While small towns towns across the country lose population and struggle to stay economically viable, the Bitterroot Valley has generally resisted that trend. One characteristic that makes Hamilton and the valley economically healthy was pointed out in a recent article in the Washington Post; our access to public lands and recreational activities. Maintaining our quality of life and economical viability requires ensuring we have a well-balanced spectrum of opportunities from designated wilderness to developed recreational sites such as Lake Como.
A key ingredient to this are the undeveloped primitive areas including the Sapphire and Blue Joint WSAs. With half of the Bitterroot National Forest already designated Wilderness (where mountain bikes are banned), the Sapphire and Blue Joint allowed for a comparable wilderness-like experience for mountain bikers but still ensures a healthy roadless landscape for our furry and feathered neighbors. For over 30 years management of the WSAs has ensured that access to these trails by bikes was part of the public lands recreational experience that has kept our economy healthy, while still protecting our watersheds and wildlife.
Maintaining a healthy ecosystem will become more challenging with population growth. Increased backcountry users, whether hunting, hiking, or cycling will inevitably have an impact on wildlife. Quiet and solitude might become harder to find. Managing these impacts on other users and the ecosystem requires recognizing that we all have an impact and shared enjoyment may require shared sacrifice to keep our public lands healthy.
Nearly everyone agrees on a need to protect these areas. The debate is over the best mechanism for protection. Some gave advocated for across the board wilderness designation for the WSAs. For 40 years this all or nothing approach has garnered limited support. We believe that a new approach is needed.
It is time for our local community to sit down and hash out a plan that has broad based support. The Rattlesnake Area provides us with a proven model: a wilderness core surrounded by a National Recreation Area. In the Sapphires the general outlines for this have already been negotiated as part of Senator Tester’s Forest Jobs and Recreation Act. Basically it would add some wilderness to the Pintlers to the south and create a new wilderness around the core of Kent, Congdon and Fox peaks. Surrounding that would be National Recreation Area buffer that would provide nearly the same degree of protection to the landscape while allowing additional recreational opportunities. The Blue Joint WSA has received less discussion, but a similar plan can be used.
Negotiating over the specifics and getting legislation passed is our long term goal. In the interim, the Bitterroot Backcountry Cyclists have proposed a plan to the Forest Service for closely monitored and managed access for mountain bike use. The Travel Plan EIS did not identify any current impacts on trails, wildlife, or water quality, but rather the concern was the possibility of negative experiences for a minority of trail users who prefer not sharing trails with bicycles. In developing our proposal we focused on minimizing the potential for encounters between bikes and other users.
Our goal was to identify trails and times of the year when these encounters were most likely to occur. To accomplish this we compiled recollections from dozens of people, both cyclists and other users, including one board member who has a 20 year record of over 80 trips to the Sapphires and Blue Joint in his journals.
With this data several conclusions seem clear. First, nine times out ten we saw no other users. When we did see other people it was on one of two trails, either Blue Joint Trail or Chain of Lakes. In our experiences, more as hunters than mountain bikers, it also appeared that other than general hunting season, these areas see little use. With this data in hand, we propose closing the Blue Joint north of Razorback Ridge to bikes; with the closure easily managed since the only trail connection between the open and closed sections was a distant trail junction between Deer Creek and Blue Joint Trail. In the Sapphires the 313 trail would be closed from Rooster Comb to the Beaverhead National Forest boundary creating a bike free zone around the popular Chain of Lakes. In addition, both WSAs would be entirely closed to bikes during general hunting season.
By working together, in a fair and balanced manner, we can achieve and provide long term protection for the Sapphires and Blue Joint, while providing quality recreational opportunities in the Bitterroot. In the end, isn’t that what we all want?
— Lance Pysher, Bitterroot Backcountry Cyclists, Hamilton