Whether lacing up the boots, saddling the horse or clicking into pedals, those of us living in Montana are looking for the same thing when we head out into our public lands: solitude, a respite from our hectic lives, maybe the chance to hear a wolf howl or stumbling upon an amazing vista of our unspoiled surroundings.
Until recently, I would find my escape at one of the half-hidden, always empty trailheads of the Sapphire or Blue Joint wilderness study areas (WSAs). For a certain breed of mountain biker, these rugged, primitive scratches in the dirt were our pathway to the backcountry of the Bitterroot. These trails were not meant for speed or jumps or all those things many people believe define mountain biking. Instead they offered solitude, challenge and a chance to explore.
Those opportunities for pedal-powered adventure are now lost despite U.S. Forest Service studies recommending against wilderness designation for the Sapphires and the southern half of Blue Joint; 178 miles of trail were closed as unofficial, unpublished Region 1 Forest Service philosophy that since bikes don’t belong in wilderness they don’t belong in WSAs or recommended wilderness intersected with the decades-long unresolved status of these same areas.
In response to the loss of our favorite haunts, the local mountain bike community has considered supporting various bills in Congress. One that would rescind the absolute ban on bikes in wilderness that was imposed in 1984 and allow local land managers flexibility to allow limited access. Another is U.S. Sen. Steve Daines’ bill that would release those portions of WSAs that did not receive wilderness recommendation when last studied over 35 years ago. Allegations that this bill is sabotaging or sacrificing our wild places seem hyperbolic considering that for the four decades these lands were managed with mountain bike and even motorized access and still managed to remain wild.
For those who fear bikes will diminish the wilderness experience or fear releasing the WSA will lead to uncontrolled exploitation, I can empathize with your concerns. However, nearly 40 years of unlimited bike access to these places prove that wild spaces and bicycles can coexist. Along with hunters, backpackers and other lovers of wilderness, we are responsible stewards of these pristine treasures, and when trails we love are closed and the suggested alternatives are to go ride roads or move somewhere else, backcountry-oriented cyclists such as myself aren’t left with many palatable alternatives.
The current status quo is not sustainable; eventually a decision needs to be made. Efforts in Bozeman to find community-based collaborative answers over the Porcupine-Hyalite-Buffalo-Horn WSA points to one way forward. Preservation and reasonable recreational access: this is how we honor Bitterroot native Sen. Lee Metcalf, who once said, “Montana’s forests and national parks are scenic areas that have become playgrounds for thousands of Americans. As your congressman I have sought to preserve these priceless assets for the people of Montana. I shall continue to make them available to the sportsmen and the tourists.”