On the Right Path? 

Enviros, off-roaders square off over new nationwide trail

The American West as myth has some great selling points: colorful characters, rugged individualism, Manifest Destiny and the like. That’s what proponents of a new Canada-to-Mexico trail are hoping to capitalize on as they push for a 3,100-mile, border-to-border route, “a corridor of trails and passageways” they say will bring communities together and promote the tourism economy. They call it the Great Western Trail, and in defense of the idea, they evoke frontier imagery: “Using whatever was available, travelers in the Old West made their way by foot or horseback, or by using a variety of vehicles including wagons and water craft as they moved between communities,” reads promotional material put out by the Forest Service in conjunction with the private, non-profit Great Western Trail Association. “And so it is today along the Great Western Trail as the magic and romance of the Old West unfolds once more to recreational enthusiasts from across the nation.”

But critics of the plan find the appeal to bygone days to be a disingenuous bit of advertising. They say the off-road vehicle industry is behind the project, and is using the Forest Service as a marketing tool. Indeed, the Association’s website is full of links to all-terrain vehicle clubs and dealers, and the industry donated more than $65,000 in the 1990s to the man pushing the deal in Congress, Utah Republican Rep. Jim Hansen.

Opponents argue that claims made about the route attracting diverse users are merely platitudes, that the trail in fact will be the equivalent of an “ORV highway” which pushes hikers and horseback riders out of the way. “The main problem is this is nothing more than a motorized trail,” says Donald Mazzola of the Montana Wilderness Association (MWA). “If we’re talking a border-to-border trail for hiking, horseback riding, we already have that. We have the Continental Divide trail, we don’t need another one.”

The debate has been heated particularly in Montana, where the feds have outlined three possible routes through the western part of the state, but have held no public meetings, despite an Oct. 29 deadline for public comments. While the push for the Great Western Trail began in the 1970s, Congress jump-started the process in 1996 at the behest of Rep. Hansen, by allocating $300,000 for a feasibility study and setting the Forest Service to the task. Roshanna Stone, who leads the feasibility study team, says that the trail is already designated in Utah where it is approximately 80 percent complete, and that large portions are also in place in Arizona and parts of Wyoming.

She says that few—if any—new roads will be built. “It’s just a matter of linking up existing trails and routes, and giving them a common name under the National Historic and Scenic Trails Law,” Stone says, estimating that in Utah, one-third of the route is closed to motorized vehicles. “In some places, there’s actually three routes, one for horses, bikers and pedestrians, the other two for snowmobiles and ATVs.”

Stone’s words carry little weight with the Montana Wilderness Association, which is taking a lead in fighting the plan. The group has a laundry list of potential problems, including air and noise pollution, soil erosion, dangers to wildlife, and strife between those traveling by engines and those who aren’t. “Wherever ATVs go through wild lands, there are user conflicts. Most trail users in Montana are going to steer clear of an ORV interstate from Utah,” says John Gatchell, conservation director of the MWA. “If you want to drive from Canada to Mexico, there are lots of ways to do that already. Why put another road through national forests?”

Utah conservationists say Montanans’ fears are justified. “It’s almost exclusively an ATV route,” says Mike Matz, of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. “Though it’s certainly available for other uses, hikers generally shun it.”

The Forest Service has only generally outlined the route a Montana trail might take; the agency’s maps show 50-mile wide swaths of gray, one cutting through the Bitterroots and on up toward the Kootenai National Forest, stopping at the border west of Glacier National Park. The other two routes enter the state at West Yellowstone: The first winds through the Beaverhead, Gallatin, Helena, Lewis and Clark national forests, the other bisects the Beaverhead and Deerlodge forests before joining up to cut through the Swan Valley and on up to the west side of Glacier.

Stone says the exact route will be up to individual national forests—if Congress decides to go ahead with the plan, and after an environmental assessment or environmental impact statement is completed.

But critics believe it’s more a question of when than if, and that feeling is particularly strong in Montana, where the public has largely been left out of the process.

“There was no public notice, no media notice,” complains Gatchell. While the Forest Service held a series of public meetings in Idaho, Utah and Arizona last winter, Montana was left out of the loop until the end of September. Then, the Forest Service held four meetings in the Treasure State, but neglected to tell the public.

Stone says her agency made the decision to keep things quiet in order to avoid confusion with a separate “off-highway vehicle” proposal being discussed by the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management. Instead, she says, the agency invited 55 trail user groups—running the gamut from snowmobilers to backpackers—to get feedback on the idea.

“Our plan was not to have open public meetings that attract hundreds of people who want to get into heated debates,” she says. When pressed on the point that citizens in other states got the chance to weigh in, she adds that “it’s not an environmental assessment. We just wanted to get feedback from folks so we’d have enough information for the study.”

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