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Buck Ridge Incident

Introduction

“I didn’t come here to fight” ~Pale Rider

Hello I am guest blogging here at the Web Lodge. Let me begin by defining us and then lead into our story. We are Bill Martin and Mo Mislivets; we are adventurers who visit and travel extensively on National Forest lands. We are primarily non-motorized users choosing to hike, bicycle, or ski when we travel. And as adventurers we enjoy putting together long treks into areas, often involving Forest Service cabin rentals and multi-day travel between cabins as well as desiring to access some of the more remote places on our NF lands. We always obey trail usage signs and postings and we are informed, responsible forest users. We are adventure seekers, desiring to travel far into remote places. Our desire is not about the mode of travel or the destination, but to adventure into areas to enjoying our NF Lands and this vast, amazing country. We always obey rules and laws to their fullest, so if no bicycles are allowed we choose to hike, walk, ski, snowshoe, etc. It’s not the mode of travel that defines us, it’s the adventure and the beauty and solace of nature that drives us.

Pre-Trip Planning

“You … YOU” ~Pale Rider

In January of 2014 we decided to plan an adventure nearby our home, Bozeman MT. Bill investigated some cabin rentals still available for the upcoming holiday weekend (MLK Day) and sent me a few options. One cabin stood out, both being very close to Bozeman and in a seemingly remote and beautiful area, the Yule Mule Cabin located on Buck Ridge and with a close proximity to the Lee Metcalf Wilderness Area of the Gallatin National Forest (GNF). It sounded remote and awe-inspiring and having recently moved to the Bozeman area we wanted to explore more of the area.  Also to design a winter recreation adventure close-by. As responsible forest users and low-impact travelers, our first decision is always about access and how an area is managed. We have extensive maps of all the forest we visit and we regularly visit the Recreation.Gov site to rent cabins.

So we booked the Cabin online. Also at that time we were deciding if we would ski or fat bike (a mountain bike 4-5 inch wide tires for floatation on snow or sand) into the cabin. Recent lack of snow at that time in the Bozeman area and surrounding mountains was tending our travel plans towards the fat bike activity. Also the mentioned use of snow-machines in this area would create a firm surface that would enable us the ability to pedal (yes, non motorized we pedal, and yes these are just bicycles) the fat bike. If this surface was not firm enough, or if there was too much snow, we would sink and be unable to travel efficiently. We recognized that the cabin rental site mentioned that the area is popular with snowmobiles and that many activities were recommended at the Cabin including snowshoeing, skiing, and mountain biking. We both have recreated before on non-motorized equipment on snowmobile trails, including using fat-bicycles, skis, and snowshoes, and we enjoy these routes because they often go for longer distances than the ski trails and allow us greater access to National Forest Lands in the wintertime. We consulted the Over-Snow Vehicle Use Map (2013) that listed the roads we were planning to use as groomed snowmobile routes (orange lines on the map). This map only stated that other “motorized vehicles” were not allowed on these routes, and that they are not necessarily “groomed” regularly.

On or around Jan 16th, I telephoned (406-522-2520) the GNF offices to receive the lock combination for the Yellow Mule Cabin. Additionally I inquired if the route we were planning to travel (FS Rd 2599, and the Buck Creek Ridge Road #10) was a regularly groomed snowmobile trail. The FS employee on the phone said “no, not really” and that snowmobiles travel this route regularly. My inquiring regarding the grooming on the route, at that time, was not for access or permission but to determine the firmness of the trail and if we would be able to travel on the surface if we chose to use the bicycles. According to the maps and the recreation.gov website this area was open to many types of travel including snowmobiles, we had no reason to believe that if snow-machines, snowshoers, skiers, hunters, hikers, dog-sleds, could use this trail as well as mountain bikers (AGAIN Note, a fat bike is a mountain bike with larger tires for floatation), then certainly we can use our fat bikes (HELLOa mountain bike with bigger tires) in the wintertime to this cabin. Additionally all the regulations on the Gallatin National Forest winter use map indicate that this trail is motorized, again no reason to believe a bicycle would not be allowed on a public access trail within our National Forest.

See the Over-Snow Vehicle Use Map (2013) for definitions of “Groomed Route” and “Over-Snow Vehicles”, which will show an emphasis on “Motorized”. Not only does this map indicate that groomed routes are not “regularly” groomed it also defines an over-snow vehicle as a motor vehicle. Certainly a bicycle would be allowed since the route limitations are in relation only to motorized travel. And according to the definitions on this Over-Snow Vehicle Use map a bicycle would then be allowed on all groomed surfaces, since an over-snow vehicle is motorized and a fat bike is NOT motorized.

We decided on taking both our skis and the bicycles (two types of Non-Motorized travel) to the trailhead and to decide our mode of transportation into the cabin based on snow conditions on the day of travel, Saturday, January 18th, 2014. If the road was too soft, then we would ski, if snowmobile travel was extensive enough in the area and the road was “set-up” and firm then we would use the bicycles. Also use of the bicycle if conditions were good would be a more efficient type of travel for the distance and would allow us some more time to enjoy and explore this area, as we also would be bringing snowshoes and desired to travel around the cabin and enjoy the sites on top of Buck Ridge, it sounded amazing to us.

The Trip, Saturday, January 18, 2014

“I didn’t come here to fight” ~Pale Rider

We arrived at the trailhead for Forest Service Road 2599 and parked in the lot across Hwy 191.  We surveyed the area and conditions and decided on the bicycles. It was a beautiful day, sunny and relatively warm but still around freezing and the road was very firm and solid with lots of snowmobile tracks. We started off on the bicycles making sure we were at the correct trailhead and we read all the sign postings on the gate and on the route to the cabin.  Upon reading the trailhead signs we discovered that this area is actually designated as ‘non-motorized’ in the winter time.  And as  non-motorized users of the trail systems there should have been no issue of our use on this trail, and in fact, we were actually the emphasized users, as we are the least impact type of users for the management of this area.

It appeared also as though signage at the trailhead was giving a “Special” Exemption to snowmobiles, so as we biked up the road and viewed all the FS postings we realized that our extremely low impact mode of travel (fat biking) is completely Acceptable and was actually the “preferred” management in this area.

We headed up the road which actually crossed private land for about 4 miles until we officially entered Forest Service Land. The road through private land was clearly marked and indicated that FS users must stay on the road.

Interestingly on this section of the road we saw many instances where snowmobiles (over-snow MOTOR vehicles) had violated this right-of-way by traveling off the road into any available open meadow or short-cut off the road into private land, violating the ‘stay on public road signage and management of the area. I Only mention this because, we as responsible Forest Users actually stayed on the road the entire way and would never even think of violating the signs and entering private property, as this was a privilege to pass on this road through private land. However, other Motorized users in this area had actually violated these sign postings and traveled onto the Private Land area with their snowmobiles, as evident by their snowmobile tracks into the private land area.

We traveled on our bicycles up the road, Non-Motorized, quiet, enjoying the natural surroundings, and the blue-bird day. The road surface was compacted by extensive snowmobile travel we were having a pleasant, very enjoyable ride. And we were actually very thankful for all the snow-machine traffic as it had compacted the road surface and allowed for our floatation with the wide tires on the bikes.

The road surface was very good and great for travel for the fat bicycles, it was wide and very compacted by extensive snowmobile user travel. Traveling up to the ridge, we probably waved and saw about 50 – 70 snow-machines on that day heading down the road, everyone was friendly and most people waved backed. We stayed to the right as we traveled up this road and eventually the road “broke-out” into what would be called the beginning of Buck Creek Ridge, this occurred about 6 miles into our trek after FS road 2599 seemed to end. This was an extremely wide ridge that would exist as an ‘open thoroughfare’ for the remainder of our travel (~ another 8 miles) to the Yellow Mule Cabin.

Please note that any open snow surface on this ridge was traveled/self-groomed by snow-machine use. Although there was a marked route with orange diamonds on wooden posts, the entire ridge was the route, dominated by cross-country travel and therefore self-grooming by the extensive amount of snow-machine travel. Amazingly, the entire ridge was a snow route, where, if there was any open area, the snow-machines went cross-country, the ridge was so wide in places it was both awe inspiring. It was also amazing to see so much cross-country travel and compaction on the ridge it was incredible. I had just never experienced anything like this Ridge.

Travel by fat bicycle was possible across most of this wide ridge, where snowmobiles had already cross-country traveled, both on and off what might be considered the “official” groomed route. That is there is so much cross-country travel on this ridge, evidence of where an official “groomed route” begins or ends is essentially non-existent. The snow-machines are self-groomers in that if there isn’t a tree in the way the area is cross-country traveled and self-groomed by snowmobile traffic. ALL open areas of this ridge and in particular on top of the ridge are self-groomed by snow-machine traffic, the “official” route is essentially indiscernible. As a fat-tired cyclist we depend upon the snow-machines for compaction, even though we only need a trail 12 – 16 inches wide, we were thankful for the compaction on the Ridge, we were very amazed at the amount of cross-country snowmobile travel, but thankful that the snow-machines were on this ridge providing compaction, as you can see it was a beautiful day to be on top of Buck Creek Ridge.

Forest Ranger Meetup

“I was just riding. Thought I would take a look around.” ~Pale Rider

About 7.5 miles into our ride, after we broke out onto the ridge I saw my partner, Bill Martin talking to two individuals on snow-machines.  As I was down-slope from Bill traveling a bit slower than he was, it took a little while for me to reach him and to learn that they were Forest Service Officials.  I only saw that he was chatting with some folks on snow-machines and when I arrived to greet them the Forest Service Official took off with barely a hello, they didn’t stay to chat to me, so I received on account and of the conversation from Bill.

At 7.5 miles into our journey I was waiting for my partner Mo at the top of a steeper section that I had just climbed. Two individuals approached me from the Southwest on snowmobiles. They did not introduce themselves as park officials but I could tell they were by the uniforms they were wearing. At first one of the individuals was extremely interested in my bicycle. he seemed genuinely excited to see a fat bicycle. As I was showing him some of the details and why my bicycle was designed for winter travel when the second person cut in. ‘You know you are not supposed to be here’, is what he said exactly. From that moment on I do not remember the exact words only what I understood. It was extremely hard for me to believe that I was not supposed to be biking on this trail.

The first person stated that he felt uncomfortable about the entire situation but the second one was extremely adamant that we did not belong on the trail. I was told fat bicycles were illegal on all snowmobile trails. When I asked how widespread this rule was I was told two different things. One said it was statewide and one told me country, as in USA, wide.

It was clear to me that I was illegal and that they could issue me a ticket on the spot. But I did not know why. In fact what I was told never at any moment made any sense to me. I understood that there was a “special” order put out to prohibit bicycle use on snowmobile trails. I stood there dumbfounded while they tried to explain. Finally what they told me defined the rest of the weekend. From what I understood I could get a ticket but I was not. They were not going to ticket me and just the fact alone that I knew I was illegal was enough for them. I was told that I was not going to get ticketed in fact the first person said he would never enforce this order.

As my partner approached they left. She pushed her bike up to my position I tried to describe the situation.

“We are illegal and we can get fined $350 dollars if we don’t leave”, I blurted out.

The information received from the FS Officials and relayed to me from Bill was extremely confusing.  There was some rule regarding snow travel by wheeled vehicles and this rule applied to the entire state or nation?  I knew this to be false immediately since National Forests are organized by regions not state, and that any number of other forests such as the Bitterroot NF , Lolo NF, as well as the Beaverhead NF we can ride bicycles on roads and snowmobile trails and in the winter time, in fact we had both skied and rode our fat-bicycles on these trails as they are open to other non-motorized users.  None of the information relayed to me made any sense, and it sounded like the Forest Service Officials were confused themselves about their own rules.  Plus we are traveling in a non-motorized area with an Exception given to the snow-machines, we should be the preferred and emphasized user, how could we not be allowed in a “non-motorized” managed area that only appears to give an exception to snow-machines in the winter time? The information was so confusing that I thought maybe they thought we were motorized but Bill insisted they knew we were on fat bicycles. Also the use of the term ‘wheeled vehicle’ was very confusing since we are non-motorized, and it seemed this pertained to other motorized vehicles that were not snowmobiles.

Amongst all confusion the fact remained that we were well over half-way to the cabin, it was getting dark, and the option to turn around seemed more challenging than just getting to the rented cabin where we would have food, warmth, shelter, plus, our trip was planned, our destination set.  Additionally the information from the rangers was too confusing to comprehend, plus nothing was marked “no-bicycles” on any travel signs or at the trailhead.  In fact we were the preferred users in a non-motorized managed area with an exception given to snow-machines for a certain amount of time in the winter  (December through April), and in the summertime the area becomes motorized with other non-motorized travelers having equal if not “Emphasized” access to this area.  Because nothing made sense, and this place was amazing, and our trip was planned, I said to Bill, we have to get to the cabin, its getting dark, we need water, warmth and food soon.

The rest of the trail was highly compacted and incredibly wide due to cross-country travel by snow-machines, we arrived at the cabin just after dusk

The Hunted

“Get off our mountain TIN PANS” ~Pale Rider

The next day was also sunny and nice, we had a decent rest in the cabin and decided to go back to Buck Ridge with the bicycles to explore the remainder of the snow-machine route/ridge and we wanted to see the ridge in the daylight, since we arrived by our lights at dusk. We had also brought snowshoes for travel but the surface was so good for bicycle travel that we decided to bicycle on the ridge, take pictures of the awe-inspiring peaks (including amazing views of the Sphinx and Lone Peak), and bicycle to the end of the designate route/ridge.

Interestingly enough as we approached the end of the ridge trail we saw more evidence of illegal snowmobile travel into the wilderness area adjacent to Buck Ridge. The official Buck Creek Ridge Trail Ends as indicated by the posted sign (orange diamond with vertical black line signifying the end of the trail) and the sign indicates this area is closed to prevent damage to vegetation that NO motor vehicles including snowmobiles (the last icon with a red line through it on the sign) are allowed past this point. However, anyone can clearly see the extensive traffic into the closed area, going right past the sign and into the adjacent wilderness area. This trail was compact enough to walk on without sinking. Additionally while we stood at this sign marveling at the illegal activity, just two ridges over were four snowmobiles high-marking to the saddle high on the ridge and clearly in the wilderness (Lee Metcalf) section of this area. We were appalled and aghast again by the violations being committed by snowmobiles in this area. We only mention this because as responsible forest users it was disturbing to us that so many ‘motor vehicle’ violations were occurring in this beautiful area. We support the use of snow-machines in this area as fat-tire cyclist we depend on compaction but we DO NOT support entry into wilderness or other illegal travel that was clearly being violated and clearly marked with FS sign postings on Buck Creek Ridge.

Traveling back to the cabin after enjoying the sights by bicycle on the ridge I saw ahead that Bill was again talking to some folks on snow-machines, I was behind him and it took me a few minutes to catch up to them. Once I arrived I saw that he was speaking with a Forest Service Law Enforcement Official and a fellow from Fish and Wildlife. Together we had a confusing interaction with this Forest Service Official. She said she came up here and actually went to the Yellow Mule Cabin looking specifically for us, as we were apparently ‘Warned’ to leave the area the day before (please note no one, I repeat no one ever talked to me or warned me while I was on Buck Ridge with a bicycle). She asked us where we went and said that she had to give us a ticket because we did not ‘obey’ the Forest Service officials the day before, i.e. we did not leave our National Forest Public Lands. We tried to have a rational conversation, and said that we are non-motorized and that we had rented the cabin and that nothing indicates we cannot ride fat-bicycles or use any other form of non-motorized travel in this area, including the Over-snow vehicle map of this area which only prevent other Motorized vehicles from being on this trail, and allows, skiers, snowshoers, dog-sleds, any other non-motorized form of travel appears to be allowed.

We were told by this FS Official (P. Leddy) about some sort of “Special Order” that indicates no wheeled-vehicle use on groomed snowmobile routes, and that a special order eliminates wheeled-vehicle use from this area. Again this was very confusing information since the maps for over-snow vehicle use indicates we are allowed on this trail and the fact that this is a non-motorized area in the winter-time almost demands that we are the Emphasized, and preferred users. Also, on our entire 14 mile journey there was never any posting regarding the use of bicycles in this area, in fact the only signs only referred to what ‘motorized’ uses were allowed on this ridge, as well as the the sign indicating this area is “non-motorized” in the winter with a single exception being given to snow-machines. I stood there and mentioned all this information without any response from the FS official. During this interaction I also mentioned the fact that there really is no ‘groomed’ trail up here as the entire Ridge is cross-country traveled by snow-machines, I wanted this FS official to point out this “groomed trail” we were getting a ticket for bicycling on because as far as the eye could see and where there were no trees there was a trail, created by extensive snowmobile use over time. Again no response except a comment that if we were 10 feet from where we were we wouldn’t have received the ticket.

“You made a big mistake TIN PAN, you know that” ~Pale Rider

On January 19th, 2014 Bill Martin was issued a Violation Notice for “bicycle on groomed snowmobile trail”. Also disturbing during the issuing of this Violation Notice was the fact that the Forest Service Official said that she was ‘really’ issuing us a ticket because we were ‘warned’ the day before for being on this ridge.

So the violation was issued because we were apparently told to “get off” the ridge by two other Forest Service Officials who spoke with Bill the day before giving him confusing information about the use of “wheeled vehicles” in a non-motorized area? Also disturbing was the fact that this Forest Service Official came out on this day, January 19th, 2014, to find us, and also informed us, that if we had stayed at the Yellow Mule cabin and not gone back up to Buck Ridge to enjoy the sights on the Ridge and the area, that she wouldn’t have issued us this Violation. What? If we had sat in the cabin and not explored the area we wouldn’t have been ticketed? Again nothing made sense from any FS official on this entire weekend. Essentially, we were discriminated against, hunted down by Forest Service Officials, and ticketing for not “obeying” some sort of “warning” regarding our use of a “non-motorized” vehicle (a bicycle) in an area that is in fact non-motorized and which allows a single exemption to snowmobiles in the wintertime. We were truly miffed, and disturbed by all the events on Buck Ridge.

What Now

“I ain’t no brave man, but I ain’t no coward neither” ~Pale Rider

We rode back to the cabin stunned. And then decided to return to Buck Ridge with snow shoes. Looking for a fight? Maybe? It would be nice to try and get a little clarification on what just happened. In the middle of these swirling thoughts we had a pretty good snow shoe.

Outta Here

“So what did you really come up here for” ~Pale Rider

On Monday, January 20th, we packed up and left the cabin on our bicycles, we headed down Buck Ridge, back the same way we came, on the self-groomed surface of the ridge. It only took us about 4 hours to pedal/coast down the ridge, the conditions were great, but our experience was ruined by the events on the previous day. A few thoughts and feelings were going through my mind, one was enforceability, how could this violation even be enforceable, another was anger, since this was a ‘non-motorized’ area with an exception given to snow-machines in the winter, how could our non-motorized use be in Violation of anything? And this area allows mountain bikers as well as ATV and motorcycles in the summer time, so in the summer-time it actually becomes motorized (please remember, a fat bike is NOT Motorized).

We rode out in silence, marveling at this area, for both it’s beauty, it’s mismanagement, and the sunken feeling it now gave to our hearts. Such a wonderful place, tracked by so much cross-country snowmobile travel it was disheartening, physically we were on top of this amazing ridge, emotionally we had plummeted with confusion and sadness.

“At least someone will leave Carbon County a few dollars richer” ~Pale Rider