The throwing gets rough 

Folfers wait for recourse in Pattee Canyon

Although Missoula is a hotspot for disc golfing, its most popular folfing destination—a cherished 18-hole course in Pattee Canyon—remains closed off by the Forest Service. And if you’re one of the hundreds of disc devotees in the area, that’s a problem that can’t go away fast enough.

For years, Missoulians have enjoyed three established folf courses, at Blue Mountain, at the top of Montana Snowbowl and in Pattee Canyon. Closures on the courses are annual affairs that prevent environmental damage and conflicts with skiers; typically, they go into effect when the snow falls and are lifted when it melts. But this year, the Forest Service extended the Pattee Canyon closure through July 1, or until a number of improvements are made and a key meadow in the course dries out.

“This is a very wet meadow, with unique camas flowers,” says Lolo National Forest district ranger Maggie Pittman, who adds that the land is recovering nicely. “Inside the closure area, the natural forbs and other vegetation have really returned,” Pittman says.

The user conflicts might not heal as easily. The 1,600-acre Pattee Canyon Recreation Area attracts mountain bikers, cross-country skiers, and runners who use the meadow trails as a launching point to explore miles and miles of singletrack that spiderweb in all directions. It’s convenient, just minutes from downtown Missoula, with paved parking and a plethora of picnic tables. It also hosts a diverse array of habitats, allowing people to stroll through fields of wildflowers, explore open ponderosa pine meadows or get lost in dense, dark stands of lodgepole pines, all a short distance from their rigs.

The key contention zone, however, is relatively small: a public picnic area and adjacent meadow that holds the disc golf course.

On a nice day, the area draws “upwards of 300” folfers, according to the Forest Service.

Hurled with great force from “tee-boxes” (akin to golf tees) toward pins or baskets, the hard plastic folf discs can glide a couple hundred yards, occasionally bouncing off trees and damaging them as they go. Prior to the closure, the meadow and footpaths were taking a beating from all the folfer traffic, a fact that didn’t go unnoticed by the scores of non-folfers using the area to bird watch, hike, picnic and otherwise enjoy the fields and forests.

Folfers and non-folfers alike agree that two areas in particular, hole 7’s “Hamburger Hill” and the wet meadow under holes 1, 2, and 18, have been overly damaged. Until the damages are addressed, says Pittman, the course will remain closed.

The Forest Service started to make moves in this direction last fall, when it fenced off the particularly fragile meadow, posting signs stating that the landscape was being rehabilitated and was therefore closed to folfers.

Jim Parker, a 20-year folfing veteran, recalls arriving at the course with a group of friends last fall, only to see wire fence enclosures that effectively created a 16-hole course—not enough to play a real game. “We felt betrayed,” says Parker. “They just implemented the closure in the middle of the season with little or no discussion of what was going on.”

Like any other sport, disc golf has parameters, Parker says, and one of the most important is that the game goes for 18 holes. With no replacement holes provided, the group felt their pastime might be in jeopardy.

So Parker, along with fellow longtime folfers Dan Funch and others, contacted Pittman to find out what was going on. What they heard from her concerned them even more.

“I told [Parker] that if I had my druthers, I’d close the course in Pattee Canyon,” says Pittman. “It just didn’t seem at the time like an appropriate usage for the resource.” Fortunately for folfers, it didn’t take Pittman long to change her mind. She called a meeting to bring together a diverse “working group” of interested parties, including the Garden City Flyers, a local folfing association; Friends of Pattee Canyon, a group dedicated to protecting the canyon’s natural resources; and Missoula Outdoor Learning Adventures (MOLA), an outdoor education organization that brings school kids to Pattee Canyon.

Just by walking the course with the group of stakeholders, Pittman says she realized the passion folfers have for their game. Over a series of meetings since, Pittman and the working group have continued to plot the future of folf in Pattee Canyon, looking for ways to minimize disruptions on vegetation and other users.

The folfing trouble spot involves some 40 acres near the public picnic area and adjacent meadow, an area people have used for hundreds of years. According to the Forest Service, the meadow’s first known human usage was as a safe route around the notorious Hellgate Canyon for Native Americans heading east toward buffalo migrations. Since then it’s been logged, grazed, used as a softball field and hosted a government-run rifle range.

During the fires of 2000, the meadow was a massive, dusty campground for an army of smokejumpers in town to battle Bitterroot blazes. The meadow, folf course and surrounding recreation area have also been chemically treated for noxious weeds in recent decades. In other words, it’s not an untouched wilderness.

“We’re all about protecting resources, but the Pattee course is not a pristine area,” says Parker. “We need to keep that in mind.”

Porter Hammit, outdoor educator and owner of Missoula Outdoor Learning Adventures, thinks that’s beside the point. Part of Hammit’s work with the Missoula County School District involves outdoor education fieldtrips that bring sixth graders to Pattee to study things like natural systems and environmental ethics.

“One of the things we like to do with the kids is teach them ‘leave-no-trace’ ethics,” says the non-folfing Hammit. “When we keep coming across beer cans, pop bottles and cigarette butts, it’s kinda hard to do.”

Hammit isn’t the only one concerned with the negative perception that some less-than-considerate folfers leave in their wake. Members of the folfing community are working on ways to police themselves, hoping additions like signs and course improvements will minimize harmful impacts. But, being an individualistic sport, it’s not easy getting folfers to see themselves as a group with common interests.

“We didn’t get involved in folf to be a part of an organized recreational activity, and I’m sure others don’t either,” says Funch. “The game was probably simultaneously invented in a million places in the world at the same time, with…kids saying, “Let’s throw it at the trash can, to the tree, to the telephone pole.”

On one thing all agree, however: the Pattee Canyon folf grounds need help. And the Flyers are stepping up to offer it. This summer they will be removing posts that have served as folf targets and will replace some of them with removable baskets that can be taken down in winter, thereby removing the incentive to play in that season, when there are conflicts with skiers.

Perhaps as early as this summer, the Flyers are also working in partnership with the Forest Service to reroute disc golfers away from the picnic area, moving at least two and as many as five holes in a further effort to reduce user conflict and damage to plants and soils, says Brian Bjortomt, the group’s president. The group will also be installing new tee-boxes to limit soil damage.

But first, the Flyers need some money.

“We’re working on that,” says Bjortomt. “The improvements will cost $8,500 to $9000, and we’re currently sitting on $2,200.”

The Flyers are also working with the Forest Service on improvements at the Blue Mountain course, which on May 24 and 25 hosted the Third Annual Zootown Open disc golf tournament. Drawing nearly 100 contestants for a $1,000 prize, the contest brought in players from four states and three Canadian provinces, some of them ranking among the world’s best. While the event was a success, it also served to highlight a problem. With the Snowbowl folf course still closed due to snow, and the Pattee Canyon course still off limits, Blue Mountain is becoming overwhelmed with players.

“The closure has had a tremendous impact on Blue,” says Funch. “We have concerns that [Pattee’s] extended closure might put too much strain on the other courses, and that would get us right back to the situation we’re trying to avoid,” he says.

Improving the Pattee course, however, will make it more respected, says Parker. “People will take pride in a course that’s well maintained, has baskets and looks a little more professional,” he says. “That’s good for the resources, and the players.”

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