As Forest plan unfolds, a mountain bike-wilderness debate emerges

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Taking in the view from a chair at Thoma Lookout in this file photo. There's a significant debate on whether mountain biking should be allowed in the upper Whitefish Range, on trails like the one that go to Thoma.

As the Flathead National Forest puts the finishing touches on a final Forest plan, one issue is rising to the forefront: Should bicycle use be allowed in areas that are recommended wilderness?

Central to the debate is proposed wilderness in the North Fork. Under alternative B in the draft plan, there’s about 80,000 acres of recommended wilderness in the plan in the upper end of the Whitefish Range north of Red Meadow Creek. Recommended wilderness is generally managed as wilderness, but under alternative B, the plan would allow continued mountain bike use in the region.

The Montana Wilderness Association opposes the use of mountain bikes in recommended wilderness.

MWA sees mountain bikes as a “non-conforming” use in recommended wilderness, since the Wilderness Act does not allow any mechanized use and that includes bicycles.

But Flathead National Forest planner Joe Krueger notes that mountain biking is already allowed on the trails that are within what could become recommended wilderness. They see little use by bikers, namely because most of the trails are extremely steep and unforgiving.

But MWA, in its arguments against bikes, included a 2013 letter written by Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks bear management specialist Tim Manley to Forest Supervisor Chip Weber.

In the letter, which is attached to MWA’s comments, Manley questions the wisdom of allowing mountain biking north of Red Meadow Creek.

Manley said he fully encouraged and supports outdoor recreation including mountain biking, but he had real concerns about biking in the upper end of the Whitefish Range.

“The Whitefish range north of Red Meadow contains some of the best grizzly bear habitat on the Flathead National Forest, especially during the summer months, when the huckleberries are ripe. That is also the time when the snow has melted from the high elevation trails and presents the most opportunity for conflict between mountain bikers and grizzly bears,” Manley wrote.

Contacted for this story, Manley said he still supports his 2013 position.

Since then, there has been a mountain biking fatality in the Flathead due to a grizzly bear collision and this fall, a hiker was mauled by a bear in the lower Whitefish Range.

He reiterated he wasn’t against mountain biking, “but safety-wise, there’s other places that don’t have the risk.”

Those include the lower end of the Whitefish Range and the Tally Lake District.

“I’m not saying people shouldn’t (bike in the upper Whitefish Range),” Manley said. “But I am saying the Forest Service shouldn’t promote it.”

The problem with bikes is the bikers are generally going faster than a person whose just walking a trail. In addition, they’re quiet.

At the very least, they should carry bear spray and have it in a place on them or the bike where they can get at it quickly.

Robinson is also worried that by allowing mountain bikes in recommended wilderness, it will make it that much harder to get a wilderness bill passed when the time comes.

But Flathead Fat Tires, a local mountain biking group, sees it differently.

“The Flathead National Forest is considering allowing existing levels of mountain bike use to continue in some recommended wilderness areas,” the group notes on its web site to its members. “We commend the Flathead National Forest for their reasonable and adaptive approach for allowing some levels of mountain bike use to continue in recommended wilderness areas as we believe bicycles are compatible uses in these areas, and the Forest Service’s own environmental study suggests that bikes have minimal impacts. Not only is this important for the specific trails located in the Flathead National Forest, but it’s important for mountain bike access everywhere in the region. The Flathead National Forest has recognized that mountain bikes are compatible with pristine, backcountry trails, and we need to support this recognition in our comments.”

Board member Noah Bodman also questions the grizzly bear danger. He said the group supports carrying bear spray and responsible riding and while there has been a fatality on a mountain bike in the Flathead, he notes that hunters, over the years, have had far more deadly encounters with bears than mountain bikers have.

Nationwide, some mountain bikers are simply opposing new wilderness. In Idaho, for example, the Boulder-White Clouds Wilderness north of Ketchum, Idaho, was formed by Congress in 2015. Mountain bikers were unhappy after they lost some popular trails after the formal wilderness designation.

Similar debates are underway in New Mexico and Utah, where wilderness proponents and mountain bikers are at odds.

The Flathead National Forest is expected to have its final environmental impact statement and its draft record of decision completed by June. That document will ultimately tell whether the Forest will allow bikes in recommended wilderness, or not.

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