The public will have to wait to learn how the U.S. Forest Service will respond to objections over closing two Bitterroot National Forest wilderness study areas to mountain biking.
Forest Service officials had set March 11 as the deadline for the written response from the agency’s regional office in Missoula to the more than 3,100 objections filed in the controversy over mountain bike use in the WSAs.
In a letter Monday, the agency announced its response to the objections will be delayed.
Bill Avey, the regional office objections reviewing officer, said in a letter to objectors that the agency needed additional time to review potential resolutions and information offered at a March 4 meeting with the mountain bike community and others.
The decision to delay the response also follows an intervention by U.S. Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., last week. In a letter sent Thursday, Daines asked the agency to either reopen the areas to mountain biking or push back its deadline so it could consider facts he had gathered.
On Tuesday, officials couldn’t offer a time frame on how long the objection review process would take, which was already been delayed once by the partial government shutdown.
The Bitterroot National Forest closed the Blue Joint and Sapphire wilderness areas to mountain biking when it updated its travel plan in 2016.
Following a court challenge, a judge ruled last June the Bitterroot Forest had not offered the public an opportunity to weigh in on the issue of mountain biking in those areas and required the agency to take another look at the issue, which opened the door for a new objection period.
When the regional office finishes its review of the objections, it will send its recommendations to the Bitterroot Forest supervisor, who could require the national forest to modify its travel plan, offer clarifications or do nothing if the closure to mountain bikes is deemed permissible under the law.
The Forest Service’s Northern Region press officer, Dan Hottle, said the delay was a result of additional information that came to light in last week’s meeting with the mountain bikers and others, as well as Daines’ letter.
The mountain bike community offered a proposal that included keeping a few trails open to biking in areas that aren’t used by hikers or horseback riders, and closing the WSAs during hunting season.
Hottle said the reviewing officer decided the groups’ proposal and the data it presented required some additional time to analyze “thoughtfully and thoroughly.” Daines’ interest “was another audience we needed to respond to,” he said.
Lance Pysher of the Bitterroot Backcountry Cyclists was happy the agency opted to take their proposal seriously.
“It’s a challenging issue for them,” Pysher said. “Hopefully, they will see that we gave them a reasonable proposal that will offer something for everyone while still maintaining wilderness character of the area. We hope that they will take a hard look at it and try to find a solution that works for everyone.”
Kirk Thompson, a retired Bitterroot Forest roads and trails engineer and member of the Montana Wilderness Association, also attended last week’s meeting.
To someone not familiar with the process and the laws creating WSAs, Thompson said the mountain bikers’ solution would sound reasonable. But the 1977 law that created WSAs limited the kinds of uses that were present when the areas were set aside.
“There was no mountain biking happening there in 1977,” Thompson said. “To me, it’s pretty cut and dried. The solution right now is to reaffirm the Bitterroot National Forest’s travel plan decision and as long as the areas are designated as WSAs, mountain bikes aren’t permitted under the 1977 act.”