GNF Travel Plan

The battle for the Ardennes Forest was one of the fiercest campaigns of World War II. A similar battle in intensity, if not in lives, is being waged over the Gallatin National Forest, which contains 1.8 million acres and is the recreational destination for many a Bozemanite, from fly fishermen seeking trout-laden creeks to snowmobilers looking for a good place to highmark.

For more than two years, the United States Forest Service has been writing, and seeking public input for, a new travel plan for the Gallatin National Forest. The Gallatin National Forest Travel Plan, a 1,200-page study, is a roadmap for who gets to recreate where and when. It’s an update to a plan put in place in 1987—long before all-terrain vehicles and mountain-bikes were prevalent—and back when there were a lot fewer people playing in the forest.

In addition to resource constraints —there’s a limit to recreation based upon trail and wildlife capability—the Forest Service, under its own rules, must provide a “broad spectrum” of recreation and it must consider the feasibility of implementing and enforcing restricted access when developing its game plan.

Locals love and are possessive of the Gallatin National Forest, which they view as their own playground. And in the spirit of “it’s my forest and I can trample it if I want to,” it’s hard for some recreationists to agree to restricted access in the name of protecting wildlife and keeping trails from getting damaged.

People have sent in close to 5,000 comments about the Travel Plan and six proposed alternatives. In October, the Forest Service released a detailed description of Alternative 7, its “preferred” alternative. The latest comment period commenced in February with the release of a Draft Environmental Impact Statement for the seven alternatives and will close in May. After that final comment period, the Forest Service will develop a final alternative, which is scheduled for release in 2006. The final travel alternative will undoubtedly be based on Alternative 7 but will face some serious tweaking after the Forest Service gets a final round of public feedback.

Since the Travel Plan process kicked off in August 2002, wilderness advocates—people arguing for more motor-free areas—and self-described “motorheads” who want more, if not total, access for ATVs and motorcycles have held rallies, press conferences, and lobbied the Forest Service. One National Forest manager describes it as a battle that pits the majority—87 percent of Gallatin National Forest visitors are “quiet,” non-motorized users—with a “land-hungry” minority, motorized recreationists whose sports require large quantities of land.

While the Forest Service prefers Alternative 7, that’s not the choice of many motorized users since they stand to lose access. Motorcyclists would lose about 50 percent of trail miles now open to them and trails open to ATVs would drop by 40 percent. Trails accessible to snowmobilers would decrease from 84 percent to 65 percent. Equestrians would no longer be able to ride on about 34,000 acres in the fragile, high-altitude peaks of the Absaroka Beartooth Plateau. Mountain-bikers would have approximately 12 percent fewer trail miles to ride on. Hiking and cross-country skiing face no restrictions.

Visit the Gallatin National Forest website at for more information or to comment. When the National Forest Service releases its final alternative next year, a whole new battle may erupt, but the fight will move out of the forest and into the courtroom.