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)…
and while congress ultimately decided not to put a time limit on the study status, they were sympathetic to concerns about prolonged restriction in the area. The same report also made clear that...
The use of off-road vehicles, while generally prohibited in designated wilderness areas, is entirely appropriate in wilderness study areas… it is the intention of the committee that the areas in S.393 ( and other wilderness study areas) remain open to off-road vehicle use unless or until they are formally designated as wilderness.
In the intervening decades, finding a balance between maintaining wilderness character and allowing off-road vehicles has been at the center of numerous court cases. The Court in Montana Wilderness Ass’n v. United States Forest Serv. (the case that arguably instigated this particular travel plan) stated:
Congress did not require a “freeze” of all activity. It contemplated that use levels might fluctuate and that types of motorized vehicles might change. Congress intended that existing and new or different uses should be accommodated, so long as they did not undermine an area’s potential for Wilderness designation and so long as they did not undermine the area’s presently existing wilderness character.
Furthermore in McAllister the court made clear that while the Forest Service must take into consideration the social aspects of wilderness character, blanket bans were not the preferred management practice. Given the confusion and contentious attitudes regarding the presence of bicycles in WSAs, it is surprising that the DEIS is so deficient in data, literature review and analysis.
It appears the DEIS’ lack of consideration of mountain bike use stems from a misinterpretation of the relevant language in the Forest Service Manual. Because the Manual is misinterpreted, the travel management conclusions regarding mountain bikes aren’t founded on any relevant data or analysis.
The relevant language in the Forest Service Manual that guides the travel planning in the Ten Lakes area is Section 2300-2008-1, which says:
Mountain bikes may be allowed on trails that had established motor-bike use in 1977, or on non-motorized trails as longs as the aggregate amount of mountain bike and motorcycle use maintains the wilderness character of the WSA as it existed in 1977 and the area’s potential for inclusion in the National Wilderness Preservation System.
The interpretation of that statement in the DEIS is laid out on page 3 (and repeated elsewhere in the document):
…mountain bike use can be aggregated with 1977 motor-bike use if the 1977 wilderness character is maintained…
That interpretation is incorrect. Forest Service Manual Section 2300-2008-1 is disjunctive – it contains two scenarios under which mountain bikes may be allowed in a WSA:
Mountain bikes may be allowed on trails that had established motor-bike use in 1977
In other words, pursuant to Forest Service Manual Section 2300-2008-1, there are two ways that mountain bike use may be allowed in the WSA: 1) Mountain bikes can be used on trails that had established motor-bike use in 1977, OR 2) Mountain bikes can be used on non-motorized trails so long as the use by mountain bikes (in the aggregate) maintains the wilderness character of the WSA as it existed in 1977 and the area’s potential for inclusion in the NWPS.
The DEIS needs to address this issue and properly analyze mountain bike use under one or both of the options afforded under Forest Service Manual Section 2300-2008-1 rather than under the mish-mashed interpretation that is currently included.
As noted above, the Courts have specifically endorsed an interpretation of the Wilderness Study Act wherein “new or different uses should be accommodated, so long as they did not undermine an area’s potential for Wilderness designation and so loner as they did not undermine the area’s presently existing wilderness character.”
With this guidance from the Courts in mind, the proper interpretation of the Forest Service Manual is clear: Mountain bikes should be allowed on non-motorized trails as longs as the aggregate amount of mountain bike use does not undermine the area’s potential for Wilderness designation and so long as it doesn’t undermine the area’s wilderness character.
The DEIS as it is currently presented contains only cursory statements regarding the effects of mountain bikes on the WSA’s wilderness character, however, there is little evidence provided in the DEIS that mountain bikes negatively impact the wilderness character of the area. Wilderness character is a defined term in the DEIS, and the definition leans heavily on Section 2(c) of the Wilderness Act that identifies four qualities of wilderness related to wilderness character: untrammeled, natural, undeveloped and outstanding opportunities for solitude. The DEIS does not include any discussion or analysis as to how mountain bikes undermine any of these attributes.
Similarly, it is noteworthy that the DEIS is completely devoid of any citation to any studies or research on the topic of mountain bike impacts. The only citation in Appendix 2 of the DEIS that specifically concerns mountain bikes of any type is an IMBA article on fat biking, which is acknowledged to be an extremely minor use in the Ten Lakes area. While there exist numerous studies regarding mountain bikes and their impacts on trails, soils, hydrology, wildlife, vegetation, none of those studies were considered or cited in the DEIS.
“Keeping It Wild 2” indicates that mechanized transport should managed with an eye on “undeveloped quality,” and with the assumption that “mechanical transport makes it easier for people to occupy the land.” With this in mind the DEIS is lacking in any assessment on the types and difficulty of trails in the study area. Anecdotes suggest that the trails are primitive and challenging, raising a question as to whether bicycling these trails is any easier than hiking or horse use. Along the same lines, the DEIS appears to ignore the difference in impact between motorcycles and mountain bikes on the “undeveloped quality.” When assessing “intensity of use,” the DEIS equates quiet human powered bicycles with the gas powered motorcycles used in the area since 1977. A rational assessment would consider replacement of motorized use for human powered use to be a net increase in this quality measure.
The DEIS does state that “[a]llowing mechanized use on all trails in the WSA, and the noted increases in biking, has decreased the perception of ‘sense of remoteness’ on trails in the WSA.” This is an opinion stated as fact without supporting documentation. Additionally, a “sense of remoteness” is not the same thing as “outstanding opportunity for solitude,” and thus is a misguided inquiry by the DEIS’s own definition of wilderness characteristics. Since “Keeping it Wild 2” does indicate that “developments that have a recreational purpose or use are included under the Solitude or Primitive and Unconfined Recreation Quality”, this could potentially apply to bicycle use. Keeping It Wild 2 also states,
A primitive and unconfined recreation experience provides the ideal opportunity for physical and mental challenges associated with adventure, real consequences for mistakes,and personal growth from facing and overcoming obstacles.
That statement accurately summarizes the very essence of what mountain bikers are seeking in primitive environments such as Ten Lakes. A study on the attitudes of hikers and cyclists in the Rattlesnake confirms this, “Mountain bike riders and hikers who entered the wilderness were similar in environmental attitude and activity focus.” Furthermore, that same study found that very few hikers could actually “specify bicyclist behavior that interfered with their enjoyment.” Whether mountain biking is assessed under the “solitude or primitive and unconfined recreation quality” or “undeveloped quality,” neither Keeping Wild 2 nor Forest Service policy suggest using the metric of miles of trail as an indicator of impact or intensity of use. In fact, blindly using a physical metric (i.e. miles of trail) as an approximation of impact is precisely what the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals said was incorrect.
The DEIS does include passing mention of mountain bikes in its discussion of various specific issues like wildlife, hydrology, soils, and invasive plants, but again, it does not arrive at the conclusion that mountain bikes undermine the wilderness character of the area with respect to any of those specific areas.
The wildlife analysis in the DEIS primarily finds stressors associated with motorized use, and in particular, winter motorized use. The only species discussed in the DEIS that includes mountain bikes as a potential stressor is the grizzly bear, however the DEIS does not indicate that mountain bikes are unique in this regard; the concern appears to simply be about additional trail users. Given that the DEIS acknowledges that mountain bikers are not using the area in great numbers, this concern is unfounded. Furthermore, the DEIS acknowledges that human/grizzly conflicts have been minimal in the project area (despite the fact that mountain bikes were allowed on all trails within the WSA).
The analysis of hydrology and soils in the DEIS does not make note of any impacts (negative or otherwise) associated with mountain bikes. While mechanized uses are noted as one potential introducer of invasive plants, so is every other type of use – in other words, mountain bikes are not unique in this regard. As acknowledged in the DEIS, mountain bikes comprise a small segment of the users in the WSA. As such, it appears that there is no specific issue with mountain bikes and invasive plants.
To the limited extent that mountain bike use could have a negative impact on the area’s wilderness character or potential for Wilderness designation, the quantification of those impacts in the DEIS nevertheless fails. The DEIS simply assumes that less mountain bikes equal less impact and arrives at an arbitrary mileage based on the incorrect interpretation of the Forest Service Manual. In the event there are negative impacts from bikes, those need to be assessed and minimized on a trail by trail basis.
When comparing the various alternatives, the intensity of the use appears to draw a correlation between the expected volume of bikes with number of miles available for use without providing any empirical or rational basis for this assumption. In the previously mentioned study from the Rattlesnake it notes,
The only clearly distinguishing point between mountain bike riders and hikers was the extent to which the two groups were dependent upon the Rattlesnake for the activities they like to participate in. The bicyclists were significantly more dependent on this alternative.
Given the limited amount primitive backcountry wilderness quality trail open to mountain bikes in Montana, cyclists in the Ten Lakes region have a similar attachment.
Furthermore, the decision to use available trails miles as a metric of permissible mountain bike use is concerning because there appears to be very little data driving that decision. “Monitoring Outstanding Opportunities For Solitude” explains how critical it is to properly analyze the indicators for a given management situation:
One concern is that managers may choose indicators based on other management plans or the variables developed by researchers, and they do not conduct an analysis of the appropriateness of an indicator for their management situation (Watson, Cronin, and Christensen 1998). The technical aspects of implementing a protocol to use a particular indicator is more complex than it may seem at first; for example, whether an encounter indicator is measured per hour or per day or at the most heavily used times of the day, week, or month all require different interpretation. Monitoring of visitor-to-visitor encounters on trails and destinations is best conducted accurately and reliably by different methods (e.g., trained observers, time-lapse photography) under different circumstances. This example is further complicated by the fact that there may be different types of use, users, and equipment mixed together in some locations and situations (i.e., encounters between similar users may be more tolerated than encounters with different types of users).
The Courts have also taken issue with Forest Service action that is based on non-existent data
The absence of any data regarding how area and concentration of use are related to intensity of use and effects to wilderness character amounts to a “fail[ure] to consider an important aspect of the problem,” and thus the Service’s decision violates Wilderness Study Act under the arbitrary and capricious standard of review.
While the appeal in that case arguably softened the Court’s view of the data necessary for a defensible analysis, the fact remains that the DEIS not only lacks historical use data for the area, but also lacks data on the current use levels for mountain bikes. It is the latter issue that is the most concerning, given that trail use data can easily be collected via counters, cameras, or additional site visits.
The DEIS in Ten Lakes makes clear that there was precious little analysis of mountain bike use, and the data upon which the analysis is premised is almost wholly lacking. The deficient analysis of mountain bikes in the DEIS is highlighted by the fact that the DEIS lacks any data as to actual levels of mountain bike use. The analysis with respect to mountain bikes is premised on a single encounter with a group of two mountain bikers during monitoring of wilderness character in 2010. This single data point is used for extrapolating current users volume and assumptions on the impact of bicycles on the wilderness character. While the exact number of days on the trail is not clarified. It appears there were four multi-day excursions, so a minimum of four days can be be assumed. At best, the only conclusion about mountain bike use is there is roughly a 10% chance a hiker will encounter one or more bikes on any given day. By any measure this is very low use. To use a base measure of 500 mountain bikes is grossly overstated, and any conclusions flowing therefrom are not justified.
Unfortunately, despite the lack of data, and analysis, the DEIS still proposes what amounts to a ban of mountain bikes in the area. While some alternatives preserve minimal mileage for bicycle use, the practical impact of those alternatives is to cut off mountain bike access. These alternatives are poorly supported, and are excessively heavy handed given the lack of impacts associated with mountain bikes.
When managing wilderness, a “minimum tool rule” has been proposed and endorsed in a variety of contexts, and application of that rule is appropriate here – “only the minimum regulation necessary to achieve wilderness management objectives should be applied.” Here, the DEIS jumps immediately to the most substantial form of regulation – banning bikes from the majority of the trails in the area. Not only is this ban proposed without any real data on impacts, but it is also proposed without any steps to address problems (whatever they may be) via lesser regulatory means. For example, if the concern is user conflict, signage or other education efforts may be sufficient. If the concern is wildlife impacts, signage or seasonal closures may adequately address the problem. But the DEIS does not consider any of these alternatives, presumably because the DEIS never specifies what the problem with mountain bikes actually is.
The DEIS’ lack of any real analysis of mountain bike use is especially glaring compared to a recently released environmental assessment in the Allegheny National Forest for the Tracy Ridge trail system where mountain bike use was considered and discussed extensively.
Notably, the EA in the Allegheny National Forest considered the social impacts of mountain bikes on shared use trails and considered numerous studies on the topic. Citing one study from the Rattlesnake National Recreation Area near Missoula, “[w]hile 30-37% of hikers in the study reported that they did not like meeting bicycles on the trail, only about 20% of those respondents could articulate specific bicycle behaviors that interfere with their enjoyment.” Like the Ten Lakes area, the Tracy Ridge area is dominated by hikers, with mountain bike use being relatively low. Also like the Ten Lakes area, there were no known accidents, safety issues, or complaints regarding hikers and bikers. The Tracy Ridge EA, while acknowledging the fact that biker / hiker conflicts may occur in the future, concluded that the relatively low use by mountain bikes would ultimately mean the impact was negligible.
In stark contrast, the Ten Lakes DEIS didn’t simply arrive at a different conclusion. Instead, the DEIS is completely lacking any citations, discussion, or consideration of the subject.
Perhaps more importantly, the Tracy Ridge EA considered the area’s future eligibility for Wilderness designation in light of the potential inclusion of mountain bikes. The EA stated that “[t]here is no evidence that bike use of the area would degrade the trails at all and certainly to the point in which wilderness designation would be improbable.” Citing the recent designation of the Boulder-White Cloud Wilderness, the EA also points out that mountain bike use in an area clearly does not preclude a wilderness designation. Again, the issue is not that the Ten Lakes DEIS arrived at a different conclusion, the issue is that the DEIS is completely devoid of any meaningful data, discussion, or analysis on the subject of mountain bikes in the area.
Given the lack of data regarding levels of mountain bike use in the Ten Lakes area, the differences in volume between the various alternatives is not statistically significant. The impact of bikes in the different alternatives is not based on any actual data, nor is it premised on any actual studies or verifiable conclusions.
As noted previously, the U.S. District Court has acknowledged that, in drafting the Montana Wilderness Study Act of 1977, new and different uses should be accommodated, so long as those uses do not undermine the area’s potential for Wilderness designation and so long as they do not undermine the area’s presently existing wilderness character. Mountain bikes are precisely the type of new and different use that is contemplated by this statement. The Travel Management Plan and the DEIS as it currently exists fails to accommodate mountain bikes, and thus fails to adhere to the intent of Congress and the U.S. District Court’s Order. By simply lumping mountain bikes in with historic motorized use, the Forest Service is not “accommodating a new and different use,” it is shirking its responsibility to analyze this new use and its impacts (or lack thereof).
As it currently stands, the DEIS lacks any data regarding actual levels of mountain bikes use or any assessment of how that use impacts wilderness character as defined within the DEIS. Absent a clear and coherent discussion to that end, the DEIS is deficient with regards to mountain bike use in the area.
In revising the DEIS, we ask that conclusions with respect to mountain bikes be based on accurate user data and studies that are relevant to this project area. It is impossible for an environmental analysis to accurately portray a user group’s impacts if the analysis is completely lacking data as to the current or expected levels of use in the subject area. Trail counters, cameras, or additional site visits are all commonly used and accepted methods of collecting this data.
With an accurate data set, the analysis can then arrive at conclusions that are supported by any number of sources concerning the impacts of mountain bikes. While there may be gaps in the literature with respect to the impact of bikes in very specific circumstances, the complete absence of citation in the current DEIS with regard to bicycles makes it abundantly clear that the analysis is deficient.
If, after compiling accurate and relevant data, and if, after consulting the relevant literature, impacts associated with mountain bikes are found, and then if it is found that those impacts will undermine the area’s potential for Wilderness designation or the area’s presently existing wilderness character then it is appropriate to regulate the use of bicycles in the area. The DEIS includes none of that analysis, nor does it arrive at a coherent conclusion that undermining impacts exist. But despite this, the most stringent regulatory option is proposed – a categorical ban on the majority of trails in the area. Notwithstanding the fact that this conclusion is not supported by the analysis, the proposed solution runs contrary to the well accepted “minimum tool rule,” which should be employed to address any impacts associated with mountain bike use that may be found.
To put it another way: the proposed restriction of bicycle use in the Ten Lakes WSA is an excellent example of regulatory overreach that is not founded on any data or analysis, and thus is arbitrary and capricious. Because the DEIS, and thus the Travel Plan lacks any foundation for the restriction of human powered bicycles in the Ten Lakes WSA, we strongly support the no-action alternative (Alternative 1) with respect to bicycle use in the area.
1. Montana Wilderness Ass’n v. United States Forest Serv., 146 F. Supp. 2d 1118, 1124 (D. Mont. 2001).
2. Mont. Wilderness Ass’n v. McAllister, 666 F.3d 549 (9th Cir. Mont. 2011)
3. Montana Wilderness Ass’n v. United States Forest Serv., 146 F. Supp. 2d 1118, 1124 (D. Mont. 2001).
4. See Mont. Wilderness Ass’n v. McAllister, 666 F.3d 549, 555 (9th Cir. Mont. 2011)
5. See A review of studies concerning the impacts of mountain bikes was published by IMBA: Marion, J. and Wimpey, J (2007), Environmental Impacts of Mountain Biking: Science Review and Best Practices
6. Sources of Conflict Between Hikers and Mountain Bike Riders in the Rattlesnake NRA, Watson, A, Journal of Park and Recreation Administration Volume 9 Number 3 Fall 1991
7. Id. at p. 68.
8. Mont. Wilderness Ass’n v. McAllister, 666 F.3d 549, 557-558 (9th Cir. Mont. 2011)
9. As noted previously, this correlation was found to be without merit in McAllister (9th Cir. Mont. 2011)
10. Sources of Conflict Between Hikers and Mountain Bike Riders in the Rattlesnake NRA, Watson, A, Journal of Park and Recreation Administration Volume 9 Number 3 Fall 1991
11. Monitoring Outstanding Opportunities For Solitude, Dawson, C. (2004)
12. Mont. Wilderness Ass’n v. McAllister, 658 F. Supp. 2d 1249, 1256 (D. Mont. 2009)
13. Principles of wilderness management, Hendee, J. (1990)
14. The EA can be found at: http://a123.g.akamai.net/7/123/11558/abc123/forestservic.download.akamai.com/11558/www/nepa/104642_FSPLT3_3910848.pdf
15. Allegheny National Forest Tracy Ridge Shared Use Trails EA, p. 15, citing Watson el al. (1991).
16. Allegheny National Forest Tracy Ridge Shared Use Trails EA, p. 24: “There is no evidence that bike use of the area would degrade the trails at all and certainly to the point in which wilderness designation would be improbable. Any impacts related to solitude and primitive recreation would immediately disappear upon designation of the area as wilderness by Congress. There is no evidence that shared use would degrade any of the “special features” identified for the area – including mature forest, wildlife, and historic sites. Furthermore, evidence suggests that Congress will designate Wilderness despite the presence of trails that allow bikes. For example, in 2015, the Boulder-White Cloud Wilderness was designated by Congress. Within the new Wilderness, more than 50 miles of trails previously open to bikes were closed to bikes. In this case, the presence of shared use trails did not limit the area’s designation as wilderness. Overall, no evidence was provided during public scoping that shared use trails at Tracy Ridge will adversely impact any future wilderness considerations for the area.”
17. Montana Wilderness Ass’n v. United States Forest Serv., 146 F. Supp. 2d 1118, 1124 (D. Mont. 2001).
Flathead Area Mountain Bikers, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, is working to promote mountain biking and improve trail access in the Flathead Valley.