Forest proposal could add 40 miles of new trails

May 1, 2019

The proposed alternative would sanction construction of nearly 40 miles of new trails in the Flathead National Forest in the vicinity of Whitefish, an outcome that would probably please many in the regional mountain biking community.

“It is likely that the trail system would receive a high level of use soon after construction, as it is close to the town of Whitefish and would be tied into a larger system of trails that currently receive high levels of use,” reports the Flathead National Forest. This observation is included in a recently released environmental assessment for the proposed Taylor Hellroaring Project.

The project would impact about 1,851 acres in the “Whitefish Face” - the southernmost portion of the Whitefish Range.

In addition to construction of new trails, the Taylor Hellroaring Project proposes interventions that would thin trees and conduct other landscape interventions intended to reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfire in the area.

The U.S. Forest Service released an environmental assessment last year for the project, but withdrew it after issues about the size of clearings the project could produce and because the Flathead National Forest was in the midst of adopting a new overarching forest plan.

Now, the public can comment on the latest assessment until May 23.

The Forest Service noted in the environmental assessment that “local groups and citizens initiated the concept of starting a collaborative forest management proposal for the Whitefish Face area of Haskill Basin to Werner Peak.”

The agency reports in the environmental assessment that the Whitefish Face Working Group “identified a need to build upon opportunities to meet vegetation management, recreational access and restoration goals in an integrated manner.”

Members of the Whitefish Face Working Group included representatives from F.H. Stoltze Land and Lumber Co., Whitefish Mountain Resort, Whitefish Legacy Partners, the Flathead Snowmobile Association, the city of Whitefish and others.

The Flathead Area Mountain Bikers supported the original proposal, noting the “proposed trails would provide a spectacular addition to the trail network in the area.”

The Forest Service noted in the environmental assessment that “the Whitefish area in northwest Montana is a major destination for outdoor recreationists. Over the last decade, running, hiking and mountain bike use of the area has grown dramatically. Conflicts between user groups are increasing, in part due to the increase in use and the limited availability of trails adjacent to the city of Whitefish.”

Becky Briber, executive director of Flathead Area Mountain Bikers, said Friday that the organization plans to submit environmental assessment comments to the Forest Service supportive of the Taylor Hellroaring project.

She said the Flathead Area Mountain Bikers group supports Alternative 2, the Forest Service’s proposed alternative.

Alternative 1 is a “no action” alternative. Alternative 3 would yield fewer miles of new trails.

“Alternative 2 provides the best recreation opportunities while balancing impacts where necessary,” Briber said.

The first environmental assessment for the Taylor Hellroaring project elicited comments from people worried the new trails, and their intersection with existing trails such as the Smokey Range National Recreation Trail, could disturb grizzly bears and lead to human-bear conflicts.

The environmental assessment notes, “The risk of a human-bear conflict is greater along trails that pass through foraging areas such as huckleberry patches or riparian habitats, as well as trails that cross or run parallel to loud streams.”

With Alternative 2, the new trail construction would pass through a total of about 15 miles of huckleberry patches, according to the environmental assessment.

It describes measures the project would take to reduce the risk of negative effects on bears, including limiting activities in spring habitat during that season. And it suggests some “vegetative treatments would enhance grizzly bear forage in the affected subunits.”

“Project design features for maintaining sight distances along trails, educational signage at trailheads and design of the trails would contribute to decreasing the potential for human-bear conflict and associated grizzly bear mortality, consistent with other Flathead Forest Plan direction,” the assessment document reports.

Trail construction and use would also have effects on Canada lynx critical habitat, according to the assessment.

Heidi Van Everen, executive director of Whitefish Legacy Partners, said trail building would be shepherded primarily by volunteer groups that would seek grant funding for the work.

Bill Mulholland, district ranger of the Tally Ranger District, said the Forest Service will review the comments received in the weeks ahead and respond if key issues are raised.

“We have to have the NEPA analysis completed by late summer,” Mulholland said, referring to the National Environmental Policy Act.

The environmental assessment is available online at https://www.fs.usda.gov/project/?project=50518

Reporter Duncan Adams may be reached at dadams@dailyinterlake.com or 758-4407.