Forest may build new ATV trails
Posted: Wednesday, Nov 21, 2007 - 11:37:00 pm MST
By JIM MANN/Daily Inter Lake
For the first time in a long time, there is an effort to expand motorized recreation opportunities on the Flathead National Forest.
“Motorized Trail Loop System Proposed on Swan Lake District” was the somewhat jarring headline on a press release, considering it was coming from a forest that has been vigorously reducing open road access for the last 20 years.
“Over the last decade or so, we’ve closed a lot of roads,” Swan Lake District Ranger Steve Brady said. “So we’ve broached this subject of whether we might consider, at least seasonally, some trails for motorized use.”
The proposal is aimed at the forest’s so-called “Island Unit,” a block of national forest lands west of Lakeside that has been actively managed for timber and is home to the Blacktail Mountain ski area.
It involves a series of trail loops, some open to Jeeps and other full-sized vehicles and others accessible by all-terrain vehicles and motorcycles.
The initial proposal calls for a system of all-terrain vehicle trails in the Patrick Creek area and Jeep trails in the Mount Creek, Wild Bill and Stoner Creek areas. About 30 miles of trails would be created. Most of the network would be developed from existing closed roads, but it would require construction of some short connecting routes.
Such a trail system on the Flathead Forest would be a remarkable thing from the perspective of Rob St. Clair, president of the Polson-based Skyliners Four Wheel Club.
“It’s kind of a precedent-setting event,” he said.
The last time the forest sanctioned an off-road trail was in the mid-1970s with the designation of the Wild Bill ATV Trail, a 13-mile stretch of road in the Island Unit. The trail is something of a relic on the forest, since it is a route that can be used by full-sized four-wheel-drive vehicles.
“There really aren’t a lot of trails that are open to motor vehicle use,” said Andrew Johnson, the Swan Lake district’s trail project leader.
Johnson said there are about 150 miles forestwide, with 125 of those miles accessible only to motorcycles, while 13 miles are open to ATVs and the 13-mile Wild Bill Trail for full-sized vehicles.
“This would double the amount of miles open to Jeeps and ATVs,” Johnson said of the proposal.
Public comments for a forest plan revision reflected “an increasing demand for motorized recreational opportunities,” Johnson said, “and the Island Unit is the one place where we can provide that opportunity.”
That’s because the Island Unit is not included in grizzly bear habitat designations that are subject to forest plan restrictions on the amount of open and total road densities. Those restrictions have led to road closures and road removals across much of the Flathead Forest.
“It’s much worse on the Flathead than in most places elsewhere in the state, because of a big brown furry critter we have called the grizzly bear,” St. Clair said.
For that reason, members of the Skyliners Four Wheel Drive Club and the Kalispell-based Rocky Mountain ORV Club are enthused about the proposal for the Island Unit, and they have been working closely with Johnson in developing the proposal.
Johnson described both groups, along with Montanans for Multiple Use, as “great partners” with the district, contributing to trail work and maintenance on the Wild Bill Trail.
“They’ve done some fantastic work up there,” he added. “They’ve been building challenge features (obstacles on the road), brushing, picking up trash and maintaining culverts and drainage features.”
St. Clair said off-road enthusiasts have, unfortunately, played a big part in the loss of off-road vehicle terrain around the state.
“Basically, motorized recreationists tend to be their own worst enemy,” he said. “Our main intention with this trail is to curtail illegal off-road use by creating legal opportunities.”
St. Clair maintains that organized off-roaders are often highly active in protecting the access that they have. The Skyliners club has education programs for driving and trail patrols, in additional to leading cleanups and holding monthly outings for its members.
While off-road enthusiasts are excited about the Island Unit trail proposal, they will have to be patient. Brady and Johnson said the project’s environmental review won’t get under way until 2009, and funding for the project hasn’t been secured.
But the district is interested in getting public comments on the proposal well in advance.
“Since it’s pretty novel for us to propose something like this, we thought we’d get it out front early for the public to comment on,” Johnson said.
Comments should be submitted by Nov. 30. They can be mailed to the Swan Lake District, 200 Ranger Station Road, Bigfork, MT, 59911, attention: Andrew Johnson.
Reporter Jim Mann may be reached at 758-4407 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org
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