USFS Chief Promises More Discussion About Bikes In Wilderness Study Areas

May 15, 2019

U.S. Sen. Steve Daines continues to pressure the U.S. Forest Service to reconsider proposed mountain bike closures in two Montana wilderness sudy areas.

U.S. Forest Service Chief Vicki Christiansen vows the agency will meet with mountain biking groups who want to regain access to two wilderness study areas in the Bitterroot National Forest.

Wilderness study areas are lands managed to protect wilderness characteristics until Congress decides whether or not to designate them as wilderness.

"We recognize the importance of access, and it is balancing our multiple-use mandates, and it’s about sitting down with and working this out together. We will always commit to that. Under my watch it will be a priority."

Christiansen's comments in Wednesday’s meeting of the U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee are a follow up to a letter Republican Sen. Steve Daines sent earlier this spring.

In that letter, Daines demanded the Forest Service reconsider the proposed closure of about 121 miles of trails within two local wilderness study areas (WSA).

The Blue Joint WSA is south of Darby along the Idaho border. The Sapphire WSA is southeast of Hamilton. The forest closed those areas to cyclists when its travel plan was updated in 2016.

"Forest plans in the Bitterroot and elsewhere are locking out historic uses such as mountain biking, such as snowmobiling, in areas not designated as wilderness," Daines says. "These are trails that some families have used for literally generations and now they’re banned from that area."

The Montana Wilderness Association supports the proposal to bar mountain bikers from the Blue Joint and Sapphire WSAs

Erin Clark is the group’s western Montana field director.

"We see them as having tremendous potential for inclusion in the National Wilderness Preservation System and would like to see maintaining or enhancing wilderness character as much as possible to ensure that continues to be a possibility. One of the ways that we see best suited to do so is to minimize or completely restrict mechanized access," Clark says.

Clark says Bitterroot Forest officials have already given ample opportunity for everyone on both sides of the issue to weigh in.

It’s unclear when a final decision on the mountain bike issue will be made.