Back in late January, Bozeman cyclists Bill Martin and Mo Mislivets rolled up to the trailhead leading to the Gallatin National Forest’s Yellow Mule Cabin a few miles south of Big Sky. It was a “beautiful, bluebird day,” Mislivets recalls, and the duo had left their travel options open, stocking the car with both cross country skis and their fat bikes—a bulkier breed of mountain bike with thick tires catered specially for pedaling through snow. The area hadn’t seen fresh snow for several days, leaving the trail up Buck Creek Ridge toward the cabin well-packed by snowmobile traffic.
Martin and Mislivets had been to plenty of U.S. Forest Service cabins, but both Yellow Mule and the Buck Ridge area were new to them. After a quick review of the signs highlighting permitted recreation, they opted to ride the fat bikes in. “Unfortunately,” Martin says, “we chose the wrong weapon of choice.”
Halfway to the cabin, which they’d rented for the Martin Luther King, Jr. Day weekend, two Forest Service employees on snowmobiles pulled up to Martin. The first seemed genuinely excited to see a fat bike, Martin recalls, and wanted to check it out. But it was the second ranger’s response that sent Martin into shock.
“He was like, ‘You know, it’s illegal to be out here.’ I was pretty surprised,” Martin says.
The illegality the ranger referred to stems from a special order issued by Custer and Gallatin National Forest Supervisor Mary Erickson on Feb. 7, 2013. The order specifically prohibits using “a bicycle or other wheeled vehicle between December 1 and April 15” on all designated snowmobile and ski/snowshoe trails throughout the Gallatin. Martin had never heard of the rule; it wasn’t posted on the forest’s website, nor was there any signage indicating such a ban anywhere at the trailhead.
Martin says the incident left him confused. The rangers didn’t ticket him, and were both unclear on how widely the ban applied. With the day waning, Martin and Mislivets decided to continue on to the cabin.
“I just had this feeling like the rangers told us we were illegal but they weren’t going to issue a ticket,” Martin says. “I couldn’t wait to get back to research what he told me. I just didn’t have this strong feeling that we were indeed a criminal aspect up there.”
The next day, however, Martin and Mislivets decided to take a short fat bike jaunt farther along the Buck Ridge trail. That’s when Martin was stopped by a Forest Service law enforcement officer who issued him a ticket for $175 for violating the special order. Martin was shocked again, “and a little mad now.”
The incident highlights a potential problem for those who have taken to the trend of fat biking. Any new activity on public lands comes with the possibility of user conflicts, and fat bikes are no exception. Boyd Hartwig of the Lolo National Forest says his office is well aware of the fatties’ popularity, and recreation specialist Al Hilshey from the forest’s Missoula Ranger District notes a definite increase in the sport in recent winters. So far, the two are only aware of one complaint posted on an online forum last year by a cross country skier upset over alleged fat bike use of a ski track in the Rattlesnake’s main stem.
Hartwig says the Lolo hasn’t reached a point where user conflict has necessitated any kind of special order. “We don’t want to preempt something or step in where we don’t need to step in,” he explains. “If you don’t need to limit folks in an area because there’s no problem, then you shouldn’t.”
Officials with the Bitterroot National Forest issued a similar statement regarding fat bike use.
One week after Martin was fined, the Gallatin issued a press release addressing fat bike use. The release emphasized that the forest’s current travel management plan—completed in 2006—prohibits all wheeled vehicles from traveling on marked or groomed winter trails. “This decision pre-dated the common occurrence of fat bikes and the growing trend,” it states, adding that the forest “plans to review the potential for accommodating this growing popular activity in the future.” Gallatin spokesperson Marna Daley confirms the special order was intended to clarify existing restrictions in the forest travel plan.
Martin ultimately decided not to contest the citation after a Gallatin representative finally showed him a copy of the special order. “I felt confident that, yes, we did break a law,” Martin says. “We were up on a trail that wasn’t supposed to be ridden by a fat bike, and that was good enough for me.”
Martin hopes change will come to the Gallatin soon, but that such a change will include input from all winter trail user groups. In the meantime, he and Mislivets have changed the way they prepare for outings. While planning a recent fat bike tour in the Beaverhead National Forest, the duo called ahead to the ranger district they’d be traveling through to make sure they wouldn’t be violating any rules.
“It’s like you’ve got to do research,” says Martin, “before you can ride.”