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Clash of cultures on mountain trails in the West

March 7, 1997

GREAT FALLS, Mont. (AP) _ Meet George Eusterman and Gene Johnson. The way these two Montanans enjoy the mountains says volumes about a growing conflict on public lands in the West.

Eusterman is a snowmobile enthusiast who loves to ride his trail motorcycle in the mountains.

``It’s beautiful up there,″ he said. ``There’s a tapestry of flowers in June up in the mountains.″

Johnson is an ardent hiker, bird watcher and angler. But when he hears a motorcycle or four-wheeler coming, he gets it off the trail.

``From the view of a hiker, they are very disturbing,″ he said. ``You can generally hear them coming for miles. They disturb the area for 20 to 30 minutes, just one motorcycle going by.″

Tensions are growing between outdoor enthusiasts who use off-road motorized vehicles and those who cover the trails on their own power.

``It’s the issue of the decade _ a monster,″ said Gloria Flora, supervisor of the Great Falls-based Lewis and Clark National Forest.

The dispute is centered on increasing demands and use of public lands, and differences in how people enjoy the backcountry.

There are more and more people using four-wheelers, motorcycles and snowmobiles in the woods. And the vehicles they are using now are nothing like they were 20 years ago.

Snowmobiles have more sophisticated chassis that allow for much smoother rides, said Steve Kaste, owner of Steve’s Sport Shop in Great Falls. Traction also has improved. Couple the technological improvements with more groomed trails, and increasing numbers of snowmobilers are going places they rarely ventured before.

Four-wheelers hardly existed 20 years ago. They caught on with ranchers and farmers as work vehicles and soon were being used for recreation.

The sport is rapidly expanding, said Randy Harden, president of the National Off-Highway Vehicle Conservation Council. Annual all-terrain vehicle sales more than doubled from 1991 to 1996. Last year, an estimated 343,420 four-wheelers were sold, Harden said. The ATV industry estimates the machines are used for recreation 48 percent of the time.

The U.S. Forest Service estimates that 130 million off-road vehicle trips will be taken on the country’s national forests in 2040, compared with 80 million trips in 1987.

Johnson, who lives in Vaughn, Mont., and frequently fishes along the Rocky Mountain Front, said his worst fear is that the increased use of off-road vehicles will strip away the wilderness quality of some of Montana’s best backcountry areas. It’s a theme echoed by the Montana Wilderness Association’s conservation director, John Gatchell.

``We’re getting run over. It’s clearly the worst threat to wilderness areas that there is today,″ Gatchell said.

Trails used by motorcycles and particularly four-wheelers can widen to become what the Forest Service calls ``troads,″ Gatchell said.

The issue often comes down to the simple desire of some to escape mechanical noise.

``Vehicles are not part of the wilderness characteristics,″ Gatchell said. ``That’s for the rest of the world. A world dominated by vehicles is what we have here in town.″

Eusterman disagrees.

``The way I feel about it is that noise is not of any importance,″ he said. ``We have automobiles on the highways and in our cities. We have sirens in our cities. We have sonic booms from jets.″

The dispute has moved from the backcountry to the courthouse. In October, the wilderness association and two other conservation groups sued the U.S. Forest Service, accusing the agency of failing to manage Montana’s wilderness study areas to retain the areas’ wilderness character, as required by law.

The lawsuit says the agency has ``allowed and encouraged″ motorized travel, violating the law’s requirement to maintain the ``wilderness character.″

The Forest Service won’t be alone defending its actions. Lawyers for the Montana Snowmobile Association and the Blue Ribbon Coalition, based in Boise, Idaho, have intervened.

End adv weekend editions March 8-9

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