The opening of a new directional trail this past fall in the parks system of Helena, Montana has sparked controversy among trail users. Designed to be a downhill single track, the still-to-be-named trail offers a more challenging, exciting mountain biking experience than what Helena had previously offered. However, the city’s parks and recreation department has gotten backlash from the hiking community.
“We didn’t feel that the project was publicly vetted in a way that a project of this magnitude deserved,” said Tony Jewett, spokesman for Helena Hikes, an advocacy group for pedestrian trail users.
The project, instead, was put together by the city in coordination with the Montana Bicycle Guild, which pushed for a dedicated trail for mountain bikers.
Helena’s Open Lands Manager, Brad Langsather, noted that this is not the first instance of disagreement regarding trail access.
“It was a little bit of a carry over from the friction that we had when we looked at improving the Beatte Street trailhead,” Langsather said. “That started the conversation in Helena that Helena was promoting Mountain Biking, and making the trail system more busy.”
The Beatte Street trailhead had previously been a predominantly hiker occupied trail. Langsather also mentioned that there is an age gap between the biker community and hiking community further exacerbating the divide.
“The traditional hiking groups tend to be, I would say at least over fifty five, and the biking tends to be in the younger age class,” Langsather said.
The construction began in June 2018, and during this time the debate as to what type of recreation would be allowed on it was still going on. The traditional hiking community was able to get a moratorium in place, halting the construction of the trail. This then caused pushback from the biking community, who according to Langsather, had a much larger turnout who showed up to the City of Helena commission to voice their opinions.
According to Eric Sivers of the Montana Bicycle Guild, the project had a lot of positive reception when it was in its planning stage. “The whole project was done above board and with the understanding of commission, they did sign off on the project, so the late stage moratorium was a little upsetting, ” Sivers said.
Commission eventually decided to lift the moratorium and complete construction of the trail. Since the projects plans initially labeled it as a mountain bike trail, and the plans were approved, it was not legal to reverse it, so construction of the new directional trail was completed.
The concern that some hikers had over the completion of the trail is the traffic it could create with the Eddye McClure trail, a connecting route, that has a lot of hiking traffic. Tony Jewett of Helena Hikes voiced that the moratorium should remain in place until the city comes up with a better plan for managing the trail traffic.
Since the trail’s completion, talk of whether biking should be allowed on Helena’s other existing trails began. “I think there was hysteria in thinking that there was going to be multiple directional trails built,” Helena’s Open Lands Manager Langsather said.
There has since been multiple informal meetings between the traditional hikers and the mountain biker community, where they have discussed their views of what the Helena trail system should be.
Helena is an up and coming mountain bike destination, and was awarded a silver status by the Mountain Biking National community as a mountain bike destination.
Since 2010, Helena has had an annual fundraising event to raise money for new trails, called Ales For Trails, where local breweries come to showcase their beers. While the trails being fundraised are not usually mountain bike specific, a significant amount of funds from the 2018 Ales For Trails went to the directional trail.
Traditional hiking groups saw this as more evidence of Helena’s shift to mountain biking focus. The City of Helena put up a work plan prior to the fundraising event, detailing how the funds would be used. However, the hiking community claims that they did not know the work plan was up for review. Since a large number of bikers showed support for the project, and there was no voiced disagreement of it, the city moved the project forward.
“When we looked at it, we had many more comments in favor of it than opposed, so we went forward with the project,” Langsather said.
As many informal meetings between the hiking and biking groups have been taking place, the city has been arranging for the groups to participate on a committee, where they can formally voice their opinions. The goal of the committee meetings is for the city to come up with an updated recreation plan for the trail system of Helena, which would control management of the types of recreational trail use. With no meetings being held yet, the story is still unfolding, and so to is the future of recreational trail use in the city of Helena.