Dennis Helvig of the Beaverhead National Forest could barely hear himself talk to the crowd of feuding off-road enthusiasts and wilderness advocates over the passing traffic on U.S. Highway 43 in the Big Hole.
Helvig had called a meeting to discuss the possibility of closing off some areas to motorized travel, and it was hard to imagine that the spot by the Wisdom graveyard could have been chosen by accident. The passing cars, he seemed to be saying, were only slightly less disruptive to discourse on the roadside than motorbikes, all-terrain vehicles and snowmobiles are to the ecological standards the forest service is charged with upholding.
As district ranger, Helvig has been saddled with the unenviable job of negotiating where and when off-road motorized vehicle travel should be allowed in the Wisdom Ranger District. The field trip, which took place last Saturday, aimed to identify concerns prior to any formal action on the part of the U.S. Forest Service.
"I really don't think we can solve all the problems," Helvig said. "But we can lessen the impact [of ATVs] on the environment and decrease user conflict."
With an overall increase in recreation in the area, Helvig noted, there has been a comensurate jump in the number of off-road vehicles-which create concerns due to the mileage they travel, the erosion they cause and the wildlife they disturb.
Many in attendance, including members of the Montana Wilderness Association, the Montana Wildlife Federation, Friends of the Bitterroot and others, expressed the opinion that motorized recreation in the national forests had already reached a threshold. They argued in favor of closing down areas pending environmental assesments which might determine the actual damage being caused by ATVs before opening many trails to motorsports.
This group of conservationists sees the Beaverhead debate as setting a precedent for the region when it comes to vehicular travel. Because of Missoula's topography, local supervisors have not had to deal with the controversy locally.
Nonetheless, Larry Campbell, an environmental activist from Darby, argued, "It's not always necessary to satisfy that demand. We should adopt a rule of not causing damage."
But the vocal sportsmen and women in the crowd, many of whom claimed Big Hole birthrights, argued that the environmental community had already shut them out of federally-designated wilderness areas-such as the nearby Anaconda-Pintler Wilderness-where vehicular travel has already been outlawed.
This constituency, led partially by Adena Cook and Linda Ellison of the Blue Ribbon Coalition-a so-called multiple-use group-suggested that the best course of action required the U.S. Forest Service to keep areas open until damage had been proven. "There are places where everybody is able to go, where they want to go for a good recreation experience," Cook said. "It's really unfair to go from the point where you would disallow people access."
Helvig, who had led a similar field trip on Saturday, August 1, as well, noted that this week's harvest of concerned citizens were less amenable to simply trying to get along. For the most part, the locals evoked their long-term connection to the land, while the conservation-minded hawked biodiversity and the need for quiet trails.
"We have a few people here who feel a little more strongly than last time," Helvig said. The ranger went on to say that he had no doubt motorized use had increased during the past few years, and is still on the rise.
"I don't believe motorized users are going to go away," he added. "We've been managing roads, but with the advent of ATV technology, we haven't been able to address that. Now, we have to reconsider and decide what we want to do."
Some particular concerns raised by Helvig were the increased strength, speed and size of ATVs, which today can travel farther, faster and upper steeper slopes than ever before. Such vehicles, he noted, have the potential to disturb more land, spread sediment in more streams and disturb more animals.
In addition, John Gatchell of the Montana Wilderness Association raised the issue over whether the federal government had failed to uphold the law by allowing trails to be widened to accomodate vehicles with 40-inch wheel bases. (The ranger said he had no control over the rule, nor any knowledge of its potential illegality.)
By the time lunch rolled around, the scene on the meadow outside the old Steel Creek Ranger Station looked like a high-school cafeteria. On one side of the grass sat a handful of tree-huggers, who talked about the need to limit road building in the national forests. On the other side, the motorheads were wondering aloud why the forest service wanted to lock them out of the woods they'd lived in all their lives.
For one longtime activist, Earthfirst! founder and Bitterroot wilderness outfitter Howie Wolke, the whole question of ORV use on public lands seemed ludicrous. "It's hard to get a handle on any sort of reasonable transportation system when the road program is in such anarchistic dissaray," Wolke said.
John Gatchell of the Montana Wilderness Association told Wisdom District Ranger Dennis Helvig that he thinks the government is more concerned with the requirements of off-road technology than ecology.