Some mountain bikers’ frowns have been turned upside down thanks to a proposal by the Bureau of Land Management to designate a riding area north of Billings.
When cyclists were initially discovered illegally building trails and jumps on the 3,750-acre Acton Recreation Area 18 miles north of Billings three years ago, they were given citations by BLM’s warden.
The mountain bikers “had a lot of passion but no permission,” said Tim Finger, recreation planner for the Bureau of Land Management’s Billings Field Office.
BLM officials recognized the agency had provided places for target shooters, horseback riders, off-highway vehicle users and motorcyclists to ride close to Montana’s largest city, but had no place for mountain bikers. So the federal agency began collaborating with some of the riders to craft a compromise.
“We just wanted to control the erosion by controlling the use,” Finger said. “They would probably like to have something closer to Billings, but this is the biggest parcel of public land close to Billings.”
Since that initial negative contact, the BLM has drafted a proposal to construct some new trails, close bad ones and repair old ones to limit erosion. In all, the recreation area would contain 20 miles of trail in 15 different segments ranging from extreme routes down undulating ridgelines to meandering trails more suited to beginning and intermediate riders looking for a cross-country experience. The longest trail is about 2.5 miles.
Trail signs would be erected to provide directional orientation as well as alert riders to the difficulty of the route, like those used on ski trails.
The plan is part of an environmental assessment released last week. Comments are being taken on the document through Friday.
“The Acton deal would be wonderful,” said Billings mountain biker Chad Broderius. “It would relieve some of the pressure off our trails in town.”
Rimrocks and pines
The Acton Recreation Area already contains an old road that starts at the top of rimrocks before dropping down into pine-studded hillsides, coulees and eventually flattening out somewhat across rolling hills and drainages at the bottom.
The top of the rims provide an excellent view into the basin below, as well as across the prairie to the Bull Mountains to the east. At this time of the year, yellow, purple and white wildflowers are daubed across the landscape of green bunchgrasses. Songbirds like western meadowlarks and bluebirds flit through the trees and sagebrush. Mule deer tracks are set in the soft clay from the previous rain.
The area was initially set aside as the Hoskins Basin Archaeological District and was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1974. The area contained “a number of unique wooden structures, including cribbed log and conical structures,” according to the environmental assessment. “It is uncommon for sites of this nature to be found in close proximity with one another, which is the primary reason the Hoskins Basin Archaeological District was created.”
The designation was meant to protect the dwellings, but in 2007 when the BLM allowed firewood gathering, many of the structures disappeared and were likely cut into logs and tossed into fireplaces, according to BLM archaeologist Carolyn Sherve-Bybee.
Camping is allowed on the land and two picnic tables and fire rings have been set up atop the rimrocks. Motorized vehicle use is limited to designated routes.
After OHVers were steered away from the site after causing some resource damage, the mountain bikers discovered a perfect area for riding. Initially, they rode the old roads, cow paths and wildlife trails, but then ambitious bikers started moving trees, rocks and dirt to create jumps, banked turns and log trail crossings. Some of the routes down the ridgelines drop 12 feet from sandstone boulders.
Easier routes negotiated coulees and old roads to return to the top.
“They tried to build escape routes in and provide a range of experiences,” Finger said. “So they were thinking about other bike riders, as well as their skills and abilities.
“Their initial work was really good, but when they got into the difficult stuff, they didn’t follow (the International Mountain Biking Association),” Finger said. “They would have had some erosion if we had allowed them to continue.”
Trail braiding occurred without controls and routes wound in every direction.
Right now, the most popular in-town mountain biking area is the Back 9, north of Indian Cliffs atop the Rimrocks. Trails in the area knit together a patchwork of private, state and federal land, Broderius said.
“It’s getting to the point where … we need a place to steer people” away from the Back 9, he said.
He envisions a place like Acton, which already plays host to about 7,000 hikers, hunters, horseback riders, mountain bikers and ATV riders annually, could become a tourist draw to the area, similar to mountain biking routes that have been built in the Black Hills of South Dakota.
“We’d like to see us have that opportunity,” Broderius said.
In its environmental assessment, the BLM predicts mountain biking on the trail system could double in five years as more riders become aware of it.
“It’s a great way for people to get out, recreate and be healthy,” Broderius said, not to mention the business it could drive to restaurants, hotels and bike shops like the one Broderius owns.
Construction of new trails could begin as early as this spring, Finger said.