Leslie Gray has two windsocks in her front yard on Blacktail Mountain, six miles up from Lakeside. Both are clearly visibly through the picture window in her living room. In the dry summer months, they mark the path of the dust billowing up from the dirt road 50 yards from her door—and indicate whether Gray can leave her windows open.
"This is where I chose to live the rest of my life," Gray says. "And I mightily resent the fact that there would be total disregard for those of us that call this place home."
Increased traffic along the Blacktail Mountain Road is just one of the concerns Gray and her neighbors have regarding the Flathead National Forest's proposal to add 41 miles of new motorized trails to what's known as the Island Unit. They already note problems with trash, with displaced wildlife, with people shooting up signs and trees. The road is one of two points of entry for the new motorized trails. The forest's trail addition project, approved July 2, is now in a 45-day appeal period. Gray recently founded the Blacktail Mountain Conservation Group, which is drafting an appeal alongside Missoula-based Wildlands CPR.
Some of the Island Unit project's detractors believe Blacktail Mountain is shouldering the burden of motorized use to save wilder parts of the Flathead. Gray accuses the Forest Service of "throwing the ATV crowd a bone." Adam Rissien, a policy specialist for Wildlands CPR, calls Blacktail a "sacrifice zone." Much of the rest of the forest overlaps with federally protected wilderness or falls within the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem's grizzly bear recovery zone. By comparison, the Island Unit is already densely roaded and heavily used by motorized vehicles.
"That shouldn't mean it's the best place to put machines," Rissien says. "It actually means you have to be very careful about what you do on this mountain because it's already heavily impacted."
Up on the Swan Lake Ranger District, project manager Andrew Johnson couldn't agree more. While the idea for trail expansion came partly in response to shrinking opportunities for motorized use elsewhere on the forest, he says, officials also recognized a potential solution for concerns on the Island Unit. People were riding closed roads, developing unauthorized trails and cutting down firewood illegally. "The real birth of this project," Johnson says, "was, can we provide more legitimate places for motor vehicle users to recreate at the same time as solving some of the unacceptable stuff we're seeing out there?"
Johnson believes the Island Unit project goes a long way toward alleviating environmental concerns. It avoids designating trails in secure elk habitat where illegal use has been a problem. It calls for strengthening road gates and closure berms that are currently ineffective. It even addresses law enforcement difficulties by strengthening partnerships with motorized clubs, whose members will be trained to educate other users on safe and ethical riding and to collect identifying information on any illegal uses they witness.
The project also designates the 11-mile Foy's to Blacktail trail for non-motorized use. Residents in the Flathead Valley have been pushing for that designation for years.
"I think as we move into implementation, we're going to have a great product out there," Johnson says.
Rissien cries foul on all counts. The project will disrupt elk habitat, he says. It will increase illegal motorized use and possibly conflict with grizzly expansion. Even the Foy's to Blacktail trail designation seems to him more like a divide-and-conquer strategy than an effort to accommodate hikers. "Why," he asks, "did they have to marry it to this motorized trail project that they knew was controversial and problematic?"
The primary concern inevitably comes back to the quality of life along Blacktail Mountain Road. Johnson gets it. "There's dust, there's potholes," he says. But managing for those issues is complex because the road is owned by the Federal Aviation Administration. They contract out to Flathead County for plowing, Johnson says, but that's about as far as maintenance goes. Forest officials are currently exploring ways to work with the FAA to meet resident demands for dust abatement. The bottom line is, the Forest Service has both the authority and the responsibility to manage recreation on Blacktail Mountain. When it comes to traffic on Blacktail Mountain Road, the agency has neither.
"They go out of their way for these few special interest groups to make them happy, and they totally disregard all the property owners and the people who live here," says Blacktail landowner Becky Tate. "We just have to live with the consequences. ... I don't see the justice in that. It's so one-sided."
Tate's property sits below a pine-choked ridgeline a few yards up the road from Gray's place. In the winter, a trail skirting that ridge is groomed and open for cross-country skiing. It also passes within feet of Tate's property line, and when the Flathead completes its project, it'll be open to motorcycles and ATVs.
For Tate and her neighbors, expanding motorized use on the Island Unit—already home to Blacktail Mountain Ski Area—is just adding another season of strife. Already, Tate says, "I don't bring my horses across the street unless I absolutely have to during the winter. I just don't trust the traffic."
"And it's not just winter," Gray adds. "It's now carrying into a year-round issue."