Wilderness Study Areas: The New Fight for Mountain Bikes

The debate over mountain bikes in Wilderness has gone on for years. Recently, however, this battle has shifted to other land designations related to Wilderness. Two recent lawsuits may alter the mountain biking landscape in the coming years.

The Wilderness Act of 1964 gave Congress the power to designate Wilderness areas. Further laws set forth guidelines for creating Wilderness Study Areas (WSA) in furtherance of the Wilderness Act. This designation has recently become the topic of debate and litigation in Montana. The Montana Wilderness Study Act of 1977 listed certain areas, these areas are to be “administered…so as to maintain their presently existing wilderness character and potential for inclusion in the National Wilderness Preservation System.” Essentially, the Montana Wilderness Study Act listed specific areas that might some day become Wilderness, directed the Secretary of Agriculture to review them, and directed that they be managed in a way to not harm their ability to become wilderness until Congress decides otherwise. These lands are effectively in limbo, they are not Wilderness but their characteristics that make them eligible to become Wilderness cannot be harmed.

In 2006, the Gallatin National Forest released their newest Travel Plan; the documents which guideline travel restrictions and access in the National Forest. The goal of the plan was to “balance travel and recreational uses with other management goals”  in the area south of Bozeman, Montana. The Forest Service re-configured travel management to limit mountain biking to specific areas. The Forest Service also noted that use had increased since the Montana Wilderness Study Act in 1977, but determined that the increase was not relevant to their determination. The result was a lawsuit by the Montana Wilderness Association.

In their lawsuit, the Montana Wilderness Association alleged that the plan allowed an illegal increase in motorized and mechanized activities, and failed to analyze wilderness character. Motorist groups intervened and argued against further trail closure. The court held that the Forest Service must maintain a WSA’s wilderness character for current users and not just preserve physical characteristics for possible future Wilderness designation. The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals confirmed this ruling. The physical result was that over 100 miles of mountain bike trails were closed in the Hyalite-Porcupine-Buffalo Horn Wilderness Study Area.

Now, citing to the previous case, the Bitterroot National Forest has banned mountain bike access in all WSAs under their control. This time, mountain bikers won’t just be watching from the sidelines. In what is considered the first lawsuit by a mountain bike group, The Bitterroot Backcountry Cyclists have joined local motorist groups to challenge the legality of the closure. Their lawsuit claims that the Forest Service has “enhanced” the wilderness character of the Sapphire WSA and Blue Joint WSA by closing access to areas traditionally open to motorized and mechanized use. The case was filed in December and is currently proceeding.

Not only is the mountain bike fight moving from Wilderness to WSAs but mountain bikes continue to be grouped with motorized users such as ATVs and snowmobiles when it comes to federal decision-making. Bitterroot Backcountry Cyclists chose to join motorized groups in their lawsuit for cost-savings. This continued combination of “mechanized” and “motorized” recreation will likely play a big role in the future with federal land management, especially Wilderness.

If you’re interested in the current fight visit http://www.savemontanatrails.com.

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