Trails happen. In the increasingly complicated world of managing public lands for both ecological and human benefit, that is one of the few ideas that seems to enjoy universal acceptance. First the four-legged animals made tracks, then trails, then the two-legged animals followed. Naturally. In the past decade, however, some less natural paths have been blazed by bipeds astride bicycles in the backcountry, a development that has saddled land managers with another user group to accommodate, left local forests with a new network of trails, and burdened local mountain-bikers with the ethical dilemmas brought about by the explosion in the popularity of their sport.
At issue within the mountain biking community is where to draw the line for acceptable use of common recreational areas. Experienced riders with the requisite skills have made trails happen around Missoula for years; less experienced riders anxious to notch up their skill level have followed, and mountain bike trails were created. Yet as the technology of bike design evolved, access to more difficult terrain became possible for more people. Equestrians, hikers and skiers began to take note of the damage. And the Forest Service, initially, moved to obliterate trails not inventoried on their own maps. The inevitable reaction: mountain bikers organized.
Low-Impact Mountain Bikers of Missoula (LIMB) is a local non-profit dedicated to riding in cooperation with land-managing agencies and other user groups. Overall, LIMB is a success story. Access to local trails have been preserved, and the organization is doing their best to educate riders about proper trail etiquette, especially when and where to ride. The inevitable counteraction on the part of a segment if Missoula-area riders, however, has not been nearly as cooperative. Bandit bikers, most recently sporting fully suspended 50-pound bikes designed for big drops and technical steeps, have been at work in Pattee Canyon, and not just riding. Such advanced technology in mountain bikes seems to be accompanied by a rash of new trail construction, which for this style of riding involves a whole lot more than simply whacking shrubbery out of the way. Two by fours, saws, nails, hammers, Pulaskis, and judging by the emptys, enough beer to fuel several weekends of creative carpentry here are evidence of riders who are tailoring the wilderness to their needs.
The resulting construction project looks something like an early Pleistocene roller coaster— ladders and scaffolding made of makeshift limbs and scraps, over which riders, ostensibly in need of a thrill after a long day of pounding nails and humping wood, courageously pilot their bikes. According to LIMB member Bill Jocko, such a mentality has been fostered in part by the mountain bike press.
“I’ve got a gripe with the magazines, which are of course pushed by advertising,” notes Jocko. “They have these glossy photos of guys making these amazing moves, or riding over structures, and then in the next few pages they have an article about trail ethics. There’s definitely a conflicting message.”
Nonetheless, it’s a message that seems to ring true for a lot of riders, whose attitude about trail access and creation seems more in line with snowmobilers and OHV users than the non-motorized trail-advocacy contingent. This type of rider is even represented on the Internet by a group calling themselves the Mountain bike Militiaman Movement. The group, though taking a slightly less biblical tone than some radical OHV groups, nonetheless encourages sympathetic browsers to “plot against all who would oppose our inalienable right to ride,” discourages the use of real names in posting descriptions of mountain bike conquest, and includes pictures and tutorials on how and where to improvise the same sort of structures found in Pattee Canyon.
Caught in the middle of this issue locally is Don Carroll, an avid mountain biker who also happens to be the Missoula District ranger on the Lolo National Forest. As such, Carroll is charged with determining the sustainability of trails in both Pattee Canyon and the Rattlesnake National Recreation Area. On a rainy morning, Carroll, armed with a Forest Service digital camera, is recording the structures bikers have built. His look is not one of concern or disapproval but amazement.
“Would you ride that?” he asks. The trail is steep, and with the rain has become a slurry of mud and run-off. “This is really becoming a problem all over the country. I’ve read a lot about it up in western British Columbia. I’ve talked about it with other Forest Service people, and we figured it was just a matter of time before it got here.”
Carroll, who worked in Wyoming and Colorado before moving to Missoula a year ago, talked about the difficulty of enforcing trail codes, particularly around Missoula. “The recreation budget for the Forest Service has actually declined a lot over the past few years,” Carroll explains. “It’s a combination of factors. The recreation dollars are going to national forests around places like the Front Range in Colorado or places in Southern California where there are a lot more users.”
Nonetheless, the Forest Service is determined to get a handle on new trails, those created by mountain bike and those by other means. “One of the things we’re doing this summer in the Rattlesnake is inventorying all the trails by GPS,” says Carroll. We’ll map them and see where that leaves us. If a trail is in a place that isn’t too wet or too steep, chances are we’ll let it stay.”
Which is what LIMB members want to hear. Julie Huck, who sits at the chair of the board of directors for LIMB, applauds the Forest Service’s plan to inventory all trails and examine them individually.
“If a trail starts to be created, there may be some need for it,” says Huck. “We may not want to see that trail obliterated, but see it get fixed.” To that end, Huck notes that LIMB has been successful in providing the Forest Service with funding through grants and labor through volunteers to help maintain local trails. Yet with the population of the Missoula area ever-increasing, the wisdom of creating and maintaining an increase in trails will at some point have to be questioned.
“New trails are created all the time, and there just aren’t the resources to inventory and maintain them all,” says Carroll of the current laissez-faire trail policy. “But at some point we’ll have to take a look at the overall effect of a network of trails, on the ecology of a place, and on the aesthetics. It might be doing some damage.”