The day after the Boulder-White Clouds became the nation’s newest wilderness, Steve Stuebner rode his mountain bike on the Castle Divide Trail one last time.
Stuebner used to have the job I have, covering environmental issues for the Statesman. He’s written some of the best books on mountain bike trails in Idaho. He shared the mixed feelings many mountain bikers have about the passage of the wilderness bill after decades of discussion and debate. He’s glad the area finally has the permanent protection it deserves, but he would have preferred a national monument designation that kept trails open to cyclists. Wilderness areas are closed to motors and machines, including bikes.
Stuebner worked on the monument campaign until November, when it became apparent that the wilderness bill was gaining traction and conflict would arise over the Castle Divide and Ants Basin trails he loves to ride. Before his last ride Saturday, he checked with the Forest Service and was told the agency did not condone riding in the wilderness, which still needs new signs describing what uses are and are not allowed. But the agency was not enforcing the mountain bike closure last weekend.
That will probably be true this weekend, too, and mountain bikers are enjoying the long downhill from the divide this week without getting cited by forest rangers. But that won’t continue.
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I have had several wilderness advocates call urging me to press the Forest Service to act sooner rather than later to halt biking in the newly designated wilderness areas. But I think as rangers work to get new signs posted and do the kind of education program that is necessary, nonenforcement is not a bad policy in the very short term.
The International Mountain Bike Association has told its members not to break the law and to check with the Forest Service before riding in the areas. Many mountain bikers are licking their wounds after losing the legislative battle, so the winners should not rub their faces in it.
Still, mountain bikers who feel entitled to all of the trails they have ridden in the White Clouds should remember that the entire area was a wilderness study area once that could have been closed to bikes. The Forest Service consciously allowed it to be degraded with motorcycle and mountain bike trails in the 1980s. That came at a time when the agency was backing away from commitments that were made when the Sawtooth National Recreation Area was created by Congress in 1972.
Carl Pence, who was the last SNRA ranger in the 1980s, told me he was ordered to bring the national recreation area back into the Sawtooth National Forest. Previously it had been a separate unit. So despite the spotlight that Congress gave the SNRA, it was just another ranger district.
When it lost its status as its own unit, and when the travel plan was written in 1987, existing uses in the White Clouds Wilderness Study Area were allowed even though they reduced the very wilderness qualities the study area was designed to preserve.
That’s a marked difference from the national forests in North Idaho, managed under a different region of the Forest Service. Wilderness study areas there are treated like wilderness. The Panhandle Forest, for instance, recently shut mountain bikes out of the beautiful Long Canyon Wilderness Study Area when it was designated near Bonners Ferry.
The Boulder-White Clouds Council, which formed in the 1980s to fight for wilderness designation, lost that round. But its executive director, Lynne Stone, made up for the loss by getting other advocates and eventually Idaho Rep. Mike Simpson to expand the wilderness vision to the East Fork of the Salmon River and Jerry Peak. Her vision is now the Jim McClure-Jerry Peak Wilderness, one of the three newly designated areas in the Boulder-White Clouds.
Those who had the larger vision of wilderness got over their initial losses and now are celebrating what they got protected. Access remains to some of the most beautiful high-mountain rides in the world in the areas adjacent to the new wilderness, so perhaps today’s disappointed mountain bikers can ride on as well.