Mountain bikes – off the beaten path

Nobody bit on my late comment on the Tenmile South litigation (Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest):

One piece of this decision is new to me: “My decision also includes restricting bicycle travel to system roads and trails.” Prohibiting bikes off-trail seems obvious, but it was criticized, and I wondered if this is commonly being addressed in travel planning.

I know there’s some readers with opinions on this, so I’ll try again.  Here’s the same decision on the Arapahoe-Roosevelt National Forest, captured in this headline “New rule in Arapaho National Forest limits bikes to designated trails:”

On Monday, the Forest Service announced that bicycles will no longer be allowed off designated trails and roads in the Sulphur Ranger District, which covers the Arapaho National Forest. The restriction applies to all kinds of bikes in both the summer and winter.

“A key aspect of this project is to balance all these trail improvements with the conservation of wildlife habitat, watersheds and other natural resources we value,” Ranger Jon Morrissey said. “Part of finding that balance is curbing the proliferation of user-created routes and keeping the impacts to the trails system so that wildlife and other resources can thrive.”

Off-trail use is how user-created trails are created, right?   (And I’ll argue it takes a lot fewer bike users – like maybe one – to create a trail than foot users.)  And the impacts of user-created trails seem like they would be not wanted on public lands just about everywhere.  Yet there is no specific requirement for the Forest Service to address this problem like there are regulations for motorized use that require travel planning and designation of routes.  So while there are designated system trails, there is apparently no requirement for bikes to stay on them.  Should there be a national prohibition?  Should forest plans identify areas where off-trail use is a desired condition?

23 thoughts on “Mountain bikes – off the beaten path”

  1. I’m not a mountain biker but it seems like just another way people are being locked out of public lands. It also makes me wonder if, after bikers are thoroughly coralled into an ever shrinking system of designated trails just like motorized users, hikers are next.

    Will we soon see a travel management rule for hiking and the end of unrestricted cross country travel by foot? Or maybe Colorado will adopt a permit system similar to what I was reading about earlier today that they have in Oregon. They are restricting some of the most popular trailheads in several wilderness areas to a permit system for both day hikers and backpackers, with some trails only getting a dozen day hiking permits per day. This is for trails that currently see hundreds of people per day, and the Forest Service wants to limit them to 12? It’s insane.

    I can’t help but think Colorado will soon do the same, and enjoyment of public lands will be limited to the elite few that win the lottery.

    • There’s nothing “insane” or “elite” about use restrictions and permit systems. They are essential tools to protect natural resources from damage and safeguard the quality of the wilderness experience. Forget about trail tread impacts and biker/hiker/horseback conflicts–think exposed/barely covered/TP-strewn poop piles surrounding every viable campsite and dotting the edges of trails. No other approach is nearly as effective at mitigating those types of untenable conditions.

    • For what it is worth, the case you are referencing in Oregon pertains mostly to the Sisters Wilderness outside of Bend. It is a fairly spectacular area, with huge peaks and alpine lakes accessible by those who have moderate fitness and outdoor skills, and is in close proximity to Portland, OR, and a popular recreation/vacation area. Overnight trips are already heavily regulated by permit.

      It is a complicated situation; there definitely has been degradation from the unlimited day users. No Name Lake below Broken Top is closed to all overnight camping, due to extensive human waste issues. The main peaks look like congo lines going up 7 days a week.
      However, the system being put in place next year, as you said, severely limits even day use with a quota system. In turn, that severely impacts local recreational users. It brings up issues of enforcement. And depending on who actually gets those daily permits, and their level of Leave No Trace education, they may still do resource damage.
      …The Enchantments area in central WA is likely heading towards a similar quota system for day use, due to over use.

      There is no easy answer. The best, most picturesque, and accessible places are being loved to death by users. But hundreds of people a day, in highly erodible alpine environments, isn’t sustainable, especially when most of those users have no idea how to act in the wilderness.

  2. I am a mountain biker, and I very much enjoy being able to travel off system in some areas. Since bicycles aren’t yet allowed in Wilderness, being able to travel off trail on occasion leads one to nice surprises at times. I feel if the activity isn’t done in excess, and impacts are next to indiscernible, no harm. When routes are often traveled and a tread becomes bare and compacted (by any user group) then perhaps the managers need to take a hard look at the need that is being fulfilled, and whether the trail should be adopted as a new system trail. I’m also concerned why the finger is usually pointed at mountain bikers. I’m familiar with dozens of rogue trails that have been formed by every manner of human and animal travel. I bet there are some places where unsustainable trails from mountain bikers proliferate. It’s good to ask why, what need is going unfulfilled. Work with those user groups who are invested.

  3. Hi, Jon — I suspect it’s largely academic. Almost no mountain biker has any desire to ride cross-country, i.e., over open ground. Whereas other nonmotorized user groups tend to prize a destination, we tend to prize both the trail and the destination.

    Occasionally, a mountain biker or bikers will create what’s called a social trail. In my opinion, when that happens it almost always means that the land manager’s official trails are inadequate, unfairly off-limits, and/or poorly maintained. Often enough, such social trails are of better quality and more sustainable than the official route. Sometimes, though, a social trail is environmentally damaging and an abuse of the resource. In my experience this is very rare.

    Interestingly—and people may laugh at the comparison—cattle will do the same thing. I know of one poorly run parks and recreation agency whose official trails are woeful: fall-line, eroded, and usually old dirt roads that they call trails. The cattle have carved out much better contour-following singletrack, without going through NEPA and state-mandated permitting procedures, and hikers and mountain bikers use those trails. Shocking, I know. Someday the agency may adopt them, but it’s so ponderous and sluggish that it could take decades.

  4. When a legitimate trail exists, you won’t find cyclists venturing off the beaten path 99.8% of the time. Bicycling off trail is not fun or efficient. But this ruling seems to be more about rouge trails being created. In my experience, often times a game trail grabs the attention of the many, many hikers… they start exploring the game trail and wear it in pretty good. A mountain biker might then find it and then knobby tire tracks are evident on the trail bed… and just about everyone blames mountain bikers for “building” unauthorized trails. SMH.

  5. I was out yesterday in those conditions with a group. The leader was trying to make a loop trail so we ventured on some cattle trails, through a willowed marsh or two and back to another trail. We went on some apparently trails intermittently but couldn’t tell if they were made by elk and used by cattle or ??? I wonder if people even know if they are “off-trail” in those cases?

    I’ve also seen many user-created trails coming from subdivisions that are adjacent to Forests.

    And Patrick, I signed up the lottery for a BLM place in Utah and went for about a year without winning, and gave up. It does favor people who are more flexible about when they can leave, which are probably retirees and people with flexible (higher paying?) jobs.

    I think part of this is all about the environmental ideas that people have and that have been put into policy. 1) hurting the environment is bad, don’t do it (like with energy, all sources have environmental impacts, so we have to choose). Plus some have associated health impacts. Do we pick one and fix the impacts the best we can via regulation, changes in practices, certification? that works for businesses in general.

    2) hurting the environment is bad. People hunt, fish, cycle, ride, hike and bring their dogs. If we can only have so many before environmental degradation, how do we decide? How does human and animal safety fit in? Previously, IMHO, some in the environmental movement have flourished by making the narrative about good guys and bad guys (loggers, oil and gas folks, ranchers and so on) but that narrative does not work so well when it’s all of us (recreationists). The bad guy narrative worked to a certain extent with OHV’s, but what if it’s just MBs, horses, hikers and so on? More people simply means more impacts, or can practices help with that? If so what practices? I think that’s the recreation challenge of the 21st century so far.

    And not so long ago the recreation industry was arguing that we need more guide services otherwise young people would not get into the woods…

    • Haha, I think Instagram and trail reviewing sites like Alltrails filled that need. They provide both the information and the motivation to get people out in nature.

      As for numbers, I think a permit system could work in theory, but land managers seem largely incapable of implimenting them in a reasonable way. The Wave in Arizona gets I believe 20 permits a day. Some of these wilderness trailheads I was reading about in Oregon only get 12. At least Hanging Lake in Colorado gets like 600. I simply can’t believe that trails that formerly saw hundreds of visitors a day with some moderate resource damage need to be cut down to less than 20 per day to alleviate that.

      Anyway, kind of off topic. Another post examining the justifications for such restrictive permit systems could be interesting.

      • Patrick, you could call and ask the relevant FS or BLM unit, being bureaucracies, they probably have some rationale written down. If not, (because it’s not a “NEPA decision”) that would be interesting, too. You’re invited to author a guest post on what you find out.

      • Patrick — Pray tell how many people per day ought be admitted to The Wave or Hanging Lake or the Oregon trailheads you were “reading about”? Please share your assuredly well-informed and eminently reasonable assessment. Suggest some numbers, and feel free to show your work.

        I’m going to leave a link to the Leave No Trace principles here because it seems like you and Sharon could both use a refresher: I would urge you to consider the “Travel on Durable Surfaces” and “Be Considerate of Other Users” components in particular, though all seven are relevant to this discussion.

        • I have no idea what the “right” number is and I seriously doubt the Forest Service or BLM does either. Everybody’s numbers are fundamentally guesses. I simply have a gut feeling that if a trail formally saw hundreds of visitors a day, reducing it to only a dozen is probably excessive.

          I would think a more scientific approach would be to reduce the number gradually and closely monitor how impacts change in order to determine the optimal number empirically. That doesn’t happen when a trail goes overnight from completely unrestricted to limited to only a dozen people a day. Of course the impacts will be dramatically less then, but without trying values in the middle, you have no idea if you could have gotten the same result with a larger number that would have reduced impacts while still allowing maximum public access to public lands.

          • So you acknowledge that you have no idea what’s reasonable but feel comfortable framing land managers’ decisions as “insane”?

            Here are some helpful excerpts from the Central Cascades Wilderness Strategy EA ( “The proposed visitor use management system is data-driven and adaptive, which requires long-term monitoring of the central Cascades wilderness areas. Monitoring will be completed under a variety of methods. Adaptive management provides the ability to modify the system as needed if there are unexpected results or monitoring shows a need to respond to growing use/degradation. The adaptive management model incorporates an “implement-monitor-adapt” strategy that provides flexibility to account for inaccurate initial assumptions, to adapt to changes in environmental conditions, or to respond to subsequent monitoring information that indicates that desired conditions are not being met. That is, adjustments are made when implementation is not giving us the desired outcomes.”

            “The components of analysis that impact the natural quality are visitor interactions with wildlife, spread of invasive species, visitor impacts on vegetation at campsites and lunch spots, and user created trails. The components of analysis that impact the opportunities for solitude
            or primitive and unconfined recreation are trash and vandalism, human waste, travel restrictions within the wilderness, use restrictions, amount of administrative signs in wilderness, and impacts to solitude. The component of analysis that impacts other values is the impact to cultural resources.
            Appendix E provides detailed discussions identifying how each of the 11 components will be impacted under each of the 5 alternatives within the context of a particular wilderness area.”

            Contrary to your “gut feeling” these determinations are not “fundamentally guesses” and do incorporate an adaptive approach. You seem to suggest that agencies ought to reduce use gradually until they reach a point where the impacts are acceptable. The problem with this is that it is incredibly difficult, if not outright impossible, to empirically assess incremental reductions in user impacts in that manner. So, they are applying the precautionary principle by reducing use to a level that is fairly certain to allow resources to recover and then considering whether limits can be raised. This scientific, conservation-oriented approach is a far more sound and implementable strategy and is wholly consistent with contemporary regulatory theory.

          • I’ll grant that it’s not a random guess that does have a lot of thought put into it, but it’s still a guess. You basically said so yourself, saying they are using the precautionary principle to err on the side of excessive conservation now, and maybe open it up more in the future. Only that will probably never happen because of bureaucratic inertia.

            I suppose if all you care about is conservation and not public access to public lands, this is a fine approach. If you believe the public has a fundamental right to access public lands and that the appropriate level of restrictions on public access is the minimum necessary to prevent serious resource damage, it’s not. Ultimately it comes down to a difference in philosophy of public land use.

            I won’t say they were absolutely wrong to do this in these particular places. But I do hope that model of basically shutting all but a handful of the public out of hiking popular areas doesn’t become the norm.

            • Your tone seems to be shifting as your first comment above framed these restrictions as arbitrary, elitist, and insane. As to your point about philosophy, the agency’s mission is to “sustain the health, diversity, and productivity of the Nation’s forests and grasslands to meet the needs of present and future generations.” That mandate is clear enough–you and I need not substitute our own personal prerogatives.

              • Anonymous, even within that mandate there is plenty of room for disagreement- as in see almost every discussion we have. If we kick everyone out are we “meeting the needs of current generations” for recreation? Where is the balance between “sustaining” and “producing for current?” Be it recreation, oil and gas, timber or whatever, it’s a clear mandate but the devil is in the details, balancing, practices, regulation, enforcement.

                • What’s your point, Sharon? Mine was that Patrick’s preferred standard for the appropriateness of access restrictions (“minimum necessary to prevent serious resource damage”) is made-up and utterly misplaced. Of course there is always a need to balance interests/impacts and of course that is a difficult job. Thank you for the reminding Patrick of that as he has repeatedly implied that weighing the equities at play here is a straightforward endeavor (i.e., maximum possible access always). My reference to the FS mission was merely a reminder that the objective the FS should strive to achieve (in fee/permit decisions and all other land management activities) is plainly stated and need not be revised by single-issue advocates.

  6. John,
    I will go ahead and bite, although by now I’m mostly echoing the thoughts of Greg and Lourenço, the issue isn’t off trail use. Very few places are enjoyable for off trail riding. Downfall, dense trees, and other obstacles limit travel. The issue around Helena and elsewhere is non-system social trails. The trails develop in response to demand. If there is a lake or a peak without a system trail, one will eventually evolve. In some cases game and cattle trails have been co-opted by people. I will say that in general cows build more sustainable trails than elk. Now I think the main issue is intentional building of trails and the assumption that mountain bikers are the main culprit. There probably is some truth to this. While I know of some trails built by outfitters to their camps and the horsemen around here have built quite a few social trails themselves, and climbers build trails to their routes, mountain bikers have also built their fair share.

    Now as I understand it all this trail building is technically illegal, and even though motorized use is restricted to designated routes, I continue to see new ATV trails sprouting up. Near me, the most popular mountain bike trail is a social trail. In most case these trails have been around for decades. There is one social trail that had blazes carved into the trees that looked old when I moved here 13 years ago.

    The issue is more complex than passing a rule prohibiting off system trail use and assuming people will abide by it. If the concern is impacts on wildlife it makes no sense to prohibit bike use on these trails, but allow other users since I know from personal experience that these trails are used by all types of users.

    I also happen to believe that unregulated unsupervised building of trails is not the optimal solution. While many social trails are well built, that is not always the cases, and these “rogue” trail builders probably aren’t doing an ecological assessment to make sure they aren’t encroaching on sensitive terrain.

    That’s why the approach in Helena is more sensible. Closing of social trails along with the carrot of new trail development. I know we have been working with the USFS to build a trail network with some new trails and incorporation of some of the social trails into the system. Even though the area has been logged numerous times, and there are old decommissioned roads crisscrossing it, and it is adjacent to the most popular developed recreational site in Region One it has taken 5 years to get our first 3 miles of trail approved. We are quite excited by this and we think this well designed trail will discourage social trail use, once people discover how fun a well designed and built trail is. But even this illuminates why there are social trail to begin with. This will be the first new trail built in our local National Forest in over 20 years. Im those 20 years the population more than doubled. There has been an influx of more recreational minded residents, and while we had over a thousand miles of wilderness trails, there were almost no front country trails. If you went to their web page to find out where to mountain bike it recommended a Forest Service Road. In this environment, rogue trail building was inevitable.

    By themselves restrictions don’t work and are almost impossible to enforce. There needs to be a process in place to develop and manage the recreational opportunities that these social trails were serving.

    • Lance, in support yesterday I went on a trail that didn’t say it was open to MB’s in All Trails, but there were bikers there. Meanwhile I didn’t see the trail at all in CoTrex. I think there’s something to be said for folks like the recreation industry to figure out how to tell people the story of what is OK where. The FS doesn’t have to do it, but just provide the info.

  7. Good comments on social trails, thanks. Clearly unauthorized trail construction would be illegal. And yes, enforcement of any user restrictions is problematic. But it doesn’t sound like there is much of a reason why it should be legal for mechanized uses off of designated trails. A prohibition could help drive some discussions of which trails should be designated.

    • “But it doesn’t sound like there is much of a reason why it should be legal for mechanized uses off of designated trails.” I suggest that to put this into perspective, perhaps it shouldn’t be legal for foot travel off of designated trails as well. I submit this concept in light of superb and superior agency trail planning, always “a step ahead” in supplying designated trails for recreational needs. Since designated trails are more than adequate for cyclists the system must be more than adequate for hikers.

  8. The Helena project decision contained restrictions on bicycle use based on the pretense that mountain bicycling disturbed wildlife. The project did not assign any level of restriction or concern to other recreational activities. From the beginning to the decision this pretense prevailed as a constant feature of the project. To me, this aspect has been like a fester within the project language. Frankly, I got tired of fighting it, as the deciding officers? had their minds made up.

  9. It sounds like you are arguing that “bikes don’t harm wildlife; people harm wildlife.” I don’t think the failure to regulate one way people cause harm is a reason to not regulate others. Especially if those others have greater impacts, regulation has fewer undesirable effects, regulation is more likely to work, etc. But if you made this point to the Forest Service (perhaps suggested this as an alternative), they have to give you a reasoned, fact-based response.

  10. Mule deer don’t walk the same way twice, white tail do. White tail escape by running like hell down a known trail and putting a quick distance between them and pursuit. Mule deer remain unpredictable and hard to ambush (cougar), they jump like a rabbit when startled called “stotting” usually uphill. Elk make very short trails that are discontinuous while they graze or walking uphill from areas they lay up to chew their cud. Cattle do make trails, usually back and forth to water from grazing, no further than a mile or at most two.

    Unofficial horse pack trails follow natural features, are often decades old, and in my experience exist without needed improvements. I can tell when I’m on an old unused pack trail because the easy way to walk doesn’t end the way a game trail might. If a pack trail has been used in the past couple years you can tell, use by human feet is harder but discernible if used a few times a season.

    Off trail hikers tend not to make paths as they aren’t headed anywhere in particular, just wandering around. Climbers do tend to follow the same path after a while and the path becomes established but goes nowhere except to the bottom of a crag or back to the bottoms from the walk off or rapells.

    Horse trails take a moderate grade and will switch back more than human trails. When humans walk horse trails you tend to see people cutting across the switchbacks. Bike trails take moderate grades uphill like horse trails but the turns are sweeping, often there will be tight sweeping switch backs up a steep section. When bikers use hiking trails the steeper downhill sections tend to get wide and blown out as there is lots of sliding around trying to get up or down the grade.

    Different modes or transport make for different types of trails. Many places that used to be trails between towns or over passes are now roads. More on types of disturbance later.


Leave a Comment