Fat bike festival aims to increase winter access

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Fat bike festival aims to increase winter access

by Kelsey Dayton, WyoFile.com
Originally published on January 22, 2012

“Wouldn’t it be cool,” Scott Fitzgerald says, “if you could throw your fat bike onto a snow coach and go to Old Faithful. Spend the night and during the day bike around the geysers?”

Kelsey Dayton

Kelsey Dayton

This dream trip is just that for now — a dream. Fat bikes, bikes with large tires designed for snow and sand, aren’t allowed in Yellowstone National Park in the winter. Something Fitzgerald, who owns Fitzgerald’s Bicycles in Victor, Idaho wants to change.

This weekend, fat bike enthusiasts are gathering in Island Park, Idaho and inviting land managers from the area, including Wyoming, to learn about the bikes, which are growing in popularity and raising questions about access.

The second annual fat bike summit  and festival will be held this weekend in Island Park, Idaho. There will be races and demonstrations, but most important will be dialogues and workshops with land managers, said Fitzgerald, one of the festival organizers. It costs $99 for all access or $15 for the management discussions. The summit is being held in Island Park because of its riding opportunities and also its proximity to Yellowstone “the Holy grail” for fat bike enthusiasts, Fitzgerald said.

But riding near the park isn’t enough. Fitzgerald wants to be able to enjoy the serenity and beauty that makes Yellowstone special in the winter, he said.

The growing popularity of the bikes worries winter trail users and land managers in Wyoming.

“There’s just a nervousness about any new user group,” Fitzgerald said.

In Fitzgerald’s community in Idaho, the fat biking demographic has worked with local snowmobile groups and land managers to share trails and to find ways for fat bikers to contribute to trail maintenance, he said. At Grand Targhee Resort in Alta, the ski area has successfully opened its Nordic trails to fat bikers with rules for the terrain.

Other communities are going to face similar situations as the bikes continue to become more common.

Summit organizers invited representatives from the Forest Service, National Parks and state and federal elected officials, Fitzgerald said. Last year, bad weather impacted attendance, but the summit still offered a productive dialogue about the bikes, how they are used and how they can share trails and roads with other users, he said. About 20 different land managers attended last year’s summit, he said. The goal is to develop a set of tools anyone across the country can use — from etiquette standards to signage — as well as to begin dialogues with other users and land managers, he said.

Neither Yellowstone or Grand Teton National Parks allow fat biking in the winter. National park rules say bikes are only allowed where vehicles can legally go, with the exception of multi-use pathways, said Jackie Skaggs, spokeswoman with Grand Teton National Park. The unplowed Teton Park Road and Moose-Wilson Road are considered winter trails, and like summer trails in the park, are only open to non-motorized and non-mechanized travel. The park never allows cross country travel away from established roads by bike, even in the summer, she said. People can bike park roads open to vehicles.

In Yellowstone, however, motorized travel is allowed in the winter on snowmobiles and snowcoaches.

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Fat bikes, which can be ridden on snow, are gaining popularity. Organizers of the second Fat Bike Festival and Summit, to be held this weekend in Ashton, Idaho, want to work with land managers to allow the bikes in areas- in particular Yellowstone National Park. (Photo Courtesy Joe Meiser).

Yellowstone is currently revising its winter use plan. Yellowstone plans to release a supplemental impact statement to the public in the next few weeks, said park spokesman Al Nash. The park is focusing efforts on the plan so it can go into place for next winter, Nash said. The controversial plan dictates how many commercially guided snowmobiles and snow coaches are allowed in the park during the winter.

The park took extra time to create a supplement to respond to comments, specifically about analysis and approach. The park’s preferred alternative was different than previous plans, Nash said.

Park staff is looking at air quality, sound level and wildlife impacts from winter travel, Nash said. “We’re at the point where the alternatives will at least look very similar to what was in the draft,” Nash said. “Don’t expect dramatic new alternatives. Expect a much more robust explanation and data regarding analysis involved in those alternatives.”

Don’t expect an allowance for fat bikes, often called snowbikes.

In all of the possible plans the park might choose from, fat biking is excluded, Nash said.

No one representing Yellowstone will attend the fat bike summit, according to Nash. Park staff considered fat biking but found it incompatible with other winter traffic. Motorized travel in the winter occurs on groomed roads, which are not the full width of normal roads. There is two-way traffic and snow coaches take up more than a full lane in many parts of the park, Nash said.

People on the road on snowshoes or cross country skis can easily step off the road when a snow coach is coming. Fat bikes need to travel on the same path the snowcoaches drive on, and moving a big bike would be more cumbersome than simply stepping off the road, he said. The final environmental impact statement, published in November 2011, also prohibited dogsledding, skijoring and snowplanes from the plan.

“It feels like they just completely slammed the door shut without exploring the conversation,” Fitzgerald said of the ban on bikes.

The park should be focusing more on non-motorized use, said Tim Young, director of the Wyoming Pathways Organization. “I think that non-motorized access in Yellowstone is fundamentally in line with the park’s policies,” he said.

Attendees of last year's Fat Bike Summit ride near West Yellowstone, Mont. The summit brings together bike enthusiasts and land managers to talk about ways fat bikes can share trails and roads. (Photo Courtesy Joe Meiser)

Attendees of last year’s Fat Bike Summit ride near West Yellowstone, Mont. The summit brings together bike enthusiasts and land managers to talk about ways fat bikes can share trails and roads. (Photo Courtesy Joe Meiser)

Fat bikes can ride on any groomed surface and the park already grooms the main road. The park service’s management policy calls for encouraging alternative transportation like buses, especially non-motorized options, Young said. The park service hasn’t sufficiently studied fat bikes or collected data, Young said. “I just think that there’s been an unfortunate fixation within the significant policy debate of snowmobiles versus non-snowmobiles.”

The intense focus on snowmobiling and snowcoaches is leaving out all non-motorized use, not just bikes, he said.

Nordic skiing and snowshoeing are allowed in the park and no major changes to access are being considered, Nash said.

Biking in winter is a relatively new trend and land managers don’t often understand the bikes, Young said.

“What we really have is a new category of vehicle,” he said. They are quiet, pollution-free and compatible with the park’s mission.

While Young said he’s disappointed fat bikes aren’t included in the park’s winter use plan, he said the park service has said after a winter use plan is adopted they might consider fat bikes in the park in the future using an adaptive management plan which could address changes to the plan and involve the public and stakeholders.

— “Peaks to Plains” is a blog focusing on Wyoming’s outdoors and communities. Kelsey Dayton is a freelance writer based in Lander. She has been a journalist in Wyoming for seven years, reporting for the Jackson Hole News & Guide, Casper Star-Tribune and the Gillette News-Record. Contact Kelsey at kelsey.dayton@gmail.com.

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