Daines urges Forest Service to allow mountain biking in Bitterroot Forest WSAs

Sen. Steve Daines made one last pitch Thursday on why mountain biking should be allowed in two Bitterroot National Forest wilderness study areas.

In a letter to the U.S. Forest Service, Daines urged the agency to either reopen the areas to mountain biking or push back its deadline for a decision so it could consider the facts he had gathered.

Forest Service officials said the agency’s final written response on the issue will be issued Monday, March 11. The agency’s response follows analysis of 3,216 public comments and a face-to-face resolution meeting with members of the local and national mountain biking communities last week.

The Bitterroot Forest closed the Blue Joint and Sapphire wilderness study areas to mountain biking last year following a court decision that upheld the forest’s updated travel plan. The decision did leave the door ajar on the future of mountain biking in the WSAs since that issue had not been studied as part of the travel plan update process.

A judge initially ordered the agency to give people who already commented time to file objections on the mountain biking issue. At the request of Daines, the Forest Service opened that objection period to anyone with an interest in the issue last September.

In his March 7 letter, Daines said he was concerned that the agency was not being flexible when it comes to managing diverse recreational interests in areas where there has been historical use, especially in portions of the WSAs that weren’t recommended by the Forest Service for wilderness designation.

“I am concerned this approach will foster additional closures in areas with historic use and that the greater recreation community will suffer as a result,” Daines said in his letter.

“With over $7 billion in consumer spending coming from Montana’s outdoor recreation economy, we should be encouraging adaptive management principles across the Agency that help U.S. Forest Service decision-makers manage different uses across various landscapes, not exclude them,” he wrote.

Kirk Thompson, a retired Bitterroot National Forest roads and trail engineer and a member of Montana Wilderness Association who lives in Stevensville, disagreed.

“Last year, Sen. Daines introduced a bill that would have eliminated the Blue Joint and Sapphire Wilderness Study Areas, as well as three other WSAs,” Thompson said. “One of the primary reasons that bill failed is because it didn’t take into account the interests of a wide spectrum of people who benefit from and use those WSAs, especially in Ravalli County.

“Now he’s at it again, picking winners and losers by trying to override Forest Service decisions rather than do the hard work of bringing people together and finding solutions for our WSAs that work for all Montanans, not just one or two user groups,” said Thompson.

Lance Pysher of Bitterroot Backcountry Cyclists said that organization agrees with Daines that “there is a certain amount of irony” the areas are managed as wilderness when the agency’s own analysis didn’t recommend the entirety of the WSAs for wilderness designation.

Mountain bikers made a proposal Monday to the agency they believe will balance the need for protecting the wilderness character of the areas as it existed in 1977 when the WSAs were set aside and allow for low-impact mountain bike use, Pysher said.

The proposed plan calls for closing the WSAs to bikes during general hunting season. Trails that are popular with hikers and horses would also be closed to bike use.

“Our experience and data show that closing these specific trails to bikes will eliminate nearly all potential encounters between bikes and other users,” Pysher said. “We believe this is compatible with the spirit of the Montana Wilderness Study Act of 1977.

“The management of WSAs continues to be challenging, but across the board closures, while potentially easy from a management perspective, short change mountain bikers who have been riding these trails without measurable impact or conflict, and in many cases ensuring continued use for all users with their volunteer trail maintenance,” he said. “We believe…the Forest Service needs a more equitable balance between recreation and preservation in those parts of the WSAs that have not been recommended for wilderness designation.”