In a letter to the editor of the Flathead Beacon, FAMB board member Noah Bodman applauds the Forest service approach to recreation. You can read the full text here, and we have pasted it below as well:
Forest Service Should be Applauded for Approach to RecreationThere’s no question that increasing use raises concerns about interactions with wildlifeBY NOAH BODMAN // JUL 27, 2019
Recreational use on our forests has increased tremendously over the last decade but the infrastructure to support that use hasn’t kept pace, and our trails are overcrowded. The solution is simple: we need more trails, and more trailheads. Thankfully, the Forest Service is working on projects like Taylor Hellroaring and Crystal Cedar that will go a long way towards meeting these needs.
The incentives for these trails are clear: spreading out users will solve many of the overcrowding problems we see, and better recreational opportunities in the valley benefit the community as a whole. A Headwaters Economics Study in Whitefish estimated that “outdoor recreation generates $101.2 million in spending annually and contributes approximately 1,460 jobs and $41.1 million in income in the community.”
Of course, the economics of the situation aren’t the primary reason for these trails. For many of us, a large part of the reason we live in the Flathead is because of the outdoor opportunities that the area offers.
There’s no question that increasing use raises concerns about interactions with wildlife, specifically bears. And yes, we can do a better job educating people about taking precautions like carrying bear spray. But vocal opponents of these projects have adopted a “sky is falling” mantra with respect to mountain bikes that isn’t backed up by data – the fact is, bike/bear interactions are extraordinarily rare. That doesn’t mean reasonable precautions shouldn’t be taken, but banning bikes or trail runners is an overreaction.
This is why Forest Supervisor Chip Weber’s approach to forest management should be applauded. Trail construction projects and event permits are analyzed with wildlife in mind, and reasonable precautions are taken. But after taking those considerations into account, much needed improvements to recreational amenities are moving forward, and the community as a whole will benefit.
Noah Bodman, board member
Flathead Area Mountain Bikers
You can read this article at the source: https://flatheadbeacon.com/2019/06/28/risk-recreation-wildlands-offering-broader-perspective/
We also repost it here in its entirety:
Risk and Recreation on Wildlands – Offering a Broader PerspectiveBalancing recreation, land management and conservation on public lands
BY CHIP WEBER // JUN 28, 2019
For several years there has been an active dialogue regarding risks associated with recreation in wildlands and concern for the safety of people who choose to do so. Much of this discussion has been focused on interactions between grizzly bears and humans when running or mountain biking on trails. There is strong and expanding interest from the public in partaking in these activities (and many others) on the Flathead National Forest and other forested public lands. There are several proposed trail additions and events on the forest that have been the subject of much discussion. Public understanding could benefit from a broader discussion around these subjects than has been occurring.
I think individual values are driving the discussion, not just for the public, but also for professional biologists I deeply respect. Biologists and bear management specialists who caution against running or mountain biking correctly base those concerns on bears’ response to “prey behavior” like running or their defensive reaction when surprised by something moving quickly toward them in the woods. There is a real risk when these things occur. I would like to offer a different way of thinking about that and other risks which occur when people recreate in the woods.
There are several questions I would like to pose and, at least partially answer. First, how great are the risks of recreational activities in wildlands occupied by bears? What are the activities that pose the greatest risk and what is the relative risk of the biking and running people seem most concerned about? How do those risks compare to risks of other activities that commonly occur on the national forests? I will also offer a perspective on concerns about how these conflicts often do not go well for the bears involved.
Finally, I want to discuss how I think we should consider risks in the context of the increasing demand for recreation on public lands and direction we have as an agency to provide welcome and access to the public on their national forests. I think important value differences are generating most of the conflict around how these lands should be used.
Bears and people are increasingly coming into contact as bear populations grow, their geographic distribution expands, and people increasingly use the forests for recreation and other purposes. I looked at data on human fatalities from bear attacks available on Wikipedia that references each incident and the human activity associated with that attack. I limited my considerations to incidents occurring since 1990 because mountain biking and trail running weren’t very prevalent on the landscape prior to 1990.
There have been 78 human fatalities from black bears and brown bears (which include grizzly bears) since 1990 in North America. Of those, 37 percent were associated with hiking or walking, 12 percent hunting, 4 percent fishing, and 1 percent tending fence on horseback. So, 54 percent of the fatalities were associated with slow quiet activities
The next most frequent was camping at 19 percent. These attacks are often associated with food storage issues. They may occur in remote quiet settings or more noisy developed campsites, so I considered them separately. About 8 percent of fatal bear attacks occurred at people’s homes. There were a variety of other activities that only rarely resulted in bear caused fatalities, including mountain biking 3 percent and running 4 percent. This information at least begs the question of whether limiting folks to enjoying only slow, quiet activities in areas where bears are present provides any greater safety for people or bears.
There are many steps we can take that can lower (not eliminate) risk of a bear attack. Some of these are included as guidelines or desired conditions in our Forest Plan. Specific trail locations and design, increased sight distances and bear awareness education are examples.
What is the relative risk to bears from this? The Northern Continental Divide grizzly population has steadily increased at 2-3 percent per year and their geographic distribution has doubled over a ten-year period, even as human use of the Forest has rapidly increased. Black bears continue to thrive across the landscape. Very few bears have been euthanized following conflicts with bikers or runners on trails even as compared to conflicts from other trail uses. Food conditioning conflicts remain the most common issue resulting in bears having to be removed. While it is true that individual bears can lose their lives from trail user conflicts, this is not an issue significantly affecting population growth which remains robust.
How does the risk you are exposed to in these activities compare to other recreational activities that occur on the national forests?
What about rafting, boating, swimming, or fishing? Each of these activities has broad acceptance to occur on national forests, often in very wild and remote settings. From 2005-2014, there were an average of 3,536 fatal accidental drownings (non-boating related) annually in the United States — about ten deaths per day. An additional 332 people died each year from drowning in boating-related incidents. We do many things to try to promote water safety, but we don’t tell folks to stay away from the water.
So why such a different reaction to the much lower risks from wildlife encounters? These are low probability, high consequence events. Deaths from grizzly attacks are horrific. We have a visceral response to that imagery that makes the probability of it happening seem much higher than it is. Activities like driving account for many more deaths, still, driving for pleasure is the number one recreational activity in the country. We normalize risks from these activities because accidents and deaths occur so much more frequently. For a more familiar example, people feel safer driving (fairly high risk) than flying (very low risk).
I would suggest that we consider these different activities on an equal basis in the context of their relative risks when promoting recreation on national forests and other wildlands. All of that said, I think this conversation needs to address an entirely different aspect of risk, namely, who gets to decide what risks anyone takes in their recreational pursuits. I like to make those choices for myself and I want you to be able to do so as well.
Thrill seekers enjoy activities like whitewater rafting and kayaking, rock climbing, hang gliding, downhill and backcountry skiing, and riding challenging trails. The joy of these experiences provides great quality of life for both locals and visitors. The economic benefits from this are expressed directly in local communities and indirectly by making this a desirable place to live.
How will we, as a society, decide these questions? Do we want our decisions to reflect a narrow range of values, where only a certain, few, “approved” uses of public lands may occur? As bears expand their territories, do we want to increasingly put more and more public lands off limits to recreation that comes with risks? We have a forest plan that seeks to provide the “greatest good for the greatest number,” valuing all of these uses and providing places for awesome front-country uses like biking and running as well as amazing, quiet and solitude in world class wilderness. I hope we will continue to value it all.
We are continuing to bring forward projects that enhance recreational enjoyment and access on the forest. As you think about this, I encourage you to stay engaged. You can inform yourself of the risks associated with your recreational pursuits, learn how to mitigate them to the extent possible, choose what to do based on your own values and own the consequences of your choices.
I expect this debate will continue. In the meantime, we welcome you to your lands!
Chip Weber serves as the Forest Supervisor for the Flathead National Forest.
Following are FAMB's comments on the Crystal Cedar EA.
July 2, 2019
Dear Ms. Canepa,
Please accept these comments from the Flathead Area Mountain Bikers (FAMB) regarding the Crystal Cedar environmental assessment.
FAMB strongly supports the proposed action and the recreational aspects of this project. As we have stated in previous comments, the proposed network will provide something that is needed in Columbia Falls area, and it will be a tremendous resource for the community.
Without diminishing FAMB's support for the project, there are a number of points we would like to make.
First, we feel the proposed action is missing an opportunity to address current and future use issues by declining to incorporate mountain bike specific trails. For the recreational aspects of this project, mountain bikers have been heavily involved in the project from the outset. It was members of FAMB and the International Mountain Bike Association that met with Chip Weber years ago to discuss the possibility of trails in the Columbia Falls area. It was FAMB that carried out many of the early discussions with the Forest Service about this project. And when FAMB passed the torch to the Gateway to Glacier group to help lead the public outreach for this project, it continued to be mountain bikers that were the most heavily engaged and involved.
There is a reason that mountain bikers have been so heavily involved: it's because, despite mountain bikers being one of the largest user groups in the area, there are very few trails in the Flathead Valley that actually cater to bikes. Multi use trails aren't bike trails, and ultimately, multi use trails are perfect for no one. While we understand the efficiency of building one trail for all user groups, given that mountain bikers have put a tremendous amount of work into this project, it seems clear that the interest exists to support the construction trails that are specifically designed with bikes in mind.
Similarly, there is plenty of evidence on trail networks elsewhere in the valley as to the user conflicts that will exist if all users are directed onto non-directional, non user specific trails near trailheads. The trails within a mile of a trailhead will see considerably more use than the rest of the network, and as stated in our prior comments, we feel that additional trails that separate user groups in the area of the 4th Ave Trailhead are worthwhile. As the network is currently envisioned in that area, frequent user conflicts are likely. Other networks in the valley are being modified to address this sort of issue by adding trails in the vicinity of the trailhead and separating users, so it seems illogical to not address the issue from the outset in this network.
Beyond these concerns, there are a number of areas where we feel the EA could be improved. First, on page 103, we feel that the EA overstates the current state of frontcountry summer recreation. The EA states
"National Forest System lands in the project area currently offer a variety of frontcountry summer and winter recreational opportunities, including, but not limited to, dispersed camping, hiking, mountain biking, snowshoeing, motorized trail riding, snowmobiling, and Nordic skiing."
This is not true. There is virtually no frontcountry recreation on the National Forest in the Columbia Falls area. The only trailhead in the immediate vicinity is the Columbia Mountain Trail, which is a singular trail that offers limited opportunities. The next closest trails would be those on Whitefish Mountain Resort, which aren't actually all that close to Columbia Falls, and many of which require paying for a lift pass. Outside of the Columbia Mountain trail and the WMR trails, there are few, if any trails or trailheads on Forest Service land that could be categorized as "frontcountry" within a 45 minute drive of the project area.
On page 12 of the EA, Table 3, we would like to see the trail class designations of trails TR05, TR06, TR08, and TR10, be changed to class 2/3 (i.e. leaving the option open to make those trails fit either class 2 or class 3). This allows greater flexibility in the final design and construction of the trails in two respects. First, it would allow the trails to be built in a manner that created a defacto direction of travel. For example, if TR07 is built as a machine built trail with a 6% grade, and TR08 is a more natural, hand built trail with a 10% grade, the flow of travel for the vast majority of higher speed bike traffic will be to ascend TR07 and descend TR08, which benefits all users by creating a predictable pattern. Trail TR07 already has this flexibility by showing trail class 2, built for pack and saddle. But TR08 does not, and thus it may be more difficult for the trail builder to actually construct the trail in the most rational way.
In this regard, and to reiterate a point from FAMB’s prior comments, the southern portions of TR07 should be built so that bicycle traffic on it is primarily in the uphill direction, with descending bike traffic routed to TR08 or the northern extent of TR07. Most likely, horse and foot traffic will use TR07 as an “out and back,” going to the view point at the top of the ridge, and then returning down the trail, at least to the intersection with Road 10810. Given that type of use, it is logical to direct higher speed descending bike traffic away from that trail. If bike traffic is directed down the southern portion of TR07, there will almost certainly be frequent conflicts with other users. The best way to avoid that is to build a bike only descent down the southern face of the ridge, as FAMB suggested in its prior comments. But if that’s not an option, at the very least, TR07 and TR08 should be built with a directional flow in mind, and changing the trail class of TR08 is one step in that direction.
Similarly, a more natural, rougher trail will effectively slow mountain bikes down. While there are quite a few methods for reducing bike / wildlife conflicts, this is one method that is effective and can create more interesting, enjoyable trails for the riders. Additionally, short, steep pitches can actually have the effect of slowing riders down - riders perceive the change in pitch as an obstacle and approach it more hesitantly.
As it is currently written, the EA emphasizes clearing vegetation to increase sight distances in order to reduce wildlife conflicts. And while clearing vegetation and increasing sight distances is certainly useful in reducing wildlife conflicts, long sight distances also often allow bikers to achieve higher rates of speed, which may not be desirable due to wildlife and user conflict concerns. Building an arbitrarily tight, turny trail can reduce that issue, but it comes at the cost of making the trail significantly less enjoyable to ride. The BLM’s Guidelines for a Quality Trail Experience (attached) does an excellent job of discussing this dynamic and laying out the design criteria that make for an enjoyable trail that riders will want to use repeatedly. But many of the design elements discussed in that document would be hindered by a trail class 3 designation - more options are left on the table with a trail class 2 designation, that allows for a rockier, rootier trail with more obstacles to slow traffic down.
Finally, we feel that the EA should be more explicit in stating that the map of the trails is intended to show the general layout of the network, and the final location of the trails may be different. Final trail layout would be dictated by terrain, trail class, designed use, and a wide variety of other on-the-ground factors, and thus the layout may change significantly from the precise locations shown on Map 2.
Thank you for your time in considering these comments. FAMB looks forward to working with the Forest Service to implement this plan and build out a trail network that will serve the recreating public at large, and mountain bikers in particular.
/s/ Erin Bodman
President, Flathead Area Mountain Bikers
In case you haven't noticed, there has been recent discussion in the local media about various forms of recreation (and bikes more specifically) in bear habitat. In case you haven't seen any of these articles, we wanted to post some of them here so you can catch up on what's being talked about.
A June 25, 2019 article from the Flathead Beacon:
A June 26, 2019 article from MTPR.org:
Comments made by Chip Weber, Flathead National Forest Supervisor, on Wildlife and Risks to the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee on June 25, 2019:
Unfortunately, sometimes when one (or a very few) voices are louder than the rest, those voices get lots of attention, which is what we believe is going on here. We urge all mountain bikers, trail runners, and all other users who enjoy recreating, both alone and in groups in the National Forest: make your stance known when the Forest Service seeks comments for proposed and ongoing projects. It takes just a couple of minutes to submit comments, and every comment is reviewed and considered by the Forest Service before they make a final decision. Together, we can make it resoundingly clear that these very few loud voices do not represent the opinion of a majority of National Forest users!
The Flathead National Forest requested public input on the issuance of temporary permits authorizing the Whitefish Trails Ultra-Marathon and Whitefish Shuttle Livery and Guiding on the Tally Lake Ranger District, the Foy’s to Blacktail Trail Marathon on the Swan Lake Ranger District and the Journey to Wellness Program on both districts. Both marathons would take place in MA 7 Focused Recreation areas. The projects would be authorized using 36 CFR 220.6(d)(8): Approval, modification, or continuation of minor, short-term (1 year or less) special uses of National Forest System lands.
Following are FAMB's comments, submitted to the US Forest Service on June 18, 2019:
Dear District Ranger Mulholland,
Please accept these comments from the Flathead Area Mountain Bikers (FAMB) in support of the issuance of permits for the Whitefish Trails Ultra-Marathon, the Whitefish Shuttle Livery and Guiding, the Foy’s to Blacktail Trail Marathon, and the Journey to Wellness Program.
First and foremost, FAMB does not believe that a public comment period is necessary for the permits at issue. All of these permits fall squarely within the categorical exclusions set forth in 36 CFR 220.6(d)(8), 36 CFR 220.6(e)(3), and other categories described in Chapter 30 of the Forest Service Handbook. None of those categories require a public comment period. While there are clearly parties in the Flathead Valley that will jump at any opportunity to contest recreational ventures on the Flathead National Forest, the Forest Service need not be beholden to those extremist view points, and those minority opinions should not dictate the rational implementation of established Forest Service policy that benefits the vast majority of users with minimal impact.
Notwithstanding the foregoing, FAMB supports the permits at issue. These are well run, well organized events and businesses that are operating in areas of the forest that are appropriate for the activities at issue. All of these permits cover well established trails that see high levels of use. The occurrence of these permitted activities will not have a significant impact on the overall level of use for the subject areas.
Ultimately, these permits provide excellent ways for the public to use their public lands in a responsible, well organized manner. As FAMB has stated in the past, the public's appreciation for our national forests is something that must not be taken for granted, and the best way to foster such an appreciation is to get people out in the forest and enjoy everything that our public lands has to offer. One of the best ways to do that is to support events and businesses that help people get out on the Forest, and these permits do exactly that.
For these reasons, FAMB strongly supports the issuance of these permits.
Flathead Area Mountain Bikers, Inc.
FAMB is recognized as a nonprofit organization under IRS Code 501(c)(3)
Flathead Area Mountain Bikers, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, is working to promote mountain biking and improve trail access in the Flathead Valley.