The Flathead National Forest on Tuesday approved a special use permit allowing the Whitefish Trail Ultra-Marathon. The race is set to take place in October and would occur partially on forest service land.
The forest issued a decision allowing the 50-kilometer trail run organized by Whitefish Legacy Partners that plans to use trails within the Whitefish Mountain Resort permit boundary.
“This type of activity is consistent with the Flathead National Forest Plan’s desired conditions where new and existing special-use permits serve the public interest, meet national standards, and complement the recreation settings and opportunities,” Tally Lake District Ranger Bill Mulholland said in his decision approving the permit.
Planned to take place on Oct. 5, the ultra-marathon would be run from downtown Whitefish up to Big Mountain’s summit before finishing back downtown.
Opposition in recent weeks has been raised to such races in the forest by those saying that running and biking events taking place in grizzly bear habitat creates the potential for a conflict with racers and wildlife. While race organizers maintain that they defer to the Forest Service when it comes to expertise about wildlife and recreation management.
Margosia Jadkowski, program director for Whitefish Legacy Partners, points out that the ultra-marathon is planned in the resort boundary on established trails that already get extensive recreation use. The race will also use the Whitefish Trail in Haskill Basin.
“We’re pleased that it was approved,” she said of the special use permit. “We’re glad that the comment period allowed the community to engage in a discussion about balanced uses on the forest and where it is appropriate. We’re glad we can move forward and we have a lot of excitement for the race.”
Keith Hammer, Chair of the Swan View Coalition, this spring raised objection to the special use permit that was previously approved for the race on April 9 without a public comment period.
“We’re disappointed, but not all that surprised,” Hammer said Tuesday of the decision. “The public comment period that was held was a hoax. We were hoping to open a debate up on this about special use permits.”
Mulholland previously said the permit was granted because the race is a low complexity event on established trails that already see a lot of recreation throughout the year. The forest ultimately held a one-week comment period on the permit from June 12 to June 19.
There were about 135 comments received during the comment period, according to the forest service, with 23 comments opposed to the project and the remaining in support.
Grizzly bear expert Chris Servheen voiced his opposition to the Forest Service granting special-use permits for events he says will violate commonly accepted guidelines for safe passage in bear country.
“I oppose the USFS issuing special-use permits for trail running events in grizzly and black bear habitat because by doing so the USFS is permitting activities that are known to increase the danger of human-bear conflict, human injury and even human death,” Servheen said in comments filed with the Forest Service.
The forest service, in its decision notice, says that Whitefish Legacy Partners will “ensure” that race participants are informed on “how to avoid wildlife encounters and of proper actions to take if encountering wildlife.”
Recommended education topics include, that fast-paced recreation increases the risk of encountering and startling wildlife, runners should carry accessible bear spray, pay attention by looking for sign of bear use and don’t wear headphones to allow for listening of animal movement and noises, be aware of areas with poor line of sight, dense brush and near creeks, and make noise to alert animals of your presence to allow them to retreat.
Jadkowski says that while the Legacy Partners is adding the ultra-marathon this year as part of the annual Legacy Race, it already educates race participants about safely recreating in bear country through its website and emails, along with information posted at trailheads.
“It’s great to have the specific language from the Forest Service to include that,” she said. “At all our trailheads we provide information about what precautions they should be taking. Whether it’s for everyday trail users or for race events we share that information widely about what you should know before you go.”
Hammer says that the Forest Service in the decision is acknowledging that running and fast-paced biking carries risk in the forest, but at the same time by approving the permit are endorsing race events that include those activities. Approving such permits, he says, sets a dangerous precedent.
“This is bigger than this race and this permit,” he said. “We’re not saying people can’t trail run and ride mountain bikes on the Flathead, but we don’t think the Flathead should be commercially promoting races that negate the warnings that such activities increase risk and can have grave consequences.”
Hammer notes that while activities in the forest have risk, he says that when someone drowns rafting in the river, the Forest Service doesn’t drain the river, but when a runner or biker dies as the result of a bear “too often the government’s response is to kill the bear.”
In addition in the decision for the ultra-marathon, the forest service says it is requiring race organizers prior to the event to “sweep the course for animal carcasses” notifying the Forest Service if any are found.
Depending on the final route selected, about 11 to 14 miles of the race are expected to take place on national forest system trails. Two separate routes will be used — one for runners traveling up to the summit and one for going down the mountain.
Runners going up will use a combination of the Summit Trail and the Kashmir Trail, while the down route will use the Danny On Trail connecting to the East Rim Trail to Flower Point and then descending on the Danny On Trail.
The estimated number of participants is between 50 and up to a maximum of 200.
Set up for the race is allowed to take place the day prior to the event, and any damage that occurs to the trails because of the event will be required to be repaired.
An aid-station at the summit staffed with volunteers will provide food, water and first-aid and be set up the day of the race. Garbage disposal and recycling containers will be provided, and organizers will be required to sweep the course at the end of the day to remove any litter.
Organizers are coordinating with the resort to use restroom facilities in the Summit House during the race.
The new ultra-marathon is set to take place on Saturday, Oct. 5. The race is in addition to the Whitefish Trail Legacy Run that has taken place for years and is set for Sunday, Oct. 6 on the Whitefish Trail and includes a half-marathon, 10K, 5K and 1.5-mile family fun run beginning at the Whitefish Bike Retreat.
Daily Inter Lake Reporter Duncan Adams contributed to this story.