Industrial Recreation isn’t Conservation

Photograph Source: Jman’s Skittles – CC BY 2.0

Industrial strength recreation is a clear and present danger to our public wildlands. Legendary Montana wilderness guide Smoke Elser observed there is a new breed of recreationist on the land: “Mountain bikers are out to challenge the resource. It’s about how fast you can go and how many miles you can put on. Snowmobilers are after the highest mark on the hillside, the highest speed across the meadow.” (Missoulian 4/23/17).

He’s not alone. Dr. Barrie Gilbert, in his book One of Us, A Biologist’s Walk Among Bears, decries the industrial-strength recreation that is putting profits above bears in our National Parks and Forests. Author Todd Wilkinson bemoans the rise of “the outdoor recreation industrial complex” and the fact that conservation organizations in the Greater Yellowstone area are not “seriously addressing the transformative ecological impacts of more people using the landscape.” (Mountain Journal 8/7/20).

Biologists with the U.S. Forest Service and Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife recently found all trail-based recreational uses have negative impacts on elk, with mountain bikes and ATVs having the most. Wildlife managers with the Colorado Parks and Wildlife determined that burgeoning year-round recreational use has nearly decimated a large elk herd near Vail.

In the 1980s manufacturers began producing recreational machines that could go farther into previously inaccessible terrain and they haven’t stopped since. High power snowmobiles can traverse deep powder snow, enabling off-trail “high marking.” Mountain bikes became widely available and now feature shock absorbers, gas-powered motors and spiked tires for over-snow use. ATVs are bigger and go faster. New technology includes snow bikes which are modified motorcycles with tracks instead of wheels which can access off-trail areas and negotiate tight spaces.

All forms of outdoor recreational use exploded. The annual number of snowmobilers in the U.S. doubled from 5.3-10.7 million from 1982-2014 and more than 8 million people participated in cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, or telemark skiing on U.S. National Forests in 2012-2013. Increases are projected to continue over the next 40 years.

Rather than seriously confront the threat, many conservation organizations that have traditionally supported full protection of Wilderness Study Areas and roadless areas as permanently designated Wilderness are now part and parcel of the “recreation-logging-industrial complex.” They are in league with national mountain biking organizations who want unbridled access to our public lands, including Wilderness. Logging companies are also central partners. Having become part of “forest collaboratives”, they are eager to agree to expansive mountain biking trails, ATV and snowmobile use, logging and other harmful impacts to roadless areas that should be designated Wilderness.

For example, while there are positive aspects of the Blackfoot Clearwater Stewardship Act (BCSA) sponsored by U.S. Senator Jon Tester, it sacrifices roadless areas on the Lolo National Forest in Montana that are Wilderness in fact, if not law. If you’re a logger or a snowmobiler, mountain biker or ATV rider with expensive toys and income to burn, you’ll be happy. If not, too bad. Tester has been unwilling to consider changes to the bill or listen to anyone who is not a supporter of the “collaborative” that wrote it. It’s been take it or leave it, at least until Congress gets its hands on it.

The elk, wolverine, grizzly and bull trout don’t know the difference between de facto “small w” wilderness or legally protected Wilderness. To them it’s home. Supporters who claim the Monture area will be protected under the BCSA don’t tell the whole story. Nearly half this area will be given over to mountain bikers and snowmobilers right to the Scapegoat Wilderness boundary, turning it into a mechanized playground. Spread Creek, a tributary to Monture Creek, will be ground zero for these activities. They also support provisions in the BCSA to exempt timber sales up to 3,000 acres from the National Environmental Policy Act and prevent citizen challenges under the “categorical exclusion” provision. A vital part of the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem will be permanently degraded.

Another collaborative has agreed to give away Wilderness Study Areas in the Gallatin Range in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem to ATVs, logging and high-speed mountain bikes as part of the Custer-Gallatin Forest Plan revision.

The Forest Service often initiates these collaboratives, stacking the deck with members who have direct financial interests. They reap the rewards of pushing mechanized access deeper into roadless areas so they can claim it disqualifies them from Wilderness designation. The roads and clearcuts follow, the sensitive species are eliminated and the watersheds impaired. Collaboration is a dirty process and we get to pick up the tab.

National mountain biking groups have far more influence than snowmobile and ATV organizations, which tend to be local. Mountain bikers have annual incomes that average in the six-figure range. They’re lobbying of Congress resulted in a proposal to allow mountain bikes in Wilderness and they insisted Tester include the mountain bike “destination play area” in the BCSA over the objections of Smoke Elser.

The Flathead National Forest in Montana approved a plan to build 40 miles of mountain bike trails in grizzly bear habitat, including areas described as remote backcountry and alpine habitats with avalanche chutes. There is a difference between the casual rider who sticks to official roads and rides slower to enjoy the scenery and the aggressive mountain bike groups that engineer new trails with banked curves, retaining walls and more. Left to their devices, backcountry wildlands will increasingly resemble motocross playgrounds, built for speed.

Enter the Northern Rockies Ecosystem Protection Act (NREPA). There is no substitute for the protections afforded by Wilderness designation. Authored by scientists and conservationists in the northern Rockies, NREPA has stood the test of time and is more relevant and urgently needed now than ever before. It’s based on conservation biology and sound science and would halt the logging and mechanized invasion of our last remaining roadless areas.

Our public wildlands have value for their own sake and the sake of all the unique biodiversity that survives there against ever-increasing odds. Nearly 90 years ago Bob Marshall said that “Wilderness is disappearing as fast as a snowbank on a hot day in June.”

We shouldn’t treat our remaining wilderness heritage like bread to be divvied up amongst competing interests. Splitting the loaf until only a moldy heal is left is no way to treat Wilderness. Our public wildlands are suffering the thousands of cuts from those who put their outdoor recreation and personal enrichment above the health of the land and its native inhabitants.

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Mike Bader is an independent consultant in Missoula, Montana with nearly 40 years of experience in land management and species protection. In his early career he was a seasonal ranger in Yellowstone involved in grizzly bear management and research. He has published several papers on grizzly bears and is the co-author of a recent paper on grizzly bear denning and demographic connectivity that has been accepted for publication in a scientific journal.