HAMILTON –Bitterroot National Forest Supervisor Julie King knows the agency’s new Travel Plan will have far-reaching impacts on people who like to use ATVs, snowmobiles, and even mountain bikes to enjoy the Bitterroot Backcountry.
But she believes the plan is the best effort to comply with the law, protect resources and still give a variety of experiences on the forest.
The U.S. Forest Service finished more than a decade of work this week with King issuing the final Travel Plan — a comprehensive document outlining how roads and trails will be used in the coming years.
The plan was adjusted to match a 2011 court ruling ordering the Custer-Gallatin National Forest to keep motorized use out of Wilderness Study areas unless it could prove those activities before their formation in 1977. For the Bitterroot, that means the popular Sapphire WSA, with the Chain of Lakes trail system, and the Blue Joint WSA on the Montana-Idaho border will be closed.
“You know, it’s confusing for the public because we’ve allowed all these uses for this time because we didn’t have the ‘trigger’ of Travel Plan I guess to bring it up and cause us to take a hard look at that. How we’re going to manage it,” King said.
While the plan will require adjustments for all mobile users, perhaps the biggest stress will be on mountain bikers who’ve been riding — and even maintaining — trails in spots like the Blue Joint, enjoying wilderness qualities like peace and solitude.
“What it boils down to, there was not mountain bikes in 1977 or at least no documentation of mountain bikes in 1977 that we could go back to and say ‘hey, they were here. We can continue that use forward’. And that’s basically what it consists of,” King explained.
For now, forest users will have to juggle between the current visitor map, and the more detailed Travel Plan maps, which are broken into very specific areas. In a few months, those will be merged, and they can be used electronically.
USFS staff will spend the summer signing the areas that are affected by the new Travel Plan with the priority being on education — and then enforcement.
“We are going to be doing just a lot of education and outreach with our folks on the ground and visitors. So that we can help them understand the maps and implementation. Not all of the routes will be signed immediately. We’re going to start working on that,” King said.
“So that’ll be our emphasis, you know, kind of a roll out, heavy on the information and education piece to help folks understand what’s going on. Because it’s a change. And for some folks it’s a big change,” King added.
There are already rumblings of lawsuits to challenge USFS plan, but until there’s a court decision to the contrary, the Travel Plan is now law in the Bitterroot.
Reporter: Dennis Bragg