Panic in the Elkhorns

A few days ago I went for a bike ride, on many of the same trails featured in this video from last year.  I didn’t bring a camera, and snapped only a few vague photos with my phone along the way, having no intention of discussing specifics.  As I wrote last June

But what I value even more than pleasant rides on purpose-built trails is the opportunity to ride in places where bikeability only happens by accident. The number of places one can legally and responsibly do this in the lower 48 grows smaller by the year. One mountain bike, ridden responsibly without skidding, is no more impactful than one hiker, but mountain bikers tend to be social creatures, and the fashionable trail soon sees major impact if it isn’t constructed to take such traffic. In most other states trails like this one are either in designated Wilderness, rebuilt to be more user friendly, or closed to bikes.

We know what they say about tempting fate.  Being fairly new to the area and thus a bit behind the curve, it was only recently that I dug in and found out that the (massive) Lewis and Clark National Forest is in the process of revising their travel management plans (on their many disconnected units), and that the Elkhorn trails I’ve enjoyed so much, and anticipated riding for many years to come, have bike access on the chopping block.  Much more below, but if you want to skip to the (long) planning document itself here, and submit a comment (by September 6th) here.

Above is the view from the long traverse along the north side of Casey Peak, looking NW towards Helena down McClelland Creek.  The trailheads are a 30 minute drive from downtown.

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The map above details the northernmost of the trails which would impacted by the “non-mechanized use area”, as shown below.  The most relevant, or at least most immediate, is the loop up the East Fork of McClelland Creek, over the aforementioned traverse, and down Teepee Creek and the main or south fork of McClelland.  This is a short (~2 hours) ride easily accessed from Helena, with a tough but mostly rideable climb, and a descent of superlative quality.  It seems to receive very little use, at least judging by the narrow and often grassy trail tread (you can see the slightly more obscure Jackson Creek trail going downhill just off the back of my rear tire in the top photo, in places the trail is almost impossible to see for all the flowers).  It serves as a fantastic companion to the increasingly popular, and largely mellow, trails in Helena itself.  If Helena hopes to market itself as a mountain bike destination, having keystone rides like this one, which stand up as A grade mile for mile compared to anything in Colorado, Utah, or Arizona, will be vital.  Without this sort of thing Helena will be pigeon holed as a regional destination, with only grandma trails on offer.  Most people that visit Moab or Fruita don’t actually ride Portal or Moore Fun, but it benefits the reputation and quality of the area enormously to know that such trails are on offer.

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There is a convoluted and conflicted recent history to mountain biking in Montana, best understood by reading this outstanding article from Bike Magazine.  In short, I have very good reason to be scared of what might come out of this planning process.

There are four options presented by the Lewis and Clark NF, in addition to the standard Alternative A, to make no changes to the current management plan, and is generally not adopted.  Alternative B, the preferred alternative for the FS, would create 9 Recommended Wilderness Areas (vital background on this term in the Bike article), which would exclude mechanized recreation (aka bikes).  Alternative C would do the same, but allow current travel options in RWAs to continue.  The catch is that this alternative would create the aforementioned non-mechanized area within the Elkhorns, that would ban bikes.  Alternative D would create 16 RWAs, which would not allow biking, closing a total of 360 miles of trails currently open to bikes (and in most cases rarely traveled by bikes, or indeed anyone).  Alternative E would not alter recreational access in any substantive fashion, and would have no direct impact on bike access (or motorized access).  Alternative E could allow for more logging.

As the Montana Mountain Bike Alliance tactfully put it, “Alternative E may be the more viable alternative for some mountain bike riders.”

It is worth emphasizing just how obscure and infrequently used almost all of these places are.  Even places like the Elkhorns, quite close to a large-by-Montana standards population center, gets very little use (outside hunting season) by almost any standard.  The two trailheads which access the northern bit of the Elkhorns have in total parking for perhaps 20 cars.  Horse traffic, again during hunting season, is almost always the most significant source of impact.  Concerning the Elkhorn non-mechanized area the Forest Service has this to say:

The core of the Elkhorns holds special significance for many people. During scoping, the public asked for the FS to consider prohibiting the use of mountain bikes in this core area to provide a more undeveloped recreation setting. In alternative C, mountain bikes would be prohibited from using approximately 60 miles of nonmotorized trails in a core area of the Elkhorns GA (see map in appendix A). These nonmotorized trails would be open to other nonmotorized uses.  This feature of alternative C would eliminate the potential of mountain bikes to disturb or displace wildlife in the core area; this effect would generally only occur in the summer months, which is a less vulnerable time for most wildlife species as compared to winter. Excluding mountain bikes may incrementally improve the quality of habitat for species that require seclusion. However, foot and equestrian travel could still occur, and the magnitude of this effect would be negligible. (p. 408)

Which is about as straightforward an admission of social bias as I’ve ever seen coming from the FS.  It’s just galling to see this manifest itself here, and in a place which gets so little use, period.  Were restrictions on horse traffic proposed, and especially the abundant cattle grazing in the area curtailed, I’d be more open to the argument of limiting bike traffic in the name of wildlife habitat.  As is, the elk do more than the people to keep many trails functionally open.

A few systematic things are disturbing about the whole management plan, the first being the use of RWAs by the Forest Service to drive policy.  The agency has my sympathy insofar as Washington has been so paralytic for so long, but the argument that by designating and then acting on the restrictions that RWAs have in Montana entailed is one that I cannot see an easy answer to.  The second is the ongoing social bias against mountain bikes, something I’ve addressed at length and won’t revisit here, save to highlight the way this schism is changing the sides of the Wilderness/wilderness debate.  What was, twenty years ago, ranchers and drillers versus hikers and birders is quickly becoming participants versus preservationists.  And that creates problems.

Send in your comment, if you please.  I would appreciate it.

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2 thoughts on “Panic in the Elkhorns

  1. Keep in mind I know nothing of the outdoors biking situation, but, do you have bros and impromptu competitions? I can see these would piss off people (mostly the damage caused by competitions, but nobody likes bros anyway). If the answer is yes, and the frequency of said bros/competitions is high I can see where the issue is.

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