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Wilder—himself a mountain biker—shies away from singling out any one user group at length. When asked about the problems raised by illegal mountain bike trails, he says the real concern is "unauthorized uses in general." Freeriders are just one consideration in a larger picture. Wilder is, however, much more specific about the damages that unauthorized use of federal land can cause. Public safety and protection of the resource are the Forests Service's top priorities in land management, he says. Users might not even be aware of the subtle ramifications of building a freeride bike trail, a dirt jump or a timber ramp. "Not everyone has a background in weeds or wildlife or fish," Wilder says, "so they look at things with a different point of view. Most people fundamentally respect the natural resource, and if they understand why something is a concern, they're going to be much more aware of how their activities affect those resources."
Boyd Hartwig, communications director of the Lolo, is quicker to address specific questions regarding the challenges rogue bike trails present for Forest Service staff. Trails such as Meow Mix, up Marshall Canyon, can require extensive rehabilitation to promote regrowth, Hartwig says. That comes only after the trails are closed and cleared of any man-made structures like jumps and bridges—obstacles not uncommon on more technical courses in the Missoula area.
A simple search for Missoula on Pinkbike.com turns up a number of examples of freeride trails, both legal and illegal.
"Generally, when [rangers] become aware of it, they go out and try to repair the resource damage, obliterate the user-made trail that's illegal," Hartwig says. "Sometimes the public reports those. We can't be everywhere all the time, so there might be some trails out there we don't know about."
Locating those trails is anything but easy. The freeriders who build and maintain them often do so in low-traffic areas and are reluctant to volunteer details to anyone beyond their fellow bikers. They'll even go so far as to mask the beginnings and ends of their trails, carrying their bikes for several yards to avoid detection. They play a cat-and-mouse game with federal officials, spending days if not weeks constructing a trail or freeride feature only to abandon it once it's discovered.
It can be frustrating for the Forest Service too, Hartwig says. Even as rangers and other staff tear out one trail, there's no doubt another is in the works.
"I was talking to Hilshey earlier," Hartwig says, referring to Recreation Program Manager Al Hilshey, who was unavailable to comment for this article. "He says they've actually seen a decrease since 2010."
That, or the mice are getting better at hiding.
The outlaw game
In May 2009, an agent with the Flathead National Forest discovered a set of hand tools on an illegal mountain bike trail on Crane Mountain, above the town of Ferndale. The agent confiscated the tools and left a business card in their place. The owner later called, confessing to having built the trail, which he called "Original Sin." His name was Ron Cron.
Cron's ultimate goal made headlines in local papers when the story broke last year. He sought to mimic a group of freeriders from Wyoming known as the Teton Freedom Riders, who had constructed and maintained illegal trails on the Bridger-Teton National Forest even as rangers struggled to shut them down. Their outlaw game against the Forest Service—which ultimately led to nonprofit incorporation and a collaborative partnership with the agency—was the subject of the 2009 documentary Freedom Riders. Cron believed if he built a trail and turned himself in, the Forest Service in western Montana would be forced to allow freeriders to continue riding.
Instead, the agency fined him $300 dollars.
Cron's relationship with the Forest Service didn't end there, however. He and other freeriders wound up working volunteer trail maintenance on a legal series of bike trails along Flathead Lake. Meanwhile, Cron continued to push for a network of trails on Crane Mountain, attempting to raise money despite clear indications from the Forest Service that such development wouldn't be approved anytime soon.
Keith Hammer followed all this closely. His conservation organization, the Swan View Coalition, went so far as to FOIA the action against Cron as well as emails between various officials. To Hammer, Cron's activities on Crane Mountain represent the potential threat this outlaw contingent presents to public land. "In the case of Crane Mountain, it's really good wildlife habitat," he says.
"Regarding the trail clearing that went on, Ron Cron basically said, 'All we did was cut open a bunch of game trails.' Well, those are game trails. ... Bears and elk and whatnot are trying to use those trails to get from point A to point B. Right there, off the bat, is the first impact to wildlife. Their trails are being taken over by what I call breakneck mountain biking."
Hammer also feels that the push to build rogue trails on Crane Mountain compounds existing problems with motorized use "in some of the exact same areas where the Forest Service has been trying to get a handle on unlawful use to begin with." Above all, the Swan View Coalition abhors the disregard for laws meant not only to protect public land but to uphold the public process for developing trails.