Mountain bikers and wilderness advocates have forged an agreement that could create a new riding area on the edge of the Bob Marshall Wilderness while advancing an 80,000-acre expansion of non-mechanized public land.
The Blackfoot Clearwater Stewardship Project and International Mountain Bike Association committed to supporting each other’s wishes on what could become a stand-alone wilderness bill going before Congress next year. The deal modifies a wilderness proposal first introduced as part of Sen. Jon Tester’s Forest Jobs and Recreation Act in 2009. It extends the southwestern edge of the Bob Marshall and Scapegoat wildernesses from the mountain ridgelines into the lower drainages where much of the area’s wildlife habitat and travel corridors exist.
“This compromise was more difficult than anything I remember,” said Lee Boman, a BCSP steering committee member with the Montana Wilderness Association. “What really impressed me was how respectful the mountain bikers were of the horsemen’s issues. The horsemen weren’t in favor of this, but eventually they decided it was better for all. Nobody got everything they wanted. Everyone had to give up something.”
The 3,000-acre proposed mountain-biking recreation area extends along the Spread Creek drainage north of Ovando in a recommended wilderness area of the Lolo National Forest. Because the whole area remains in a management gray area regarding mechanized use, some mountain bikers had begun to chart routes along trails traditionally used by backcountry horse packers.
“We realized there were trails that weren’t that great for mountain bike and horse interactions,” said IMBA representative Eric Melson. “There were blind corners, and places where bike and horse use couldn’t co-exist. We gave up those trails.”
Melton said the biking community acknowledged how outfitter livelihoods depended on trail access to get visitors to hunting camps and scenic rides. The bikers wanted to access many of the same areas for the same reasons.
“We want to see as many acres of wilderness preserved as we can, so long as our use is preserved on trails that we cherish,” Melson said. “It took a lot of hard conversations to flesh out the areas we really held important.”
The proposed biking area abuts another wilderness compromise where local snowmobile riders have outlined the proposed Otatsy Recreation Area. That landscape was included in Tester’s bill as a winter mechanized use-only area. But after several failed attempts to win passage, Tester did not reintroduce his bill in the 2014-16 session of Congress now ending. That prompted BCSP members to resume their effort as a stand-alone campaign.
Boman said as communities along the edge of the Bob Marshall see growth in the recreation economy from hikers, horse packers, bikers and snowmobilers, it increases the value of those groups pulling in the same direction.
“From an economic-development point of view, it’s pretty exciting,” Boman said. “It means we have support to get all this passed, which we’ve been working on for a decade. Without the endorsement of mountain bikers and snowmobilers, we wouldn’t get anywhere. It takes so darn long to get any wilderness designated, and it only takes a few months to lose those areas.”