Perry Backus Ravalli Republic - Reprinted with permission.

Come next summer, all-terrain vehicle riders will have something that they haven’t had in a very long time in the Bitterroot National Forest. Nearly 50 miles of trail in two loops are nearing completion on the old Darby Lumber Lands south of Darby.  “None of us can remember the last time any motorized trails were added on the Bitterroot Forest,” said Dan Thompson of the Ravalli County Off Road User Association. “It’s something that hasn’t happened for a long time.”

The new trail system was made possible through collaboration between the Ravalli County Off Road Users Association and the Bitterroot National Forest.  For ATV enthusiasts Thompson and Mike Jeffords, it’s like a dream come true.  “We’ve been chewing on this thing since 2009,” Thompson said. “We could see the potential, but we didn’t know for sure if it could work.”

The Forest Service acquired the lands previously owned by Darby Lumber in 2013. The 45-square-mile area had been heavily logged and was laced with more than 260 miles of roads that were used by those logging operations. The Bitterroot Forest has been working to decommission or close over 120 miles of the roads.

While that work was getting started, Jeffords, Thompson and other members of the Ravalli County Off Road User Association spent hundreds of hours riding every road and mapping them using GIS.  “Almost every weekend, we worked with six to 12 volunteers and hit every single road out here,” Jeffords said. “We knew there were far more roads than what were needed. We were looking for places where we could build short connectors to create loop trails.”

The Bitterroot group also realized that the Forest Service was probably going to be short on the kind of cash needed to make this idea a reality. So the ATV group worked with the Missoula-based Western Montana Trail Vehicle Riders Association to acquire $27,000 in grants from Polaris and Yamaha to help build the six connector trails and pay for other expenses. They also agreed to maintain the finished trail system.

Over the course of about three days last week, Bitterroot Forest Trails Specialist Mark Smith and members of the off road association guided Dillon’s Parke Scott and his ATV trail-building bulldozer to build the 2.1-miles of connector trails that would help create the 28-mile and 14-mile loops.

Smith had spent time last summer locating the new connector trails. It was a new experience for him.  “These aren’t like our legacy trails used by hikers and horseback riders,” Smith said. The turns are wider and switchbacks are avoided.

“When you try to navigate a tight switchback on an ATV, you have to spin the tires,” Jeffords said. “That’s not what we want to have happen here. On these types of trails, erosion will be almost non-existent.”  The freshly cut connector trails will need time to settle and for some vegetation to start creeping in. The new trails are off limits for riders until mid-June. There will be seasonal closures once the system officially opens next year.

Both Jeffords and Thompson expect the trail system to be popular with new and intermediate riders on 50-inch or smaller machines. They said people are going to enjoy the spectacular views and interesting trail system.  The trail system will use a combination of the new connector trails, closed logging roads and some of the current road system that’s open to all traffic.

“This has turned out pretty much as we had envisioned it,” Thompson said. “It’s a good example of what can happen when you get everyone together and work together.”  No one knows for sure just how popular it will become.

The group that met on the trail system Friday knew the next step was figuring out places that people could park their vehicles off the main road.  “There’s still a lot of unknown about this,” Thompson said. “How many people can we expect to use it? We don’t have a clue. All we do know is right now, there’s not much else here in the Bitterroot. This will be a nice option for people.” 

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