Tracking the recreation debate on public lands

As the season's first snow retreats to reveal the hillside paths and marks of humankind, I give a small thanks to winter for providing the ground with protection from our treads for at least a few months. It's been with me all summer long and into the autumn, this simmering guilt, which I carry as a moderately prolific hiker and mountain biker aware of the intrusions we all make when we head for the countryside.

If you haven't been playing close attention, you may not be aware that the earth recently has become a battleground in a running fight between different breeds of recreationalists across the West.

While in the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest this summer, I listened as a handful of environmentalists faced off with a recreational group known as the Blue Ribbon Coalition, which is trying to keep many lands open for use by riders of all-terrain vehicles. The upshot was that the feds were ready to close certain trails to motorized travel, but wanted local feedback first.

In Utah, the International Mountain Biking Association backed out of a plan which would have set aside 5.7 acres as a federal wilderness area. The mountain bikers did not want to lock up the wild land in Southern Utah, because if it becomes wilderness, it will be closed to bikes as well as ATV's.

Now, members of IMBA complain about the Sierra Clubbers and the bird watchers who want to take away their fun.

Here at home, those familiar with the mountain bike community know similar folks-even some who "poach" rides in the Rattlesnake Wilderness Area, which abuts the recreation area north of town. Such activities have come to the attention of backcountry rangers working for the U.S. Forest Service, who in turn has threatened to close the Rattlesnake as a whole to bikes in order to maintain the so-called integrity of the wilderness area, where it is illegal to ride.

I've even heard tell that some local riders have taken the view that no matter what the Forest Service does, the Rattlesnake will remain open. These hearty souls argue there's no way to police its perimeters. When I think back to the complaints I first heard about motorized vehicles in the woods-that they tend to go anywhere they want, because their drivers can steer them around gates, allowing them into sensitive ecological areas-I can't help but view cyclists as low-tech motorheads.

Last month, my brother and I headed up to the Alice Creek drainage outside of Lincoln, where we followed the trail of William Lewis to the Continental Divide. We walked in the travois tracks left by Montana tribes who traveled what they called the Road to the Buffalo. On the way back to our camp, I noticed that someone had skirted the fence with their ATV-despite the fact that motorized vehicles were outlawed on the road we followed.

I figure there's a pretty big distance between these trespassers and myself. I did take my bike out to the Rattlesnake Recreation Area quite a bit this summer, though, and even rode in an unofficial race, a group ride of sorts, which drew a skeptical glance from local rangers. (For lack of stamina as well as my own personal morality, I avoided hitting the wilderness, but I understand the attraction.)

Clearly, horses, bikes, ATV's and even human feet alter the natural terrain, which is something public land managers are supposed to keep track of. Nevertheless-outside of motorbikes and four-wheel drive trucks-the damage done is primarily aesthetic and perhaps should be considered the price we pay for having public lands.

Either that or we can plug into our virtual reality headsets and enjoy the outdoors from the comfort of our living rooms.

Moreover, just as federal agencies are beginning to look at restricting the use of ATV's on public lands, especially because of the noise and the way they broaden trails, land managers are beginning to look at all sorts of recreational use which continues to grow at an unprecedented speed. I say it's up to the users to take some responsibility too.

There are solutions and probably enough land for everybody to have some fun. Still, it's going to take some doing to find the pieces to this puzzle. Me? I'm going to think long and hard while I'm out skiing this winter, cutting tracks through the snow which will definitely go away.


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