The 'Snake Bites Back 

The Rattlesnake bites back

Resource managers struggle to balance recreation with nature

Here's an experiment for all you budding resource managers out there-both amateur and professional. Check the weather, grab a Power Bar and head up to Missoula's favorite piece of federal property, the Rattlesnake Recreation and Wilderness Area. It won't matter much whether it's raining or gray, if the trails are icy, muddy or dusty as all get out, you probably won't get beyond the parking lot before you realize that you're not alone.

On any given day, the lot at the main trailhead is populated with sport utes and pick-up trucks, compacts with out-of-state plates, illustrating just how popular the Rattlesnake is. Winter, spring, summer and fall, this display similarly reflects how valued recreation has become in the nearly two decades since Congress elected to set aside this tract of nature. And that's before you even begin counting the cyclists, those hardy souls on their mechanical steeds, who have self-propelled themselves into the Garden City's most easy-to-reach hinterlands.

Still, if you were looking to spend the day alone, don't despair. This experiment's not over. After counting cars, head on up the old road that is the main trail, keeping that crumbling shale wall to your left and the burbling creek for which the area is named to your right. As you come out to that first clearing, where the valley opens up, simply pick one of the myriad paths (provided they haven't been closed) and walk a few miles.

You may come across a cyclist or two, a group of sturdy hikers, a dog walker... but after a little while, chances are you'll begin to believe you're alone in the 'Snake.

For a while at least. And that, along with the rec area's proximity to Missoula, is part of its charm. But, despite the apparent solitude, each and every one of you hikers is having an impact, just like the bikers, the horseback riders and other recreationalists who favor the classic landscape and Ponderosa-Douglas Fir forest of this wooded playground. Cumulatively speaking, it's a problem.

There are 19 designated recreation areas like the Rattlesnake scattered across the country. The 'Snake is the only one in Montana. Regionally, the Flaming Gorge, established in 1968, bridges Utah and Wyoming, and the Sawtooth was designated in Idaho in 1972. The Rattlesnake Recreation Area and adjoining wilderness area taken together cover 61,000 acres on the Lolo National Forest. The land houses two ski areas-Snowbowl and Marshall Mountain-while also acting as a habitat for countless critters, including wolverine, elk, ground squirrels, endangered bull trout and the occasional grizzly and wolf.

The Rattlesnake, which was set aside by Congress in 1980, is no stranger to human usage. Those who have explored along Spring Creek may have noticed there are a variety of old homesteads now run into the ground, shaded by tall Poplar trees as exotic as the spotted knapweed in the nearby field. At the turn of the last century, there was a community making a go of it on plots since subsumed by the federal land. First a logging camp, then a miniature town with 20 homes and a schoolhouse occupied the picnic spots and other places enjoyed by hikers and bikers today.

Cass Chinske, a Missoula real estate agent, spearheaded the effort to preserve the Rattlesnake through the mid- to late-'70s, working with the Montana Power Company, which then owned half the land, and the Forest Service to come up with a plan which might pass through Congress. As executive director of Friends of the Rattlesnake and author of the first legislative draft that eventually established the recreation area, Chinske has as much right as anybody to claim credit for the following lines, which appear in the designating act:

"This national forest area has long been used as a wilderness by Montanans and by people throughout the Nation who value it as a source of solitude, wildlife, clean, free-flowing waters stored over the century, and primitive recreation...

"Therefore, it is hereby declared... the people of the Nation and Montana would best be served by national recreation area designation of the Rattlesnake area to include the permanent preservation of certain of these lands under established statutory designation as wilderness, and to promote the watershed, recreational, wildlife, and educational values of the remainder of these lands."

In the years since, Chinske says, he has found himself chagrined at the high levels of traffic that have found the natural hide-a-way, which almost literally forms his backyard. And though the explosion of Missoula's population, and the seemingly endless proliferation of fresh-air-loving enthusiasts across the country, could be held at least partially responsible for the decline of natural as well as certain recreational values, Chinske for his part targets the managing agency first and the interlopers second.

"It's hard for me to watch what's gone on there," Chinske says. "We haven't done it any better in the Rattlesnake than we have anywhere else, and we know better. You have to look at the ecosystem, but everything gets politicized. The decision makers just don't do very well when it comes to making decisions up front, or when it comes to protecting flora and fauna and the natural values they're supposed to."

Chief among the problems for Chinske is the ongoing, relatively unchecked presence of mountain bikes. A mountain biker himself, the sometime activist says it took scaring the bejeezus out of a family looking at some nearby deer for him to become sensitized to how disconcerting it can be for a pedestrian to be surprised by a cyclist. At that moment, years ago, it came home to him exactly how difficult it is for mechanized travelers to stay attuned to their surroundings.

Additionally lamenting conflicts between cyclists and horseback riders, who hardly ever use the area anymore, Chinske calls mountain biking "the most significant issue" faced by resource managers. He cites associated safety issues as well as environmental impacts and the occasional wilderness boundary violation (bikes are only allowed in the rec area) as primary concerns.

"With mechanical use, the amount of the area consumed by individuals has increased by a drastic factor," he says. "Bike organizations are living in total denial. Most places bicycles are being locked out of areas. We have a chance to do something before someone gets killed."

Andy Kulla, Forest Service resource manager for the Missoula District, rankles when it's suggested that he's not doing enough. He points to newly enacted trail closures along some of the main thoroughfares, which aim to protect vegetation and prevent erosion. Kulla also seems excited about a citizen bike patrol and education task force currently in the offing, which he expects to pilot in area middle schools this spring and at the University of Montana next fall.

"I wouldn't say we're not doing anything," he says. "We've initiated spring closures. And we're working with the city, the parks department and the university program to develop an education program fashioned after leave no trace. It's called 'Share the Trail.'"

Riding point on the Share the Trail program is Mark O'Riordan, a bike racer and geology student at the university, who says he simply needs a few more helpers to iron out the administrative details for the mountain bike patrol.

O'Riordan says he hopes that this new group, sanctioned by the International Mountain Biking Patrol, can augment the work already being done by Low Impact Mountain Bikes, an older group with similar goals. In particular, this newcomer says he'd like to focus on outreach to diminish user conflicts, and provide backcountry safety and mechanical assistance.

"What I'm concerned with is that mountain bikers can still have fun and be safe in the Rattlesnake," O'Riordan says. "It's just another sport. The trails are for everybody, including what's already there."

Ultimately, O'Riordan says he sees the effort as a "proactive" measure to ensure the viability of mountain biking on Forest Service lands. He adds that there will be no enforcement, no tickets and no formal regulation.

Cass Chinske, however, says that rules and regulations are the only way to go. He complains that he's been warning the Forest Service since 1985 of the threat posed by cyclists, and even has a map for trails that could be reserved for hikers and horses, and which would be designated for the Rockhoppers, Kleins and Voodoos of the world.

Chinske, who also fought to block angry motorized users from using the Rattlesnake, says he believes responsible riders have already taken note. Pointing out that the current defense of biking sounds an awful lot like the motorcycle logic-"We aren't hurting anyone; we can educate ourselves"-Chinske allows that there's a place for mountain biking, but that it needs to be monitored and curtailed.

Kulla counters that things are well in hand. He cites a survey which indicates more than half the users in the Rattlesnake are hikers, and suggests that segregation of trails will spawn intolerance and unfamiliarity. "User freedom is one of the main attractions," he continues. "It's like, let's not make more rules, let's appreciate what we've got.

"More rules are a last resort."

If you received District Ranger Dave Stack's annual update, or recognized the proliferation of knapweed, or came across a totally harshed section of trail, say, where the mud-phobic have broadened a modest footpath into a boulevard of sorts, you probably already recognize that visitors are the number one obstacle to preserving the natural state of things in the Rattlesnake.

While mountain bikers may appear the most obvious threat to a quiet walk in the woods, a whole host of other issues are occupying Stack's time as well.

Stack's February letter, imprinted with the seals of the U.S.D.A. and the Forest Service, asks for feedback on a number of issues now being studied-including proposed forest health projects, management strategies for an infestation of the exotic leafy spurge, and attempts to lessen camping impacts stemming from fire rings and the like.

The letter also addresses ongoing projects, articulating responses to a large number of problems at least partially related to human activity, ranging from the use of fish screens to keep endangered bull trout out of ditches, to replacing culverts washed out by the heavy run-off following the big snows of 1997.

Although not everybody agrees, Joe Kipphut, a resource forester under Stack, opines, "Our agency is shooting ourselves in the foot by saying we're going to ride this recreation trend into the sunset. It's been a nice shift, but who knows what's going to happen in the future. We're killing things by loving them to death."

Indeed, U.S. national forest lands saw 800 million visits last year, and in 40 years that figure's expected to climb to 1.2 billion. Meanwhile, the Forest Service faces static funding levels for recreation management, which has forced agency advocates to float such ideas as a (failed) special sales tax for what is known as "nonconsumptive wildlife appreciation," including birdwatching, wildlife photography and the like, and an ongoing fee demonstration project, a pay-for-play collection program designed to offset the cost of recreation across the country.

But while user fees may come across as fair and sound policy, there are those who say the motorized recreation industry is poised to take advantage of the situation.

The budget for the Rattlesnake management continues to come solely from Congressional allocations-totaling $225,000 this year, including $35,000 designated for wilderness alone-but the Recreation Fee Demonstration Project provides one model for what future fundraising efforts could look like.

Jointly administrated by U.S. Fish and Wildlife, the Bureau of Land Management, the Park Service and the Forest Service, the project aims to help the agencies pay for everything from visitor facilities to resource conservation. This new fee system, which is being used increasingly in densely populated areas on the West Coast and elsewhere, however has a catch.

The demonstration project is being supported by the American Recreation Coalition, a private group critics accuse of attempting to colonize and commercialize public lands in order to line their pockets. According to Scott Silver, of the Oregon-based environmental group Wild Wilderness, "Access to public lands is being manipulated for the benefit of sports equipment manufacturers, campground associations and motorized user groups.

"The fee demonstration is ARC's latest step toward taking control of America's recreational policies."

ARC President Derrick Crandall denies this, saying that his group is simply trying to help the Forest Service and other agencies out of their current budget bind. ARC's membership spans the National Ski Area Association, the Walt Disney Company, Yamaha and Exxon, to name a few, but Crandall maintains the group's involvement has been limited to the dissemination of information and other communications efforts.

"I see the fee program as the only way to keep a viable federal backcountry program alive and well," says Crandall.

Echoing his colleague Joe Kipphut, Greg Super, a Forest Service economist, says that his agency's biggest challenge comes from heightened backcountry use and increased population. He defends the Forest Service's involvement with the ARC-they are "cost share" partners in the fee program-saying: "Just because you have a backcountry location doesn't mean there aren't costs in managing it... We need to generate additional fees, especially if they stay locally, to provide services for folks who value these areas pretty high."

From Kipphut's perspective, some sort of fee will probably be necessary down the road, although he says he'd rather not see it come to that. "Personally," he says, "I wish we didn't have to charge fees. They're a pain to count and a pain to collect. But if they will have a positive effect, we don't have a choice."

Kulla, Stack and company have other fish to fry, including an ongoing, controversial weed management program, the implementation of a prescribed burn plan and the resolution of lingering problems at many of the campsites throughout the area.

Having drawn fire last year for a decision to spray herbicides in the 'Snake, Stack points to an innovative plan to include weed-eating bugs as part of the control policy. Last summer, he faced off with angry protesters at the front gate of the area, and took time out to check with U.S. Fish and Wildlife on how the poison might affect the sensitive bull trout population which can still be found in Rattlesnake Creek. Having obtained the go-ahead for spraying, he gave the weeds a blast.

Up Sawmill Gulch now, Stack is faced with similar issues. Environmen-talists and others say they're concerned over poisons in the atmosphere, but if the Forest Service is going to stem the spread of leafy spurge to the wilderness area, a move has got to be made, according to forest managers. Bio-management takes a long time, Stack notes, and the infestation is reaching pandemic proportions.

A plan to let sheep graze drew a lukewarm response, so the agency has turned to a combination of bugs and herbicides-leaving the angry mob to search for other solutions.

Fire policy is still being worked out on the Rattlesnake, too. And with a hot season likely in the offing, officials have their work cut out for them as they shift from a long-standing policy of fire suppression to one of prescribed burns. As part of a long-term attempt to recondition the forest last season, a 900-acre burn was set on Strawberry Ridge to eliminate fuel and improve wildlife forage. As for letting wildfires burn, as some managers have prescribed, Stack says that's not going to happen for the time being given the threats to nearby homes.

"We do need a plan in place in the long run," Stack says. "Someday in the future, I'd like to have a plan for wildfire, but for now all wildfires in that area need to be controlled."

Despite such issues, as Kulla notes, people will return time and again to the Rattlesnake for a dose of nature, and a little spiritual solace. It's the one point he and Chinske probably see eye-to-eye on. But it's a privilege that Missoulians need to guard, Chinske cautions: Just be careful, because you don't know what you've got until it's gone.

California freelancer Christopher Weir contributed to this article.

Photos by Jeff Powers.

Spotted knapweed, Forest Service Resource Manager Andy Kulla says, is the equivalent of biotic pollution. The exotic plant's effects have prompted the agency to undertake an aggressive, controversial herbicide campaign.

Dog walkers make up a small percentage of backcountry users in the Rattlesnake Recreation Area, but their activities have been curbed in order to protect game through the winter.

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