Forest backpedals on bike ban in the Dunoir
— January 28, 2014
The Dunoir Special Management Unit is one of those wild places on the Shoshone National Forest where you are as likely to run into a bear as another human. It is a place for the intrepid, whether exploring on horseback, foot or by bike.
The Shoshone National forest spans 2.4 million acres, but it is a stretch of trail 6.8 miles long in this remote area that has become the focus of the forest.
The Shoshone National Forest released its draft Record of Decision for its forest management plan on Jan. 17. The last time the plan was updated was in 1986. When finalized the new plan is expected to guide management on the forest for the next 10 to 15 years. Little changed in the new plan from the preferred alternative the forest presented last during the public commenting period, except the inclusion of mountain biking in the Dunoir. Throughout the planning process, every plan presented prohibited biking in the area.
Recreation on the Dunoir wasn’t consistently addressed in the 1986 plan so snowmobiling and mountain biking have gone on in the area, said forest planner Carrie Christman. In its preferred alternatives during the planning process the forest had proposed prohibiting both activities from the Dunoir. The new alternative to allow biking was written to reflect public comments, Christman said.
The forest received 22,400 form letters and 1,080 unique comment letters on the plan. The most commented issue was the addition of wilderness designations within the forest, drawing both support for and against them. The Dunoir was one of four areas most championed for a wilderness designation, which would prohibit biking. But biking in Dunoir was one of the plan’s other most commented topics, with 50 unique letters submitted, Christman said.
Mountain bikers, primarily from Jackson and Cody, wrote asking for access to a 6.8-mile stretch in the Dunoir that is part of the larger 18-mile Pinnacles Butte loop trail. There are few mountain biking options on the forest and the Pinnacles Butte Trail is special to mountain bikers, Christman said.
Tim Young, executive director of Wyoming Pathways, said his organization wrote comments in favor of keeping the trail open to mountain bikes. Few people actually bike the trail because it’s so challenging, he said.
“Everybody is going to walk a fair amount of it to get around that loop,” he said. “It’s an adventure. Riders go prepared with bear spray and common sense and extra water and food.”
Despite the low use, it is still important to keep that type of experience available to mountain bikers, Young argues. He said he believes biking is in line with the area’s special management status. Biking is low impact and, with education, trails can be shared amongst user groups.
Dubois resident and conservationist Robert Hoskins disagrees. While Hoskins has several objections and concerns about the forest’s plan, mountain biking in the Dunoir is his biggest.
Mountain biking has been an increasing problem for the last 10 years, said Hoskins who spends time in the Dunoir on horseback. Hoskins said he thought that problems related to biking in the area ware being addressed in the new management plan, but started hearing rumors in the fall the forest service was shifting direction on biking. “It was a complete surprise to me,” Hoskins said.
Hoskins believes that allowing bikes on the trail poses serious risks of collisions with horses. The area has all the characteristics of wilderness and should be managed in the same way. There are other trails mountain bikers can ride on the forest, he said.
But aside from Hoskins’ personal feelings, “it’s the law,” he said of banning bikes. That, according to the Forest Service, is debatable.
According to the draft ROD the 1972 enabling legislation for the Dunoir special management unit called for rules in accordance with the National Forests and “especially to provide for non-vehicular access recreation.” While there is general agreement the legislation excludes motorized use, such as snowmobiles, it’s not clear if that includes bikes, managers contemplate in the draft ROD.
A 2008 letter from the Forest Service Deputy Chief to regional foresters — which is cited in the draft ROD — the deputy chief says mountain biking is a non-motorized use on the trail systems, along with hiking and horseback riding.
Retired Wyoming Sen. Alan Simpson submitted a comment saying the legislation for the Dunoir was meant only to restrict motorized use – not to restrict bikes. Simpson co-sponsored the Wyoming Wilderness Act, but was not in the U.S. Senate in 1972 when the Dunoir special management unit was established. It was Simpson’s comments that seemed the catalyst for the sudden change in the plan, said Sarah Walker, Shoshone Wildlands Organizer with the Wyoming Wilderness Association.
People didn’t voice concerns about bikes in the area because they never knew it was a possibility, she said. There are several issues with allowing mountain bikes in the Dunoir, Walker said. The first is the legality. The forest service recognizes bikes as vehicles, and has throughout the planning process, she said. Designated wilderness is only open to non-motorized and non-mechanized travel, and the Dunoir was created to protect its wilderness values.
“The actual intent (of the legislation) is not up for debate in our minds,” Walker said.
Another issue is safety, Walker said. The area is used extensively by horsemen and pack animals. While there is only a small section of the Pinnacles Butte Trail in the Dunoir, the entire loop has dangerous, steep, exposed sections where a bike and horse collision could be deadly.
The other worry is about wildlife. The Dunoir provides important elk calving and migration habitat and studies have shown mountains bikes are similar to ATVs in the ability to disturb resting animals, Walker said. The area also is home to major predators, like mountain lions and grizzlies.
“Any time you have a swift and silent mode of transportation, it’s going to increase the likelihood there are going to be bear conflicts,” Walker said referencing a 2004 incident where a mountain biker riding the Pinnacle Buttes Trail was attacked by a grizzly.
Walker realizes few people actually ride the gnarly Pinnacles Butte Trail. The question to consider, she said, is it worth jeopardizing the long-term preservation and value of an area for so few riders?
The Wyoming Wilderness Association has not decided on its next steps. It is currently reviewing the draft ROD and researching the new objection process.
A 60-day objection filing period began Jan. 24 and ends March 26, allowing the public, agencies and groups who commented during the public commenting period, to file objections to the draft ROD.
U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell is the reviewing officer. To file an objection visit this website.
Tidwell will have 90 days after the objection period closes to issue a written response or resolve objections.
The objection period was implemented in May by the Forest Service to allow a review of unresolved issues before a plan goes into effect and address issues in a more collaborative way, said Carrie Christman, of the Shoshone National Forest planning staff. In the past people would appeal decisions once they were implemented and the objections would be heard at a formal hearing.
Other plan changes
Oil and gas development: Suitable surface development for oil and gas leasing decreased from 402,849 acres in the last preferred alternative to 129,059 acres in the draft record of decision in response to public comments, the governor’s office and the tribal government on the Wind River Reservation, which did not want surface occupancy allowed on land adjacent to the reservation.
Winter motorized recreation: Acres available for winter motorized recreation increased from 481,196 in the last preferred alternative acres to 592,430 acres in the draft record of decision.
Upcoming public meetings:
All meetings will be held from 5 to 7 p.m.
- Cody — Feb. 24 Grizzly Hall, Park County Library, 1500 Heart Mountain
- Dubois — Feb. 25 Headwaters Art & Convention Center, 17 Stalnaker St
- Lander — Feb. 26 Monarch Hall, Pronghorn Lodge, 250 East Main St
- Thermopolis — Feb. 27 Big Horn Federal Savings Bank, 643 Broadway
— “Peaks to Plains” is a blog focusing on Wyoming’s outdoors and communities. Kelsey Dayton is a freelance writer based in Lander. She has been a journalist in Wyoming for seven years, reporting for the Jackson Hole News & Guide, Casper Star-Tribune and the Gillette News-Record. Contact Kelsey at [email protected] Follow her on twitter: @Kelsey_Dayton
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