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Negotiating Wilderness Boundaries To Save Montana Trails

IMBA just served an ace in Montana.

Working with local IMBA chapter MTB Missoula and statewide members, IMBA successfully negotiated creating a 3,000-acre National Recreation Area companion designation in place of a wilderness proposal that threatened 30 miles of valuable trail. The model of compromise and collaboration truly does work.

“What really impressed me was how respectful the mountain bikers were of the horsemen’s issues,” Lee Boman with the Montana Wilderness Association told The Missoulian about the compromise process.

And as IMBA Adovcacy Manager Eric Melson wrote in the Helena Independent Record, “What we’ve been able to accomplish right here in Montana should be a guiding light for cooperation and collaboration between mountain bikes and wilderness advocates across the nation.” A media statement and one-pager on the work have also been published.

So, how did this happen, and how can you replicate the success of the Big Sky state in your backyard? I asked Eric to explain.

Eleanor Blick: You love Montana.
Eric Melson: You got it. Montana truly is the Last Best Place. We are also isolated, forcing people here to work through their differences to preserve our way of life. And the Blackfoot Clearwater Stewardship Project (BCSP) project is the latest example. It’s a ten-year, made-in-Montana, collaborative solution involving timber management, conservation and recreation.

EB: Why do mountain bikers care about BCSP?
EM: The proposal originally wanted to designate 83,000 acres of proposed wilderness in areas mountain bikes are legally allowed now and have ridden for decades. This would have closed access to cherished backcountry rides only an hour from Missoula. These trail experiences are unique and offer incredible views into the Bob Marshall Wilderness and beyond.

EB: Back it up. How did this all start?
EM: Riders have advocated for continued access to this landscape for years, starting back when these trails were threatened as part of a 2009 legislative package—the Forest Jobs and Restoration Act. Volunteer mountain bike advocates tried hard to come to an agreement in which trails would remain open but never quite sealed the deal. After a few years that bill failed and all signs for mountain bikers were looking good—no bill meant retained access.

But BCSP came out of that process, and it changed things. It sparked momentum, gained traction and stood as its own piece of legislation.

EB: So that means more closed trails? Yikes. What did mountain bikers do?
EM: Those volunteer advocates who had been working hard to preserve trails in the original legislation were like, “Uh oh...trails are threatened again…we don’t have the time to deal with this. Hey Melson, you want to take a stab?”

And I was like, “Yup, on it!

Ultimately, we have collaborated to create a very strong proposal with lots of community support. It does an amazing job of finding middle ground for all interested parties: elected officials, business and labor, sportsmen and women, collaborative groups, recreation, conservation, outfitters and guides, and even others. (Here’s a full list of supporters.)

EB: How did you work with so many groups to make this happen?
EM: Relationships–and I would argue friendships–make the world go around. When you are sitting around a table with friends, you learn and understand how to want what they want. If you are willing to help them get that, they will do the same for you.

  • Understand this: you will never get everything you want, and neither will they—and that’s okay!
  • Keep in mind: You don’t need everything. You WANT everything. But what do you truly need?

EB: What did mountain bikers need?
EM: We worked with Montana riders to figure that out!

  • What was the best solution to access the lake basin?
  • How can we retain the entire ridge ride?
  • Oh and hey, wouldn’t it be cool if we could connect these two trails? Is that possible?

EB: And was it possible?
EM: Everything is possible when you are respectful, truly understand the other side and can empathize with their needs. And that’s what happened. We got creative! We looked at the map to redraw boundaries that worked for all of us.

  • We preserved mountain bike access to the entire lake basin, making a challenging lollipop ride.
  • We preserved the entire ridge ride, with the possibility of adding a new connector trail at the top to make it a loop.
  • We advocated to bring back an old lost trail that would connect two drainages, making for an awesome loop ride or a killer new route to the lake basin.

BSCP Map before and after agreementsThe map shows boundries before and after agreements, with a new companion National Recreation Area.

EB:
Three for three!
EM: I know, right?? We showed that we can work through hardships and conflict, understand other user concerns and be respectful of everyone’s needs in the process. While we agreed mountain bikers don’t get priority just because we had been riding the area a long time, we were able to strongly hold the line and advocate for our needs.  

EB: What’s next for BCSP?
EM: Now that IMBA and MTB Missoula have an agreement with all parties on what trails remain open, we are hoping to see this proposal bill that we helped create and influence actually come to fruition in a bill sponsored by our U.S. Senator Jon Tester.

We are working with BCSP to make sure our congressional delegation knows how important this landscape is to the local communities, including Montana mountain bikers, and how badly we all want to see it become law. We are hoping to schedule project work in the area for next season to improve trail conditions for better experiences, and we are fully committed to working with BCSP in the broader landscape to make sure the other partner goals are completed.

EB: What advice do you have for volunteer advocates?
EM: This is tough work. And it sucks at times. And nobody’s going to bail you out. And you’re probably going to have people that don’t like the final product. Some people will stay mad, some will get over it.

But the world is run by those who show up and commit to a respectful and productive process. There’s an old political phrase I like, “it can either be done with you, or to you.” So true.

So, my advice: open your mind to the possibilities. Listen to others, understand others, empathize with others, help others get what they want and they will help you. Trust in the process; trust in your partners. Roll up those sleeves and get to work. Because mountain bike trail access is not a God-given right, not even on public lands. It is our access to go out and get—so go get it! And kill them with kindness.

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