Forest takes comments on race permit after objection

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An already-approved special use permit for an ultra marathon on Big Mountain will get a public comment period after backlash from one environmental group.

Whitefish Legacy Partners on April 9 was granted a special use permit from the Flathead National Forest for the 50-kilometer trail run that is planned to use existing roads and trails within the Whitefish Mountain Resort permit boundary. The race planned to take place on Oct. 5 would be run from downtown Whitefish up to Big Mountain’s summit by way of existing ski runs and the Danny On trail and finish back in Whitefish, portions of the race would also occur on the Whitefish Trail.

Tally Lake District Ranger Bill Mulholland approved the permit, saying in an email the “project was scoped internally and found no extraordinary circumstances or significance of cumulative effects.”

In talking to the Pilot last week, Mulholland said the race was permitted because it’s a low complexity event on established trails and roads that already see a lot of recreation throughout the year.

“This is a categorical exclusion. The scoping process on that is basically the discretion of the line officer or district ranger to determine the complexity of the project and what’s appropriate there,” he said.

However, Keith Hammer, Chair of the Swan View Coalition, contends that the project should have required a public comment period, but was never given one.

“The short of the situation is that it’s a controversial and dangerous sport, they want to hold it on public land and the law says that the Forest Service — before they can give them a permit — has to ask the public for public comment about it,” Hammer said. “And they did absolutely none of that in this case, so we’re just asking that they back up and ask the public what they think about it.”

Mulholland addressed Hammer’s concerns via email, noting that the coalition asked the Flathead National Forest “to confine speed sports to the Big Mountain area so the negative impacts to fish, wildlife and human safety do not spread across the forest.”

Mulholland replied to Hammer via email, but also said there will be a special public comment period for the race coming soon. Specifics of the comment period were not available as of press time, but are expected to be announced online at www.fs.usda.gov/flathead.

“We’ve heard from externals that they ask for more public involvement in this, and we’ve agreed to do that and we think that’s a good idea. So there’s going to be an opportunity for folks to comment about that event,” he said, adding that the public comment period will be limited due to the nature of the project request.

Hammer says his and others’ concerns span both the lack of a public process, but also the race itself.

Hammer compiled a letter that quotes Chris Servheen, Grizzly Bear Recovery Coordinator for U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and Tim Manley, grizzly bear specialist with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, as speaking against races taking place in grizzly bear habitat. The quotes in that letter were not in response to the WLP proposal, but taken from past news stories and public Facebook posts.

Hammer says Servheen and Manley both have first-hand experience in investigating the aftermath of bear encounters from mountain biking or racing.

“These biologists, these are the guys that go out and clean up the mess when people broadside a grizzly bear with a bike,” he said. “They are the ones that have to go out and investigate and look at the mess, and these are the guys saying we shouldn’t be having bike races and ultra marathons in grizzly bear, mountain lion and black bear habitat.”

Mulholland said that regarding grizzly bear territory and upsetting natural habitats, the WLP permit proposal had been reviewed by a forest wildlife biologist.

“This is grizzly bear habitat. It is also a ski area and a designated high intensity recreation in our forest plan as well. So it aligns with our forest plan, and there’s always a chance or a concern about encounters with bears,” he said. “If there was a place to have an event like this, I think the ski area is a very good location. We don’t dismiss the concern about bear encounters, but we think the face of the Big Mountain ski area is a place that can accommodate this.”

Whitefish Legacy Partners is hosting a weekend of trail running events expanding the fall trail run that began a decade ago.

The new 50K Mountain Ultra is limited to 200 runners and set to take place on Saturday, Oct. 5. The Whitefish Trail Legacy Run is set for Sunday, Oct. 6 on the Whitefish Trail including a half-marathon, 10K, 5K and 1.5-mile family fun run that begins at the Whitefish Bike Retreat.

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