Mountain Biking in The Palisades, Teton County WPLI **UPDATE**

In early 2016, the Wyoming County Commissioners Association (WCCA) organized the Wyoming Public Lands Initiative (WPLI), a collaborative, county-led process intended to recommend designation of BLM and USFS Wilderness Study Areas (WSAs) in Wyoming as wilderness, multiple use, or for other management. The end goal of the initiative is to produce a single, state-wide legislative lands package that is broadly supported by public lands stakeholders in Wyoming.

Background:

What does this mean for me and mountain biking?

As one of eight participating counties in the state, the Teton County Board of Commissioners appointed the Teton County WPLI Advisory Committee in October 2016. The Board selected Amanda Carey to represent mountain bike stakeholders in Teton County, alongside a diverse group of 18 representatives from other interests (recreation, conservation, wildlife, energy, at-large). This group is charged with developing recommendations for final designation of the two areas within Teton County – Palisades and Shoal Creek WSAs — ranging from multiple-use to designated Wilderness to many options in between – some of which would eliminate mountain bike access.

In January 2018, Amanda stepped down from her position on the committee and incoming Mountain Bike the Tetons executive director Tony Ferlisi was appointed to fill her role. Tony has been actively engaged in the process since early February, regularly attending public meetings and working groups as well as meeting with members of the community, USFS personnel and other involved stakeholders. In the two cases of his absence, Chris Owen (Trails Program Manager for Jackson Hole Friends of Pathways) has acted as proxy and has led his own expertiese to the process along the way.

*UPDATE* July 12, 2018

-Tony Ferlisi, Executive Director – MBT

After nearly two years of meetings, deliberation, workshop sessions and planning, the WPLI committee is scheduled to provide a recommendation to the Teton County Commission on August 8, 2018. This recommendation will outline a plan of varying scale for the Palisades WSA, Shoal Creek WSA and some other areas in Teton County. At this point, a round of public comment/meetings will take place before the Commissioners take the proposal to the Wyoming County Commissioner’s Association (WCCA). From there, a recommendation proposal will be handed to the Wyoming Congressional Delegation for possible introduction as a comprehensive Federal Legislation package.

What Do Mountain Bikers Stand to Gain/Lose?

Currently, mountain bikers have access to all in-system trails inside the boundaries of the Teton County portion of the Palisades WSA. These trails include trails on Teton Pass, the Mail Cabin Trail, Mikesell Canyon, Sheep Driveway, Divide, Big Elk Creek, etc. (see the attached map). Mountain bikers have access to a number of trails in Teton County outside of this zone as well – including Grayback Ridge, and Horsetail and Ditch Creeks, Cache Creek, Munger Mountain, Shadow Mountain, Phillips Canyon, etc.

Currently (as per its most recent Forest Plan), the Bridger-Teton National Forest manages for mountain bikes in the Palisades WSA as people have been actively riding mountain bikes within the boundary for decades and a well-maintained system of trails is in current use there (in additon to a successful collaborative partnership with both Jackson Hole Friends of Pathways and the Teton Freedom Riders). What makes this sticky is that in the 1984 Wyoming Wilderness Act, the area was required to be managed as to maintain its present, existing wilderness character. A provision was made for continued allowed use of snowmobiles in some zones but no mention of mountain bikes. If the Palisades were to remain a WSA, there is some risk that the BTNF could be challenged in their decision to manage for mountain bikes there in a similar fashion to a 2010 federal ruling on the Gallatin National Forest. This, we want guaranteed certainty to avoid.

As there are significant wilderness characteristics and wildlife resources present in the Palisades WSA, a full release of the WSA status into the fold of USFS management for multiple-use, under Forest Planning and Travel Management guidelines will not be an easy sell across the committee. So, as mountain bikers, we’ve been focused on working diligently to secure certainty for the future of mountain biking in the Palisades – in many cases, discussing options for keeping the Palisades open to mountain bikes in a compromise for advocating for increased landscape protections elsewhere in Teton County.

This isn’t a simple horse-trading situation though as public lands in Teton County are of the highest quality for multiple forms of summer and winter recreation and their importance as critical wildlife habitat. Decisions that impact mountain bikes – either positively or negatively – may have lasting ripple effects through the summer and winter motorized community, the conservation community, heli-ski operations, the equestrian community, guiding services, tourism entities, many local businesses, critical wildlife habitat components and the USFS administrative capacity at-large. Each decision must be made with consideration of impacts of ALL entities.

What Could Mountain Bikers Gain?

At this point, many options are on the table. Ideally, mountain bikers would retain current access to in-system trails in the Palisades WSA, Shoal Creek WSA and other areas in Teton County. Ultimately, we would like to guarantee certainty that mountain bikes will be managed for as an appropriate use on in-system trails within the Palisades WSA. Continued management for access on other in-system trails in the Bridger-Teton National Forest, pending the regularly scheduled Forest Planning and Travel Management Planning process, is the goal. In essence, status quo for mountain bike access on Federally administered public lands in Teton County with a Palisades access guarantee.

There is potential for special designations that would achieve conservation goals AND allow for mountain bikes in most zones in Teton County (such as Special Recreation Management Areas, National Conservation Areas, etc.) but designation and management for these would likely mean restrictions on other recreation user groups such as summer and winter motorized, heli-skiing, etc. (many of which, mountain bikers also participate in). Thus, multiple considerations must be taken into account with extreme caution moving forward.

What Could Mountain Bikers Lose?

What is at stake is our ability to continue to ride the trails in the Teton County portion of the Palisades WSA. These trails are amazing. They range from purpose-built freeride trails south of Teton Pass, to rugged adventure trails deep in the interior. It can be said that the majority of the conservation community and a large population of Teton County residents advocates for some form of administrative protection for the Palisades WSA in order to manage for its wild characteristics and supreme wildlife habitat. That being said, a surprising number of well-respected members of this same constituency have entertained the discussion of developing a 27,000 “Recreation Corridor” along Teton Pass that would allow continued use and new development of Teton Pass area trails, north to Highway 22, west to the Idaho border and south to Mosquito Creek. This is a victory unto itself in that the critical importance of mountain biking to the cultural fabric of the Teton Region, its value as an economic driver and its contribution to the outstanding quality of life here is not falling on deaf ears. The catch here though is that this would mean some mountain bike restrictions on trails south of the zone (N. Fork Fall Creek, S. Fork Fall Creek, Coburn Creek, Big Elk Creek, Green Knoll and Hunter) in exchange (see map).

In order to maintain access to ALL mountain bike trails within the Palisades WSA, there has been some discussion of a tradeoff for some trails in the Mt. Leidy Highlands (east of Moran Jct. and south of Highway 26). Not only are there zones in this area used by a local mountain bike guide service for family mountain bike outings but there are a few significant bikepacking opportunities from Spread Creek to Leidy Creek south. I have been working with folks on some exclusions of these more popular trail corridors (which mostly exist on unmaintained USFS logging roads) in the search for additional protections that would not directly impact mountain biking. The popular Ditch Creek and Horsetail Creek rides would be maintained as well as trails just west and south of Triangle X Ranch.

There is strong support for additional protections along Grayback Ridge, just south of Moran Junction. I have spoken with a few folks who do enjoy the challenging ride up and along Grayback Ridge and down to the Little Greys River and I’m doing what I can to preserve access here regardless of future additional protections. Stay tuned.

*Trails in Cache and Game Creeks, Snow King, Shadow Mountain, Munger Mountain, Teton Village, north of Highway 22 (Phillips), on the Idaho side of the border and in Lincoln County are NOT AT RISK.

Why is this so Difficult?

Multiple stakeholders. A well-informed committee. A balance of conservation goals with recreation needs. A disappearing timeline.

Mountain bikers are not just mountain bikers. They are backcountry skiers and snowmobilers. They are Wilderness advocates. They are heli-ski guides. They are local business owners. They are bird watchers. They are elk hunters. They are dirt bikers. They are Sierra Club members and Blue Ribbon Coalition members. They are ranchers and horse packers. Forest Service staff members and wildland firefighters. They are anglers and trail runners and climbers. They are roughnecks and miners. They are retirees and high school students. They are parents, sons and daughters. They all love this place and all have a dog in the fight. They all are asked to prioritize. No, not every use here is appropriate in all places in Teton County but balance and prioritization are key, especially when thinking generations ahead… and they all understand that.

There is no guarantee that this process will see itself through but we’re engaged every step of the way – either until a consensus is agreed apon and delivered or the process falls apart. We’ll be here.

A Final Thought…

As current research suggests, mountain bikes, at large, have little or no more impact to trail bed surface and wildlife than hikers or equestrian users (Pickering et al., 2009Marion and Wimpey, 2007) – (I’d be happy to discuss this over a beer if you’re interested!) – there’s plenty more peer-reviewed research out there too that’s getting more comprehensive by the day. Unfortunately, this is the same case that is being made to allow mountain bikes in Wilderness areas (we’re not arguing for that here at all in this case). Mountain bikers are not the boogeyman. We have time-tested, proven, productive collaborative relationships with the Bridger-Teton National Forest and Caribou-Targhee National Forest. We work through volunteer labor and fundraising efforts to maintain our USFS multi-use trails, install and maintain signage, self-regulate our own user group and actively participate in the public process. Our user group alone fills significant Forest Service maintenance needs on front-country trails, funnels millions of dollars into the local economy and advocates for recreationist partnerships, conservation and responsible recreation across the Forest, County, state and region. Our community supports a dozen full-service bike shops, three trails advocacy organizations, guide services, a festival and 40+ annual volunteer trail days on USFS-administered lands (between the B-T and C-T Forests).

No, mountain bikes do not belong EVERYWHERE but we believe that the established places where we are currently able to ride in Teton County are appropriate and manageable (this can’t be said for many similar communities in the western US). As a user group (across all disciplines of riding – cross country, freeride, bikepacking, etc.), it is to our benefit to alter our own behavior when necessary in order to maintain a positive recreation experience and landscape conditions via seasonal use restrictions for wildlife, unsustainable trail re-routes/closures, behavior modification and non-traditional collaborative partnerships. We regularly practice this here in the Tetons and elsewhere.

The mountain bike community is not seeking to gain through this process. We are seeking not to lose when it’s all said and done and to play an active role on the WPLI Committee We currently have access to in-system trails in the Palisades, Shoal Creek and Mt. Leidy Highlands and many other areas in Teton County but our use is concentrated and restricted to trails, not spread without rhyme or reason across the landscape. Concentrated use is what allows recreation and ecological values to comingle successfully, especially in such high-quality landscapes such as our backyard. I’m not convinced that eliminating mountain bike use on the trails we ride would serve to significantly improve conditions in these areas.

Additionally, illegal trail building is currently not a major issue here as mountain bikers have access to high-quality trails in the areas mentioned above. New closures would potentially result in a re-emergence of some illegal trail building efforts and illegal trail proliferation across these same landscapes as riders will seek experiences of which they no longer have access to (see Marin County, The Front Range, Central Indiana, Salt Lake, etc.). As a result, advocacy organization folks like Mountain Bike the Tetons, the Teton Freedom Riders, Jackson Hole Friends of Pathways and USFS trails personnel turn attention from our current positive work to mitigating for illegal trail construction… a nasty wrench in the spokes.

In 2018 and through this process, we now have access to a more comprehensive suite of tools and data to inform decisions to ensure the ecological viability, preservation of character, recreational opportunities and community quality of life than we did in 1984. We are addressing an exponentially larger population and diversity of interest but we are equipped to face the challenge. We know of areas in Teton County with Wilderness characteristics where mountain biking does not exist, where snowmobiling does not exist, where summer motorized does not exist, where heli-skiing does not exist. Let’s look here for additional Wilderness if that is a goal. We know of areas where these activities do take place but further expansion could reasonably be curbed or halted through adaptive management techniques via this process or through the Forest Planning/Travel Management Planning process.

Finally, in these next couple of weeks, I hope that everyone will consider that this process is not an opportunity for us to grasp what we can in the hopes of raising our respective flags in victory or making our sandboxes a little bigger. This is about working together to intensively understand the value of these places to our community from a recreation, wildlife, ecological, economic and quality of life perspective. To acknowledge our history and our collective desire for the future and to deliver a product to the County Commission which reflects just that. It’s more than most other counties in Wyoming and isn’t nothing…

We encourage you to contact us with your thoughts, concerns and questions moving forward by reaching out to us at MBT HERE or directly with the WPLI HERE.

Stay tuned for regular updates from MBT moving forward.

Have questions?

For more information on the WPLI Process, visit:
The Teton County WPLI Information Site
Wyoming State WPLI Hub
All Teton County WPLI Advisory Committee meetings are open to the public – Final WPLI Public Meeting: August 8, 2018, 2:00pm @ BTNF Jackson Ranger District Office.