The Lincoln Ranger District's draft Blackfoot Travel Plan for inside the Helena National Forest took more than 10 years and $500,000 to develop—and after all that work, the real battle has just begun.
The travel plan, unveiled last month, will determine trail use regulations for the next decade on prime public forest land at the headwaters of the Blackfoot River. With a 45-day comment period underway, the district's diverse recreationists are scrambling to ensure that their interests are represented in the final plan. And there is no trail more hotly contested by users than the district's 49-mile stretch of the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail, or CDT.
The Lincoln Ranger District currently allows motorized vehicles on roughly 20 miles of the CDT, with the rest off-limits to motorists. Dirt bikers and all-terrain vehicle enthusiasts are fighting hard to keep that portion available to them. A coalition of hikers, bicyclists, horse riders and conservation groups know as Montana High Divide Trails is fighting just as hard to make the trail motor-free. The latter believes congressional legislation is on its side.
"ATV and motorbike use is definitely inappropriate on the CDT given that Congress intended national scenic trails to be non-motorized," says Dennis Milburn, president of the Last Chance Chapter of the Backcountry Horsemen and a member of MHDT.
Lincoln District Ranger Amber Kamps, who is overseeing the travel planning process, denies that she is bound by policy or legislation to keep the CDT motor-free.
"Forest Service policy—not legislation, just policy—says that where possible we should manage the [CDT] as non-motorized," says Kamps, referring to the Forest Service's 2009 comprehensive plan for CDT management. "Policy gives us a little direction as to how we should be considering management, but it is not a 'thou shalt' policy."
Kamps' interpretation, however, appears to conflict with the law. According to the 1978 congressional legislation that created the CDT, "the use of motorized vehicles by the general public along any national scenic trail shall be prohibited," with exceptions for emergency vehicles, certain private landowners and motor vehicles that were allowed on trail prior to the legislation's passage.
Forest Service officials will soon make their decision, and some believe they could make a significant impact on CDT management.
"If the Lincoln Ranger District ignores the comprehensive plan and the original legislation ... they will be setting precedent," says Adam Rissien of Wildlands CPR, an ecological restoration organization in Missoula. "They will be saying they don't have to follow their own policies."
The Lincoln Ranger District hosts an open house Feb. 28 to discuss the CDT. Public comments are being accepted until March 11.