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Lovin' the Mud

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Lovin' the Mud

Balancing ATVs and nature

This is the region for playing in the mud, getting dirty, and revving your motors, for sure. All Terrain Vehicles, otherwise known as ATVs, can be great fun in our neck of the woods, but also inevitably pose some significant risks to natural resources, wildlife habitat, and even other outdoor enthusiasts.

We are blessed with a massive amount of federal and state land in Idaho and Montana. Two-thirds of Idaho is comprised of public lands, and 35 percent of Montana’s total land area is federal or state owned and managed. Between the many federal and state designated management agencies, there are many opportunities for ATV use, but of course, it helps if riders abide by the rules of the roads and trails.

An ATV is nationally defined as a type of off-highway vehicle that travels on three or more low-pressure tires; has handle-bar steering; is less than or equal to 50 inches in width; and has a seat designed to be straddled by the operator. An “Off Highway Vehicle” (OHV), however, is any motor vehicle designed for or capable of cross-country travel on or immediately over land, water, sand, snow, ice, marsh, swampland, or other natural terrain. This definition includes vehicles over 50 inches, such as sport utility vehicles, 4-wheel drives or “jeeps,” ATVs, and dirt bikes. The width of the vehicle determines where you can ride it within the national forest trail system.

In Idaho and Montana, all ATVs must be registered and display a license or decal; non-residents with permits in other states are honored for 30 days, but non-residents that do not have permits in other states must obtain a temporary permit. In Idaho, funds generated by registration fees go back toward access for ATVs in the form of trail maintenance, trail development, and ATV education courses. In Montana, the powers that be are working on developing a similar self-sustaining program.

Julie Molzahn, of the U.S. Forest Service, says that in Region One, the Northern Region (which encompasses 25 million acres and is spread over 5 states; it includes 12 national forests located within the perimeter of northeastern Washington, northern Idaho, and Montana), there have not been too many resource impact issues with ATVs or OHVs. “Riders have been responsible—and there are quite a few opportunities to go quite a long distance on US Forest Service roads in the region on ATVs.”

The most popular roads/trails for off-road use in Sanders County, Montana include the Willow Creek Campground, the Bull River Guard Station, and Marten Creek Recreation Area. These three sites offer USFS and Avista-owned property that allows ATV and/or OHV access.

Willow Creek campground, at 3,600 feet elevation, is located at the confluence of the Vermillion River and Willow Creek; it is known for its quiet atmosphere and serenity. Just two miles from Vermillion Falls, it is a popular site for campers, hikers, and hunters; this year the campground will be enlarged to include 8 more sites near Willow Creek. No reservations are necessary. The Bull River Guard Station must be rented ahead of time, but is a popular destination for larger groups as there is plenty of room for camping around the cabin. Marten Creek Recreation Area is located 10 miles west of Trout Creek in a bay on the Noxon Reservoir. It includes five overnight campsites, a boat ramp, fishing access, vault toilets, picnic tables and shelters. At an elevation of 2,200 feet, the Marten Creek recreation area is open year-round. In addition, Molzahn says a lot of riders use the trails from or to the North Fork of the Coeur d’Alene, which can be accessed from Trout Creek.

On private lands in Sanders County, there are concerns regarding the use of ATVs in inappropriate places. Avista Corporation, a Washington-based utility company that holds license to two dams on the lower Clark Fork River at Noxon Rapids and Cabinet Gorge, manages most of the land adjacent to the projects.

“We advocate and encourage responsible recreation along the Clark Fork Project,” says Avista Terrestrial Program Leader Nate Hall. “However, we have issues every year with motorized recreation in wetlands, during reservoir drawdown, and along the shorelines that cause natural resource damage.” When this destruction occurs, it impacts everyone, Hall remarks, as it may result in closure of the areas until the damaged areas are rehabilitated.

In the Idaho Panhandle National Forest, some popular trails include: the Talache-Blacktail (and connector) trails, the Bunco to Lakeview trail, and the Gold Hill ATV trail. The president of the Panhandle Riders Association (a recently formed ATV user group), Lloyd Potter, says that “it’s tough up here right now,” as there are not enough ATV-friendly trails given the high number of registered ATVs. “It’s getting to be a real popular sport,” Potter says. “We have to stick together to get more trails open to ride.”

The Talache-Blacktail route is also connected to the Little Blacktail and Bayview-Blacktail trails. Potter warns that this trail system is not accessible for four-wheelers, as there are steep sections with deep ruts and stumps; it is better suited for trail/dirt bikes. Most riders start at Talache, though there are many variations; the Talache trailhead accesses the other two trials. The PRA maintains the 28 miles of trail on a regular basis; check out the views of Lake Pend Oreille from Blacktail Mountain!

The Bunco to Lakeview trail is one of Potter’s favorites. To access the trailhead, go east on Bunco Road (at Silverwood), follow Bunco as it makes a sharp turn to the left, and continue to the base of the mountain; the trail head will be on your right. There is lots of parking available and vault toilets. Potter says there is a great overlook of Bayview and the Lake on the trail, and the Happy Hermit Grill is a nice place to stop for lunch. The Gold Hill ATV trail is very short, only 1.7 miles one-way, but Potter says it is a pretty trail, not too far from town, and riders can make a nice loop.

When riding ATVs in the forests of our region, please be respectful and ride responsibly. On slick trails, it is important to moderate the throttle and use the clutch to gain maximum traction with minimum tailspin. On switchbacks, avoid roosting around the apex of the turn when climbing or brake-sliding during descent, both of which gouge the trail. Never cut switchbacks. Drive over, not around obstacles to avoid widening the trail. Cross streams only at designated fording points or where the trail crosses the stream. Buddy up with two or three riders; designate meeting areas in case of separation. When winching, always inspect your equipment, use the right winch for the situation, find a good secure anchor, and never winch with less than five wraps of wire rope around the drum. When using a tree as an anchor, use a wide tree strap to avoid damage to the trunk of the tree. Avoid sensitive areas such as meadows, lakeshores, wetlands and streams, unless on motorized and mechanized vehicles are not allowed in areas designated Wilderness “Tread Lightly” (www.treadlightly.org) is a nonprofit organization offering a variety of tools to help arm recreationists and the industries that serve them with essential outdoor ethics.

To get involved with the Panhandle Riders Association, check out the group at their monthly meetings, held at the Elks in Ponderay every first Wednesday of each month at 7 pm. You can call Potter for more information at 208- 263-5792. Currently, there are 130,000 registered OHVs in Idaho, a 66 percent increase from 2002.

June 27-29, another user group, the Backcountry ATV Association, is putting on an ATV rally at the Kootenai County fairgrounds. There will be races, an obstacle/flat course, mud bog, pee wee rides for kids, demonstrations, and over 40 exhibitors including representative for all major ATV brands.  See www.backcountryatvrally.com for more information.

We all know that ATVs can be dangerous, with over 8,000 related deaths in the nation since 1982; 56 in Montana, and 103 in Idaho. Proper use and maintenance is essential, but seasoned riders know this already. Both Montana and Idaho offer free ATV education courses, to encourage responsible riding in our backcountry. In Idaho, the class is offered by Idaho Dept. of Parks and Recreation and in Montana, free classes are offered to new ATV owners by Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks (call 406-444-7317). Beware seasoned riders, the management agencies are always searching for qualified volunteers to help teach courses to newbies.   

For more information on off-road accessible trails and roads in the Kootenai National Forest, contact the Cabinet Ranger Station at 406- 827-3533 (2693 Highway 200, Trout Creek); in the Panhandle National Forest, contact the Sandpoint Ranger Station at 208-263-5111 (1500 Hwy 2, Suite 110, Sandpoint).

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Kate Wilson Kate Wilson was a Project Journalist for Avista's Clark Fork Project. She has been interested in environmental issues since she was a youngster.

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