A federal judge has blocked mountain biking in the Sapphire and Blue Joint wilderness study areas during the objection period to the Bitterroot Forest’s travel plan.
The 45-day objection period started last week and runs through Oct. 9.
In June, Chief U.S. District Judge Dana Christensen upheld the majority of the 2016 travel plan, but ruled the Forest Service had not provided an adequate period for objections regarding the use of bicycles in the two wilderness study areas.
Created by Congress in the Montana Wilderness Study Act of 1977, the two WSAs are located on the West Fork and Darby/Sula ranger districts. Together, they total about 102,000 acres.
Bitterroot Forest officials initially interpreted the court’s ruling as reopening a contested 110 miles of trail in the two WSAs to mountain bikers while the objection process ran its course.
After several groups, including the Friends of the Bitterroot, questioned the agency’s interpretation, Christensen issued an order that clarified the previous ruling did not lift current restrictions on mountain bike use in the two WSAs.
Bitterroot Backcountry Cyclist’s Lance Pysher said the judge’s decision was a blow to the mountain bikers who had spent time clearing trails this summer.
“We were certainly disappointed,” Pysher said. “We had put in 250 volunteer hours clearing more than 500 trees off of trails that were clearly impassable by anyone.”
Much of the focus had been on the Sapphire Crest Trail, often called the 313.
“We thought we were doing everyone a public service,” he said. “People couldn’t hike it. Horses couldn’t get through and hunters couldn’t get through either… Over several trips, we cleared about four miles of trail.
“We were hoping to get at least one season out of it,” Pysher said. “We understand that these groups don’t want us to become an established presence. Having us out there clearing trail is not in their best interest.”
Pysher expects the Forest Service to receive numerous comments from individuals and organizations that support mountain bike access across the nation.
“I expect there will be a huge amount of comments on this,” he said.
The Bitterroot Backcountry Cyclists joined several snowmobile and ATV organizations in a lawsuit challenging the 2016 Bitterroot Forest’s travel plan, which preserved the two WSAs in the primitive conditions that existed in 1977.
The Friends of the Bitterroot and seven other conservation organizations, including the Montana Wilderness Association and the Selway-Pintler Wilderness Backcountry Horsemen, intervened on the Forest Service’s behalf in support of the travel plan.
Friends of the Bitterroot’s Jim Miller said the Forest Service’s decision to reopen the areas to mountain bikers this summer was a mistake that has put the groups that asked for a clarification from the judge in a difficult position.
“The court remanded the travel plan decision, but did not vacate it,” Miller said. “It was an unfortunate mistake by the Forest Service to interpret that the WSAs were now open for mountain biking until the new objection period would be over… Now, it seems like once again, the Friends of the Bitterroot are the focus of ire from the motorized and mountain bike community. All we did was ask for a clarification from the court.”
The Forest Service’s decision to reopen the areas set the mountain bike community up for a “huge disappointment,” he said. “In my opinion, mountain bikers are good people. Many of them are conservation minded and they feel like they’ve been locked out.”
But Miller said the federal Wilderness Act prohibits all mechanized use on lands set aside as wilderness.
“The WSAs are set aside for future inclusion into wilderness,” Miller said. “Unfortunately, for mountain bikers, theirs is an incompatible use. The Forest Service made the right legal call.”
Friends of the Bitterroot’s Larry Campbell agreed.
“The mountain bikers, even with all their talk about wilderness ethics, joined with snowmobilers and other motorized groups to litigate the travel plan,” said Larry Campbell of the Friends of the Bitterroot. If “the mountain bikers would have won their litigation, our WSAs would have been thrown open to snowmobilers, ATVs and motorbikes.
“For the Friends of the Bitterroot, it was a no-brainer to intervene and protect the travel plan against litigation,” he said.
The deadline to submit objections is Oct. 9, 2018.
Only individuals or entities who submitted timely and specific written comments during the Bitterroot Forest’s Travel Plan scoping or on the DEIS may file an objection. All objections must be focused on the mountain biking issue.