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Earlier this summer, the Custer Gallatin National Forest released the draft record of decision (DROD) for the forest plan revision. This document outlines management priorities for the Custer Gallatin that will last for up to three decades, so needless to say, the contents of the decision were painstakingly considered and even more closely scrutinized.

As part of the Gallatin Forest Partnership (GFP), the Southwest Montana Mountain Bike Association was encouraged to see much of the GFP agreement reflected in the DROD. The partnership, a coalition of recreation, conservation, business, landowner and agency groups, spent years developing comprehensive management recommendations for the Forest Service, and the collaborative effort seems to have paid off.

The DROD strikes an important balance between conservation and recreation, identifying new recreation emphasis areas, where current usage is concentrated and future use will likely increase, while also outlining wildlife management areas, where recreation will be highly regulated without being banned outright. New recommended wilderness was suggested for important sections of the Gallatin Range, potentially ending decades of disagreement of the future of the Gallatin Crest.

From a mountain biker’s perspective, there is a lot to be happy about. We commend the Forest Service for recommending popular trails in Hyalite remain open to bikes, including Emerald Lake, Hyalite Creek, and Storm Castle. Historically, mountain bikers have enjoyed access to these iconic trails, and SWMMBA volunteers have spent many hours clearing these trails early in the summer, opening them for all users.

We were also happy to see the Porcupine drainage identified as a backcountry area, focused on wildlife management without restricting mountain bikes. The Big Sky community is surrounded by congressionally-designated wilderness, where mountain bikes cannot go, and Big Sky-area bikers depend on the trails in Porcupine for access. With continued seasonal management, we can coexist with the drainage’s wildlife. Under the current record of decision, the classic Buffalohorn to Porcupine ride will also remain open.

While there is much to celebrate in this draft record of decision, a few key points of the GFP agreement were not included, and we urge the Forest Service to reconsider in these cases. For example, the agreement called for additional recommended wilderness in the Cowboy Heaven area of the northern Madison Range. This landscape is vital wildlife habitat that sees little recreation use—it would make a logical addition to the adjacent Spanish Peaks Unit of the Lee Metcalf Wilderness. Along with our GFP partners, SWMMBA supports recommended wilderness in Cowboy Heaven.

Additionally, while more recreation emphasis area was added in the Storm Castle and Little Bear zones, South Cottonwood was left out. The GFP outlined management across the Gallatin Front, where we see more concentrated recreation. Leaving South Cottonwood out of this zone ignores the high recreation value South Cottonwood already has. Hikers, runners, dog-walkers, skiers and cyclists all use the South Cottonwood trail, and this area logically fits into the recreation emphasis area designation, which would also protect it from logging.

Going forward, it is clear the Custer Gallatin National Forest will have to actively manage these highly regarded landscapes for both recreation pressure and conservation outcomes. The GFP agreement does just that, identifying wildlife-management priorities, areas where recreation can be concentrated to focus use, and landscapes appropriate for future wilderness designations. The draft record of decision goes a long way toward adopting many key points of the GFP agreement, and SWMMBA looks forward to seeing a final record of decision that retains such a high level of overlap.

Ian Jones is the president of the Southwest Montana Mountain Bike Association board of directors. He served as a SWMMBA representative to the Gallatin Forest Partnership and is a passionate advocate for public-lands recreation and conservation.

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