The Wild Trails Campaign: Documenting the Damage

By Phil Knight

In May, the Sierra Club Grizzly Bear Ecosystems Project, in conjunction with Native Forest Network's Last Refuge Campaign, launched the Wild Trails Campaign to document the damage caused by motorized recreation on the Gallatin National Forest. Our field work has taken us and volunteers all over the Gallatin National Forest; into the Bridger Range, the Gallatin Range, the Absaroka Range, the Madison Range, the Crazy Mountains and the Beartooths.

Our national forests are being loved and neglected to death. Almost everywhere we went we found trash strewn about, (most of which we packed out), random shooting ranges with shotgun and bullet cases and shot-up targets everywhere, rutted meadows from people driving off-road, and trampled, overused camps. Worst of all, we found evidence of motor vehicle trespass in several locations, including the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness and the Cabin Creek Wildlife Management Area.

Perhaps most frustrating is that one never sees Forest Service people out there checking things out, talking to users, cleaning up messes and packing out trash. It's a free for all. The only place the Forest Service seems to be making significant efforts to limit access and shut down user created trails is in Hyalite Canyon, where their efforts are to be commended.

Several recent agreements by the federal government give us considerable leverage in limiting motorized travel. The Forest Service has agreed to manage off-trail travel in occupied grizzly bear habitat. In addition, wheeled motorized use is now restricted to existing roads and trails. Most national forests in Montana are now closed to off trail travel. Also, any trail with constrictions under 48" is supposed to be closed to 4 wheelers. Lastly, the Forest Service has been directed by a federal judge to restore the wild character of 6 Montana Wilderness Study Areas. The Code of Federal Regulations also has very strong language regarding use of and monitoring of ATVs - were it only enforced.

Field Training Days
We organized and conducted field trips and training days for volunteers, making trips to Hyalite Canyon, Truman Gulch, and Bracket Creek. Participants in the training included folks from National Outdoor Leadership School and the Bozeman City Commission. We've also met with the Forest Service and presented some of our concerns and findings, urging quick action to curb ongoing motorized abuse in key areas. These meetings are beginning to bear fruit.

Data Gathering and Monitoring Techniques
Throughout the spring and summer we've been developing and refining techniques for field monitoring, and now have a standardized set of forms and codes for recording photographs, GPS points, trail and road numbers, types and severity of damage, and habitat types. All this information is being entered in a comprehensive database.

Sacrifice Zones
In summary, we found backcountry ATV and motorcycle use and damage heaviest in a few areas: Rock Creek, Ramshorn Lake, Buffalo Horn Creek and Windy Pass in the Gallatin Range, upper Buck Ridge in the Madison Range, and the west side of the Bridger Range. Perhaps worst of all is the area around Cooke City, where our survey staff were overwhelmed by the extent of the damage they found in this spectacular area of high peaks, alpine lakes and tundra. Reports of damage and trespass in other areas continue to arrive.

All is not Lost
The many strategies currently aimed at battling destructive motorized recreation are coming together on the Gallatin. These strategies include field surveys and documentation, activation and training of volunteers, collection of facts and evidence, refinement of field monitoring techniques, litigation over impacts on grizzly bears and Wilderness Study Areas, coordination among multiple environmental groups, outreach to the press and the public, and pressure on the Forest Service to deal with this growing menace. This multi-pronged approach has all the hallmarks of a successful environmental campaign, and we are confident we will curtail destructive, high-impact motorized recreation on this rugged yet fragile landscape. We hope to be able to export this campaign to assist people in other areas besieged by oversized motorized toys.

Damage Photos Available Online
Please visit (click on Wild Trails Link) to see photos of some of the worst examples of public lands abuse we found this summer. You can also download copies of our documentation forms from there.

Join us next season as we expand our efforts to stop the abuse of our fragile public lands by motorized wreckreation. Contact me at to get involved.

With continued vigilance and dedication to wild backcountry and secure wildlife habitat,

Phil Knight
Native Forest Network


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