FAMB has been hard at work advocating for mountain biking in Northwest Montana. One of the items we've been following closely has been the Flathead National Forest Plan Revision process. As we've indicated to you in our previous blog post, there is lots of be excited about in the proposed forest plan revision. However, FAMB has just submitted an objection to the Plan Revision's handling of recommended wilderness areas. The text of FAMB's objection appears in its entirety below:
Statement of issues and/or parts of the plan revision to which the objection applies:
Section MA1b-Suit(06) improperly states that “Mechanized transport … [is] not suitable in recommended wilderness areas.” This section is in violation of Forest Planning Rules.
Concise statement explaining the objection and suggestion how the proposed plan should be improved:
In referencing the management of recommended wilderness (RW), the FSH 1909.12, gives discretion to Forest Service managers to determine how to manage recommended wilderness areas in their land use plans. However, despite that discretion, the Rule does not permit a categorical, forest wide approach with respect to existing uses. Furthermore, the Rule lays out an obvious, if not defined, hierarchy or path of progression when it discusses the development of the plan components for RW.
Chapter 74.1 reads as follows:
When developing plan components for recommended wilderness areas, the Responsible Official has discretion to implement a range of management options. All plan components applicable to a recommended area must protect and maintain the social and ecological characteristics that provide the basis for wilderness recommendation. In addition, the plan may include one or more plan components for a recommended wilderness area that:
1. Enhance the ecological and social characteristics that provide the basis for wilderness designations;
2. Continue existing uses, only if such uses do not prevent the protection and maintenance of the social and ecological characteristics that provide the basis for wilderness designation;
3. Alter existing uses, subject to valid existing rights; or
4. Eliminate existing uses, except those uses subject to valid existing rights.
The Responsible Official should strive to maintain consistency with the provisions of 16 USC 1133(d) and the content of FSM 1923.03(3) when developing plan components for the management of recommended wilderness areas.
The Section MA1b-Suit of the 2017 Flathead National Forest Plan violates this Rule with regard to mechanical transport for several reasons.
First, the Rule dictates a discretionary approach to recommended wilderness areas on a case by case basis. The Rule discusses options related to a recommended wilderness area, not all recommended wilderness areas within the Plan’s purview. Contrary to this Rule, the Flathead Forest Plan categorically excludes mechanized transport in recommended wilderness areas, which goes above and beyond the case by case approach required by the planning rule. The Rule clearly contemplates the consideration and management of individual recommended wilderness areas, and by taking a forest wide approach to management, the Plan abdicates the responsibility of the Responsible Official to manage and exercise discretion over each recommended wilderness area.
Second, the path of plan components as set forth in Chapter 74.1 begins with the intent to first seek to manage the wilderness character (#1) and then to seek a continuation of uses (#2) with careful and active management to prevent degradation of the character by those continued uses. It then moves on to (#3) altering existing uses as a mitigation step where, logically, if the continuation of uses is not working an adaptive approach is taken to correct it. Finally, the last step (#4) is to eliminate uses if mitigation efforts fail.
The Rule effectively creates a hierarchy, and while the manager ultimately has discretion, the hierarchy established by the Planning Rule cannot simply be ignored. The Forest Plan effectively bypasses the adaptive management steps (#1-3) altogether and adopts the most restrictive option (#4) of elimination of uses that are considered non-conforming to wilderness. This approach has negative impacts on public access to established uses often coexisting with the identified wilderness character on those landscapes.
We contend that existing levels of bicycle use, and associated impacts that would otherwise violate the Wilderness Act should be permitted to occur in RW’s so long as that use does not prevent the protection and maintenance of the social and ecological characteristics that provide the basis for wilderness designation in the first place. Furthermore, we contend that existing levels of bicycle use do not prevent that basis for Wilderness designation, since that use has existed in the area for many years, and the fact that the area is designated as RW indicates that that mechanized use has not prevented wilderness characteristics from existing thus far. In other words, bicycle use hasn’t impaired the area, and there is no indication that existing levels of bicycle use will begin harming the area in the future.
Therefore, we urge the USFS to more thoroughly follow the steps laid out in the FSH and manage RW to allow the maximum range of existing public-use opportunities as a first step while managing the existing concurrent wilderness character. The key word here is “manage”. In managing the character with the existing uses, the experiences of the individual user should not be manipulated or controlled simply due to the recommended wilderness identification unless clear evidence demonstrates that the character is being permanently diminished and prior or concurrent mitigation efforts are proving unsuccessful. Through active and adaptive management, limitations and/or zoning of some uses may become necessary if conditions or resource concerns begin to deteriorate and mitigation efforts are not successful. Under such circumstances, a public planning process under NEPA should assess the need for change and determine a balanced plan solution that minimizes resource impacts and minimizes loss of diverse public access opportunities. Subtle and non-restrictive management techniques and mitigation efforts which reduce impact on the wilderness character should be employed before user restrictions which ration or control use are employed. Only after all other options are exhausted, and it is well demonstrated and documented that wilderness character will be irreparably damaged by continued non-conforming use, should the elimination of certain uses be administered. In such instances, user restrictions or eliminations, when necessary, should be administered trail by trail in a way which addresses the specific problems versus a broad brush approach of wholesale eviction and elimination.
The duty of Forest Service land managers is first and foremost to manage the resources. Adaptively managing resources must be the first step in the process of any action. Land managers must not manage RW as de-facto Wilderness by eliminating uses in an arbitrary and capricious manner. Only Congress has reserved the authority to make final decisions on Wilderness designation, therefore recommended wilderness should be managed consistent with the multi-use mandate that exists for general forest service lands until such time that the Congress acts to change the landscapes to a more restrictive and permanent designation. And it that framework of adaptive management that is precisely what is laid out in Chapter 74.1, which was brushed aside in the Plan’s forest wide exclusion of bikes from recommended wilderness areas.
Finally, the very use of the term “mechanized transport” is vague and poorly supported. While the use stems from the Wilderness Act, the original intent behind the term is highly debatable, and the Forest Service’s application of the term has been inconsistent. In managing the use of non-motorized bicycles on the forest, the Forest Service should simply refer to them as what they are: bicycles. The continued use of “mechanized” simply confuses the issue since there are numerous forms of transport that are, to some degree or another, mechanized, and that do not appear to be contemplated by the Forest Service’s use of the term.
For these reasons, any categorical exclusion of non-motorized bicycles from recommended wilderness, including that set forth in Section MA1b-Suit, should be deleted from the plan. The use of bicycles in recommended wilderness must only be addressed on a case by case basis, and should follow the management hierarchy described in FSH 1909.12, Chapter 74.1.
The reasons for this objection are:
The Forest Plan categorically excludes mechanized transport in recommended wilderness, which is contrary to the directives contained within the Forest Planning Rule.
Delete all categorical exclusions of mechanical transport in recommended wilderness, as that terms pertains to non-motorized bicycles, from the Forest Plan. Considerations of bicycle use in recommended wilderness should be undertaken on a case by case basis, and should follow the management hierarchy set forth in FSH 1909.12, Chapter 74.1.
Statement demonstrating the link between objection and prior formal comments:
Flathead Area Mountain Bikers submitted comments supporting Forest Plan alternative B, and specifically supporting the continued allowance of non-conforming uses in recommended wilderness areas. The Comments also noted that continued allowance of mountain bike use was supported by Chapter 74.1 of the Land Management Planning Handbook.
The Flathead National Forest Plan revision process has been underway for several years now, and FAMB has spent hundreds of hours following the process, attending meetings, keeping you in the loop, and doing everything we can to shape the direction of the Plan. Many of you submitted comments to the Forest Service as well, which we believe had a real impact on the results.
The Flathead National Forest recently released its new forest plan, and we're pleased to announce that it's looking good for mountain biking in the Flathead! The Plan that has been released will govern everything that happens on the Flathead National Forest for years to come. While the process isn't completed, we expect the final plan won't change much with respect to bike access.
-The Plan includes "front country" areas that are designated as appropriate for recreation, including building new trails. These areas include the forests to the north of Columbia Falls and to the north of Whitefish, around the the Foys to Blacktail trail, near Tally Lake, and near Crane Mountain to the south of Bigfork.
-FAMB pushed for new trail construction in the southern Whitefish Range. In addition to the front country designations, the plan specifically calls for new trails to be built north of Columbia Falls and Whitefish, and we're already working towards realizing that goal.
-We lobbied to keep key trails outside of recommended wilderness areas to preserve bike access. This includes a variety of trails in the Swan Valley, trails near Jewel Basin, and trails along the Whitefish Divide.
-No major trails will be closed. Alpine 7, Columbia, the Whitefish Divide, and trails in the Tally area will all remain open to bikes.
-The Plan maintains appropriate protections to ensure the forest will be alive and healthy for future generations, which we support wholeheartedly.
Overall, while there's always more we could wish for, the Forest Plan sets up the potential for decades of improved mountain bike opportunities in the Flathead. Thank you all for your efforts in this endeavor!!
Make your voice heard! Submit your comments by August 13
The Forest Service is proposing to adopt and improve the Desert Mountain and Lion Lake trails near Coram as part of a larger timber management project. You might remember a call for comments on this earlier in the year - now the Forest Service has completed their environmental analysis, so it's up for comment again.
Show your support for the trails and submit comments indicating that you want the trails included in the forest trail system! Comments can be addressed to District Ranger Rob Davies, and can be emailed, with subject line "Hungry Lion Information" to: firstname.lastname@example.org
If you want to read more on the topic, or look at maps of the project, there's more info here.
FAMB submitted the following comment:
Dear District Ranger Davies,
Please accept these comments regarding the Environmental Assessment for the Hungry Lion Resource Management Project. Flathead Area Mountain Bikers (FAMB) supports the inclusion of the Lion Lake and Desert Mountain trails into the forest trail system. As such, FAMB supports alternatives 2 and 4 with respect to recreation. FAMB does not take any position on the road building, fuels treatment, or vegetation management aspects of alternatives 2 and 4.
As previously discussed, FAMB continues to be interested in assisting in the maintenance and upkeep of the Lion Lake and Desert Mountain trails, and we look forward to working with you and your excellent staff to ensure those trails provide a quality recreational experience for mountain bikers as well as other trail users.
FAMB is excited to announce the commencement of the 2017 Great Fish Community Challenge. From now until September 15, 2017, donors can make tax-deductible contributions to FAMB to support its Armory Park Pump Track project. Site prep is complete, the City has approved our project proposal, and we will be bringing in fill dirt, leveling the site, and installing irrigation during the latter half of Summer 2017. Pump track construction will be completed during the Fall of 2017. But first, we need your support! Donate to FAMB during this year's Great Fish Challenge and we have the opportunity to be awarded matching funds! Which means your donation dollar goes the extra mile. Help us make this fun and exciting community resource a reality!
Public comments for the Taylor Hellroaring Project are due on Friday April 28, 2017. This is a proposal to build a new network of trails on the Whitefish Face, to the north and west of Whitefish Mountain Resort. These trails would connect to the existing trails on Whitefish Mountain Resort and to the Whitefish Trail as well as to the network of trails to the north of the resort. FAMB has been instrumental in crafting this proposal and strongly supports this project.
Below are the full comments to be submitted by FAMB concerning the Taylor Hellroaring Project on the Flathead National Forest. The project includes a proposal for building a new trail network to the north and west of Whitefish Mountain Resort, as well as various logging operations and fuels reductions in the same area. FAMB supports this project, and feels that the proposed trails would be a tremendous asset to the community. Please submit your comments in support of the project today!
The Ten Lakes Wilderness Study Area area near Eureka represents some of the best backcountry mountain biking opportunities in the region. Access to high alpine trails and lakes with fantastic mountains and scenery make the area unique, but the Kootenay National Forest has released a draft environmental impact statement that proposes drastic restrictions on mountain bike access.
When the Montana Wilderness Study Act was passed in 1977 none of the authors would have imagined that these areas would remain in limbo 40 years later. The House of Representatives Report from the 95th congress states,
To avoid tying up this large acreage in wilderness study status for longer than is necessary, the committee suggests that the Secretary of Agriculture give a high priority to the completion of all nine studies within a period of 24 to 30 months (or less)…
Come Get RAD!
Come join us at Bonsai on Friday, October 7 to raise money for FFT's Armory Park Pump Track project! FFT hopes to break ground on a new pump track on the current site of the dirt jumps in Armory Park in Whitefish in the Spring of 2017. This project would be great for the town of Whitefish and will especially benefit our kids.
Flathead Fat Tires is working to bring a pump track to Whitefish!
Flathead Area Mountain Bikers, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, is working to promote mountain biking and improve trail access in the Flathead Valley.