The Gallatin National Forest Service issued a public announcement Wednesday, April 7, 2010, limiting trail access in the Hyalite-Porcupine-Buffalo Horn Wilderness Study Area (WSA) to a variety of users, including mountain bikers. The decision was intended to bring the WSA into compliance with a September 2009 ruling by U.S. District Court Judge Donald W. Malloy.
A Wilderness Study Area is a portion of federally owned land designated as a WSA by Congress, but which does not have the designation and protection of a full Wilderness Area. As a result, some activities are allowed in a WSA which are not allowed in a Wilderness Area. A WSA is supposed to be managed to disallow activities which would preclude designation as a Wilderness Area (for example, road building or logging) and to protect wilderness characteristics such as opportunities for solitude, remoteness, and the natural integrity of the area when it was designated a WSA. Designation as a WSA is seen as an interim step to protect an area until Congress decides whether or not to designate it a Wilderness Area.
The recent court decision resulted from a suit brought by the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, Montana Wilderness Association and The Wilderness Society. The plaintiffs contended that the U.S. Forest Service failed to protect the wilderness character of the WSA, and that motorized and mechanized use of the WSA was extended into areas never intended in the 1977 Montana Wilderness Study Act.
The Hyalite-Porcupine-Buffalo Horn Wilderness Study Area, along with several other areas in Montana, was designated a WSA by Congress in 1977. It is part of the 1.8 million acre Gallatin National Forest, and stretches from Bozeman to Yellowstone National Park. As part of its mandate to balance competing uses, WSA managers previously allowed motorcycles and mountain bikes to use 70 miles of trails, and mountain bikes only an additional 170 miles. Compliance with the court order has led WSA managers to restrict motorized use to 20 miles of trails, and mountain bikes to an additional 40 miles.
The forest serves announcement said that the new summer use plan focuses non-motorized use in the central part of the WSA, and concentrates all uses in perimeter areas and trails near population centers. According to inform.com, Kerry White, a Citizens for Balanced Use board member, said, “The decision puts horses, hikers, motorcycles and mountain bikes into a smaller area on fewer trails, which is setting up more than likely an increase in resource damage and user conflict.”
Along with Citizens for Balanced Use, the Gallatin National Forest office has appealed the decision, but has no choice but to implement this interim summer use plan until the appeal is decided upon, a process that could take six months to two years. A final decision may not come until Congress takes action on management of all Wilderness Study Areas, possibly decades from now.