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Pine Creek Lake. Photo by Walker Stole
Jan 27 2016

Spandex and Leather Working Together

Montana High Divide Trails serves as model for conservationists and mountain bikers advancing their interests

Featured, Partners in Conservation

Leveraging muscle power instead of fossil fuels, mountain bikers love to ride in nature. Count me as one of them. There are few things I’d rather do after work than spend an enjoyable hour or two riding the world-class trails above my home in Helena.

I’m like so many other mountain bikers in that I also enjoy hiking, backpacking, paddling, and other outdoor activities that allow me to focus on the restorative quietness of wild places set apart from the mechanized world. When polled, a strong majority of mountain bikers seem to agree. In fact, many support protection for those increasingly rare places where we leave our wheels behind. For example, 79% of mountain bikers approved the Forest Jobs and Recreation Act and 63% approved the Hidden Gems Wilderness in Colorado. Many mountain bikers understand that by working with conservationists, they benefit in at least two ways – they have more places where they can experience nature in all its primitiveness and they have more trails on which they can enjoy the thrill of mountain biking.

A segment of the mountain biking community in Montana and elsewhere is, however, becoming more vocal in its opposition to setting aside places where you can’t ride your bike.

For the past eight years in southwest Montana, mountain bikers, backcountry horsemen/women, hikers, skiers, hunters, and other conservationists united as the Montana High Divide Trails (MHDT) partnership have worked together with the shared understanding that there is room for both more wilderness and more mountain biking in Montana and we can, by collaborating, protect and expand each other’s interests. MWA is a founding member of MHDT.

In addition to helping restore quiet mountain trails and protect wildlands otherwise lost to aggressive and expanding motorized traffic, MHDT has also expanded opportunities for mountain biking opportunities that are compatible with existing wilderness and lands recommended for wilderness conservation. Here’s a sampling of what we’ve helped accomplish in the last eight years:

  • In 2008, “spandex and leather working together” helped the US Forest Service break ground and build new single track bike trail on miles of new Continental Divide Trail between Butte and Helena. 
  • The 2009 Beaverhead-Deerlodge Forest Plan protected seven non-motorized backcountry and recommended wilderness areas in the Flints, Lost Creek Canyon and in the Pintlers, Highlands, Whitetail-O’Neil, and Electric Peak Wild Areas along the Continental Divide.
  • In 2010, the BLM converted Scratchgravel Hills north of Helena into a non-motorized trail area, similar to the popular South Hills.
  • In 2012, eight miles of logging roads in Twin Lakes Creek were permanently rehabilitated into beautiful single track bike trails leading to (lower) Four Mile Basin and Twin Lakes, an area adjoining the Pintler Wilderness.
  • In 2013, the Pintler Ranger District completed restoration of single track bike trails lost to neglect in beautiful Lost Creek Canyon north of Anaconda.
  • In 2016, the Helena Ranger District's final Divide Travel Plan classified 28 miles of the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail and five wild mountain tracts along the divide as non-motorized. Additionally, the Divide Plan authorizes 14 miles of new single-track Continental Divide Trail to be constructed and managed for non-motorized uses.

Before MHDT formed, traditional mountain trails in the Pioneers, Flints, Boulder River, and Continental Divide were disappearing as four-wheelers turned trails into deeply rutted roads. Mountain bikers in Butte would not even print a trails map for fear the single-track trails they cherished, even the Continental Divide Trail, would be discovered and ruined by OHV traffic.

As with snowmobiles and four-wheelers, new technology has allowed bicyclists to penetrate deeper into wildlands than ever before and on trails that were designed primarily for traveling by foot and horseback. A hardline segment of the mountain biking community now believe they're entitled to continue riding or begin riding on these trails, even though they’re located in areas that have already been recommended by the Forest Service as wilderness.

A few months ago, some of these hardline mountain bikers, led by a group in California, formed Sustainable Trails Coalition (STC) to oppose all wilderness and wilderness study areas where they cannot ride. Like the Snowmobile Alliance for Western States (SAWS), STC aggressively advocates for a single-interest recreation identity that tends to focus on an individual experience over other outdoor interests and conservation needs. Love to ride trails? Then join us in our work to protect OUR experience on those trails.

Asking people to experience the gift of wild places on nature’s terms and at nature’s pace so that we don’t erode the wildness of these places has always presented challenges. But as Montana High Divide Trails demonstrates, wilderness advocates and mountain bikers do not need to be at odds. Montana is a big state, and we can expand mountain biking, restore quiet trails, and still have places where we can experience the untrammeled wild.

For more information about Montana High Divide Trails, contact me at jgatchell@wildmontana.org or at (406) 443-7350, ext. 106.

-John Gatchell, MWA federal lands policy director