SWMMBA volunteers remove a substantial fallen log. PHOTO COURTESY MELISSA CRONIN

Clearing the way in the Gravellys

Volunteers and USFS improve trails for cyclists, hikers and riders

Deep in the Gravelly Mountains, despite the curtain of smoke below in the valleys, blue skies smiled on an assembled group of mountain bikers whose bi-pedaled mounts were equipped with chainsaws, pruning loppers, and just in case, bear protection.

They were there to clear 12 miles of a fabled mountain biking trail called “Gazelle Creek” before nature reclaims it, during a trail workday organized by the Southwest Montana Mountain Biking Association (SWMMBA) and Joel Sather, Natural Resources Specialist, U.S. Forest Service.

“I’m the oldest and newest member,” says Rich Schwalbe from Big Sky who volunteered along with his brother David, who also lives in Big Sky. The Schwalbes are members of the group’s Big Sky chapter that comprises approximately 300 members.

“We’re interested in expanding our volunteer trail work beyond Bozeman and Big Sky,” said Patrick Rooney, piloting one of the “saw bikes” equipped with a chain saw, followed close behind by his seasoned trail dog, Juneau. Rooney explained why the group dedicated a weekend to working in the Gravelly Mountains. “When a trail disappears, it’s gone forever. We find trails open to bikes, and work with the Forest Service to make sure they don’t disappear.”

Rooney said the trails are cleared to USFS specs: 6 ft. wide by 10 ft. high, to provide sufficient clearance for horses and riders.

Over time, mountain bike usage can form treads in the trails. Those indentations are smoothed out by the volunteers. Chainsaws mounted on the bikes, along with other tools, are put to work removing fallen branches and logs, some of which are sizeable.

SWMMBA president Ian Jones says his group based in Bozeman now comprises 2,500 mountain biking members. “It’s a massive help for us to work with Joel,” Ian comments about his Forest Service liaison. “He gets people involved.”

With 842 miles of trails within the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest, it’s a challenge to keep trails accessible to the public. That’s why the U.S. Forest Service partners with SWMMBA and users such as backcountry riders. The benefits of these partnerships are immediately evident.

Loren Moulton and Jon Henderson of Bozeman aren’t associated with SWMMBA but were grateful for the volunteers’ work before the trail-clearing even began on Gazelle Creek Trail. “We’re here for the first time because this is a much talked-about trail, and it’s known to be not easy to follow,” Henderson said.

Melissa Cronin, a long-time Big Sky resident who now lives in Bozeman, is a member of the SWMMBA board. “My husband and I have done this [volunteer work] for four to five years,” she said. “It’s a special way to give back to these trails, and to the public land.”

According to SWMMBA’s website, “We build, maintain and advocate for trails that you can ride your bike on.” https://www.southwestmontanamba.org

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