Eric Melson has ventured into the lion's den quite a few times over the past year and a half. As advocacy manager for the International Mountain Bicycling Association, he's been tasked with convincing outfitters and backcountry horsemen to carve out space for mountain bikers in a proposed stewardship project in the Blackfoot and Clearwater valleys. Negotiations turned especially tense this summer after the nonprofit Sustainable Trails Coalition pitched mountain bike access in designated wilderness to Congress—a pitch that Melson doesn't support. At that point, Melson says, the horsemen "got really nervous."
All those difficult conversations paid off last month when the partners behind the Blackfoot Clearwater Stewardship Project (BCSP) formally agreed to remove 3,000 acres from the proposed wilderness area north of Ovando to create the Spread Mountain Recreation Area. Melson sees the deal as a win for collaboration, and also as a much-needed counterpoint to the Sustainable Trails Coalition's controversial bill. The BCSP proves that mountain bikers can make gains in access through compromise at the local level, he says.
"This is a huge win for recreation, but it's also a win for conservation, because that area's still protected. Sure, it's 3,000 acres that's not wilderness. But it's 3,000 acres that's still in a protected designation."
Melson describes the agreement as a prime example of how recreation can serve as "a conduit for conservation" in a political climate in which stand-alone wilderness proposals have little chance of success. Lee Boman, a BCSP steering committee member and president of the Montana Wilderness Association, concurs. The BCSP, which began taking shape in 2006, was the least controversial part of Sen. Jon Tester's Forest Jobs and Recreation Plan, Boman says. And while the mountain biking contingent came into the picture late, Boman thinks its inclusion has strengthened the BCSP's viability as an independent piece of legislation.
"There are people who are going to criticize that, but I think in the big picture we strengthened it," Boman says. "We made it more appealing to more people. We made it a part of our recreational menu."
As Boman acknowledges, not everyone is buying what the BCSP is selling. George Nickas, executive director of Wilderness Watch, gets steamed about the concessions made to mountain bikers. In his view, the revised BCSP represents a fundamental problem with the types of collaborative conservation efforts popular today—that they seem to hinge on collaborators' willingness to preserve wild areas only if they can access them on their terms. If groups claim to truly support wilderness ideals, Nickas says, "then sacrifice something for it."
"Yeah, the mountain bikers felt like they were left out of the deals that were cut before. 'What about us? What about our piece of the pie?' Well, they're getting protected grizzly bear habitat, they're getting protected wilderness, they're getting protected water quality and protected fisheries. They're getting what everybody else is getting."
Such criticisms likely won't hamper the BCSP's pursuit of congressional approval in 2017. Boman says the heavy lifting is already done. Or, as Melson puts it, "the skids are greased."