Mountain High 

Whether your schtick is fishing or folfing, hiking or hunting, skiing or skinny dipping, most Montanans consider themselves “outdoorsy.” We forget about the tanking economy and head to the forests, summits, rivers and lakes in order to explore, challenge and nourish ourselves.

And although there are only six people per square mile cluttering up our state—only Alaska and Wyoming are less dense with humans—any hiker or boater will inevitably cross paths with other “outdoorsy” types when we head to the hills. Ideally this would allow us to meet new people, or try new methods of descent, but just as often we experience examples of “user conflict.”

Although it’s not the season, cross-country skiers tally perhaps the greatest number of cross-sport conflicts among Missoula’s outdoor recreationalists, faced as they are with a variety of dangerous or track-destroying variables. Outside of Missoula, skinny skiers must actively prevent being plowed (or suffocated) by sneak-up-on-you snowmobiles. Pattee Canyon skiers pay for a machine to groom trails right across a folf course, where folfers annually trample the thinly covered and carefully manicured ski tracks. Dog walkers give the pinners hell, too, leaving steaming brown landmines across the landscape.

Of course motorcyclists, ATV-ers, snowmobilers and anyone recreating in the woods with a motor is likely to annoy the quieter, less-polluting crowd. This carries over onto waterways where personal watercraft whine their ways around—and occasionally over—human-powered paddlers. This conflict is much more common outside of Montana, especially in places where you can zip about without a full wetsuit in June in otherwise peaceful waters.

In Montana, river conflicts more commonly involve face-offs between adrenaline boaters and anglers. Fortunately for both, the massive spring runoff that’s currently swelling our rivers also clouds the water with a nearly unfishable sediment. This effectively rotates these users’ river times, so folks looking for whitefish rarely compete for solitude with those seeking whitewater. One month from now, however, the rivers will fall and again be appealing to both groups—and inner tubers, too. Inevitably, conflicts arise that relate to empty beer cans, or who has claim to a certain eddy, or whether miscellaneous body parts should perhaps be covered while floating.

But get away from the rivers and onto the trails and you’ll experience backpackers, horsepackers, hikers, trail runners, mountain bikers and dog walkers all competing for their bit of the Montana backcountry. The diverse array of users affects the trail in myriad ways, and people inevitably find their trails strewn with something offensive.

For instance, cyclists riding wet trails often leave erosion-prone ruts and sometimes startle, ram or even injure other trail users. Non-dog owners seem particularly prone to being accosted by unleashed and unruly dogs. Mountaineers escape much of the conflict by perching themselves far above most other forest users, but even then, sport climbing routes leave steel bolts in vertical faces that have been known to reflect light into the eyes of annoyed traditionalists.

Horse riders and mule packers leave massive piles of steaming, fly-attracting and shoe-soiling equine shit for the rest of the recreation community to avoid (not to mention extra-muddy creek crossings, hammered vegetation, knapweed-infested hay and multi-liter urinations that rally the horsefly harems from miles away).

To some, loads of pack animal excrement festering on trails may seem like an almost natural addition to our wildlands—one could argue that bears and small mammals often drop their loads on the trail, and horses should be seen as no different. Ignoring the massive piles of horse dung that you’ve left in the woods has been the standard operating procedure ever since humans started riding horses. But as fewer and fewer of the folks visiting the woods are riding horses, it seems appropriate to develop a more discreet, sanitary and non-invasive method of managing the tremendous loads of fecal matter.

Of all the overlooked examples of people failing to “Pack it in, pack it out,” horse droppings likely account for the greatest mass of littering still permitted in National Parks. Anyone who has hiked the popular trails leading out of Many Glacier in Glacier N.P. has hopped through ankle-deep dung for the first mile of their hike. National Parks, National Monuments and big “W” wilderness areas represent our nation’s wildest and most pristine places; a better poop policy is long overdue.

You can learn more about how you and others impact natural areas at the Forest Service’s Trailhead Information Fair at the main Rattlesnake Trailhead on Saturday, May 31 from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Free presentations, like “Low Impact Mountain Biking,” “Noxious Weed Education” and “Basic Horse Outdoor Ethics” will be given throughout the day. We all share the trails, so call backcountry ranger and Leave No Trace expert Allen Byrd at 329-3936 for more details.

The UM’s Practical Ethics Center is presenting “Sheer Decency: Ethics of Climbing and Mountaineering,” a philosophical and practical look at commercialized peak-bagging, our responsibilities toward others in the mountains and climbing for personal exploration. Download the beta at or call 243-5744.

Or go bouldering with New Rocky Mountaineer Fred Rhoderick (549-5762) near Skalkaho, Lake Como or Lost Horse Creek. All you need is climbing shoes, so go get on the rock!

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