Mountain biking options reduced in Gallatin Mountains
Hikers scramble along the Devils Backbone trail in the Gallatin Range in this July file photo. According to the latest summer travel plan by the Gallatin National Forest the area will be off-limits to mountain biking and motorized vehicles.

The Gallatin National Forest plans to greatly reduce the amount of mountain biking in the Gallatin Mountains this summer.

An interim summer travel plan for the Hyalite-Porcupine-Buffalo Horn Wilderness Study Area also reduces the amount of motorcycling allowed in the 148,000-acre area, which stretches from Bozeman to Yellowstone National Park.

The plan, set to go into place in May, comes after a federal judge struck down the forest's 2006 travel plan for the area. U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy ruled that the 2006 plan, which allowed mountain biking on 240 miles of trail and motorcycling on 70 miles of trail, violated the 1977 Wilderness Study Act because it did not the maintain the "wilderness character" of the area.

Mountain bikers will be the most affected forest users under the plan released Wednesday. Only 60 miles of trail in the wilderness-study area will be open for mountain biking this year, which is 25 percent of what was available last year. Motorcyclists will be allowed to ride on 40 miles of trail.

Generally, trails closest to Bozeman and Big Sky will remain open to mountain bikers while trails deeper in the area will become off limits, said Marna Daley, spokeswoman for the Gallatin Forest.

For Bob Allen, the decision means mountain bikers will lose rare access to high-alpine areas.

"It's alarming that it's such a dramatic reduction to access to some high-country trail systems we've ridden for decades," Allen, co-president of the Montana Mountain Bike Alliance, said Wednesday. "People live in Bozeman for that."

Brad Grein, a member of Citizens for Balanced Use, went further in his criticism of the decision, saying the Gallatin was capitulating to environmental groups in hopes of avoiding a lawsuit.

"What happened here was forest management through threat of litigation," Grein said.

He said the closures would force higher concentrations of mountain bikers and motorcyclists on the trails that remain open, which will lead to user conflicts.

But others were more supportive of the plan.

Ben Donatelle, who mountain bikes several days a week in the summer, said the forest struck a good balance between maintaining mountain bike access and protecting sensitive areas.

"I'm really excited that the heart of the WSA is being protected to the greatest degree it can be," he said. "And I'm excited some of the most widely used and beloved mountain bike trails around Bozeman are being left open to mountain bikes."

He said that although he mountain bikes, he recognizes that certain areas are inappropriate for mechanized users, and said the Gallatin still has 1,000 miles of trail open for mountain bikers.

"I don't believe that mountain bikes should have access to wilderness areas. We just need to slow down some times," he said.

The Wilderness Study Act was sponsored by Sen. Lee Metcalf, D-Mont., and sought to preserve areas while Congress considered whether to designate them as wilderness. However, more than 30 years later, no decision has been made on areas like the Hyalite- Porcupine-Buffalo Horn.

Daniel Person can be reached at dperson@dailychronicle.com or 582-2665.