By the time sunrise had lit up the 10,000-foot Lima Peaks on Saturday morning, August 22, over 120 cyclists had already arrived in Lima, Montana, population 250, and set up camp at the Mountain View Motel and RV Park. A steady stream of rigs with bicycles flowed off Interstate 15 and by 9 a.m. sleepy little Lima was hopping.
Bicyclists from around the region drove to the southwest corner of Montana for the 2nd Annual Montana Backcountry Bicycle Festival, an event sponsored by the Montana Mountain Bike Alliance (MMBA). Billed as a fun mountain bike gathering that combined world-class backcountry singletrack and down home hospitality, the Festival’s goal was to demonstrate that Montana’s small towns can benefit from mountain bike tourism attracted by great singletrack riding opportunities–the holy grail for backcountry bicyclists.
This year’s Lima Festival was held on borrowed time, however. The clock is ticking on bicycle access to the trails that have drawn riders to southern Beaverhead County for years. These trails are slated for closure to bicycles in the Beaverhead-Deerlodge (B-D) Forest Plan and consequently in Senator Jon Tester’s Forest Job’s and Recreation Act (FJRA). The B-D Forest Plan will close the Lima Peaks/Garfield Mountain, the Italian Peak area and local sections of Continental Divide National Scenic Trail (CDNST) later this year under the Forest Service philosophy that bans bicycles from recommended Wilderness areas. The FJRA in its current form will seal the deal.
The last time a Montana landscape received Wilderness protection was 1983 when the fledgling mountain bicycling industry was getting rolling in earnest and cyclists were taking fat-tired bikes into the hills in increasing numbers. In the 26 years since Congress designated the Lee Metcalf Wilderness, mountain bicyclists have continued exploring Montana’s vast backcountry trial systems. The rides, initially shared by word of mouth, were guarded with reverence to protect what seemed like our own private stash. On many of these trails you can still ride all day and never see another user. During this time period mountain bike users grew into 30 million users nationally, the second largest behind hikers. Engrained into the mountain bicycling culture is an inquisitive desire to explore new areas–whether this is across the valley or the country. The adventurous pursuit of quality singletrack has launched countless road trips and is a vital concept to grasp when we are discussing forest jobs and recreational opportunities.
During this Wilderness drought Montana’s mountain bikers kept riding somewhat oblivious to the pain other cycling communities were suffering around the U.S.–a pain brought by the fact that cyclists are conservation-minded and want pristine roadless areas permanently protected from new roads, mining and logging but the Wilderness or nothing choice puts cyclists in the undesirable position of either supporting bicycle-banning Wilderness protection for trails we’ve ridden and loved for decades or be opposed to new Wilderness. Sadly permanent resource protection options that allows continued bicycle access is often missing in this dialog.
With the July introduction of the Forest Jobs and Recreation Act, Senator Tester has embarked into new, uncharted territory. The bicycling community applauds the adjustments already given in the FJRA that offers permanent Congressional protection including new Wilderness and continued bicycle access in the form of a National Protection Area in the Lost Creek area in the Flint Creek Range, a boundary adjustment for trail #313 on the Sapphire Divide and a mechanized corridor for a 1.9-mile section of trail #315 in the Spanish Peaks/Cowboy Heaven–all examples of simple and small adjustments or a companion designations that extend protection including the majority of the Wilderness acreage while still allowing bicycling on specific, important routes.
Still more needs to be done. In the enormous landscape and hundreds of miles of trails affected by the FJRA, bicyclists are only asking for roughly 70 miles of trails to remain open to bicycles while supporting a majority of the Wilderness acreage. The trails we are asking to keep open are already designated non-motorized in the respective forest plans and would require hikers and equestrians to continue to share the trails where bicyclists currently ride–none of which are in existing Wilderness.
Additional adjustments we support include:
- 5.2 mile cherry stem needed for Tahepia Lake in the East Pioneers
- 1.3 mile boundary adjustment or corridor on Monture Creek #27 to Falls Creek #16
- 11.2 mile corridor for Sawmill #10401 to Little Sheep #1040, Lima Peaks
- 2-4 mile corridors on Lost Cabin #150 and Louise Lake #7168, Tobacco Roots
- 14 mile corridor trail #91, Italian Peaks Corridors/boundary adjustments for CDNST in West Big Hole and Centennials.
Shouldn’t every community have the opportunity to benefit socially and economically from the existing local trails that are currently enjoyed by bicyclists? The infrastructure is already in place. No roads need to be built. No extraction required. No dependence on the stagnate building industry’s recovery to have small town Montana benefit from the clean and quiet mountain bike eco-tourism. Bicyclists are not asking for access to all trails but do want to see the traditional singletrack gems protected and promoted so cyclists can be riding these trails again in spring 2010 with the communities poised to profit from their fat-tired visitors.
There are many proven business examples from around the world where singletrack-based tourism bolsters and sustains small town economies. It is folly to suggest that continued bicycle access is an overnight silver bullet cure for all of Montana’s social and economic ailments but if bicycles are banned from some of Montana’s finest trail resources at this juncture, we will not turn back the clocks in the future.
Why not give the collective bicycling community an opportunity to prove what responsible backcountry bicycling can do for Montana and create a few more pedal-powered “forest jobs” across the B-D and Blackfoot-Clearwater landscape in the FJRA. Heck, if the cycling community cannot come up with proactive solutions to make the trails we ask for more sustainable while improving user experiences and boosting the local economies through education, conservation and good will, boot us off in the next round of forest travel planning. Asking for this chance on a handful of trails does not seem like an unreasonable request of our elected officials and land managers.
This summer the mountain bicyclists came to Lima for the sublime trails but also found a small-town hospitality that would bring them back for another visit, and in the process, gave this dwindling railroad town one of the best economic weekends it has had in decades. Lima will not reap any gain from local stewardship logging, land reclamation or milling of timber under the FJRA. Closing the Middle Fork of Little Sheep Creek Trail #1040 and the CDNST to bicycles will cut Lima off from a singletrack gold mine that lies just 8 miles from town and Interstate-15. Open or closed, tens of thousands of tourists traveling through Montana with bicycles on their cars will drive past our trails resources all summer long looking for the next great ride. The question now becomes, in the name of Forest Jobs and Recreation, do we act to empower our small towns to benefit from this green revenue stream or do we cut out one more piece of their economic pie in the name of permanent land protection that bans quiet, muscle-powered bicycles?
Bob Allen is a co-founder of the Montana Mountain Biking Association.
Footnote: For a chronology of four years of NewWest.Net’s extensive coverage of this issue, click here.