community with opposing viewpoints represented. folks in my area who have worked hard with federal land managers to develop trails, and collaborated with public and private landowners to ensure access and trail stewardship and use, would disagree with the sentiment expressed . however, things could vary in different parts of our large sate. the situation could also be different from the point of view of those who are seeking to take very long trips into more remote areas (almost like bike packing) which is not what the typical use in my club is doing.

  6. Much of the issue in Montana has been about bikes in congressionally designated wilderness study areas and recommended wilderness in forest plans, in both cases with the intent of not allowing uses to become established that would reduce wilderness values or their chance of potential formal designation by Congress. The recent trend towards closure to mountain bikes nationally may also be related to the adoption of the Travel Management Rule in 2005. While it does not apply to bicycles, it led to a surge in travel planning for national forests, and some units chose to address mountain biking as part of that process (as in the Bitterroot example). In many cases of closure it is likely that mountain bike use had never been “planned” before, but was just allowed to happen. Not unlike other multiple uses that reached a point where they had to be regulated (their “access reduced”).

    • This would make sense. Are you thinking something like…
      (1) there are trails
      (2) bikers start using trails
      (3) FS does travel planning
      (4) notices that bikers are riding in recommended Wilderness
      (5) stops that through travel management decision?

  7. “Something like” but there are probably other resource/user conflicts discovered besides wilderness that lead to restrictions. And we need to be thinking of the next challenge: “She (county supervisor) said she hopes the comments from area counties will impress upon forest officials the need for access to its lands that accommodates the changing user population and changing technology. She said the plan should also address the use of drones over forest land and in the near future the use of hovercraft.”


    I think this illustrates where we should be in planning for mountain bikes. Trails are closed unless open, and there is a public process to open them. In this case, “Warren-based Friends of Allegheny Wilderness was active in opposing the plan to allow bikes, arguing that the largest roadless tract in the forest should be left undisturbed so that it could become a federally-designated wilderness.” (In this case it sounds like the area may not have been recommended for wilderness in the forest plan, which would weaken their argument – but it’s easier to blame the budget.)

  9. Here’s another article on the Allegheny bike trail that wasn’t:

    It includes another reference to the as yet unseen policy to return (if they ever left) to the days of “get out the cut:”
    And the new priorities placed on timber production have stretched the forest’s resources. “We are being asked to focus our efforts on timber volume and the number of acres treated as national priorities,” she said in the release.

    I’m surprised nobody has reported on this or obtained Forest Service documents that announced it.

    • Most wilderness advocates are not “anti-cycling.” Mountain biking is a fine sport. But we are against using mechanical transport (including mountain bikes) in wilderness areas, and we are opposed to mountain bikers or motorized users constructing trails in areas that are being protected to maintain their wilderness character (such as wilderness study areas) or in areas of valuable wildlife habitat.

      Mountain bikers have thousands of miles of trails open to them–they don’t need every last wild area for their use. Wilderness-quality lands are becoming ever scarcer as human populations grow and recreation in the backcountry spreads. Trail networks are expanding around every mountain town in the west, degrading and fragmenting wildlife habitat. It’s not unreasonable to want some areas left free of any form of mechanization, including bikes.

      Designated wilderness (free of mechanized transport, by law) is less than 3 percent of the lower 48 states. Future generations deserve a few areas where humans and their trails and their mechanical toys don’t dominate the landscape. Cyclists aren’t prohibited from entering wilderness; only their machines are. If cyclists want to go into wilderness, they can walk or ride a horse or ski.

      It’s not just about recreation, either–it’s about the genuine impacts that trails and dense trail networks have on wildlife habitat. It’s about people on machines going much deeper into wild areas in a day than people on foot. However much we love wildlife, our cumulative recreation activities do harm them, especially as the number of people using the backcountry grows.


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