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Equestrians and motorcyclists share trail maintenance responsibilities in the Highwood Mountains of central Montana.

arrow From the Fall 2009 issue of American Trails Magazine


Working together Works

The Highwood Mountains are one of seven island mountain ranges in central Montana. The many gentle ridges and open grasslands make it an easy area to navigate since there aren’t many steep ridges or outcroppings to stop trail construction. The USDA Forest Service manages 42,500 acres in the Lewis and Clark National Forest.

photo of trail worker

Great Falls Trail Bike Riders working on trail maintenance


The Highwood Mountains are one of seven island mountain ranges located in central Montana. The area has many gentle ridges and open grasslands which make it a great trail area since there aren’t the rocky ridges or outcroppings to navigate. The US Forest Service manages 42,500 acres of this area.

In 1989, the area had 21 miles of multiple use trails, but almost the entire area was open to cross country OHV use. The US Forest Service began travel planning for this area because the amount of recreational activity was increasing. They also hoping that by creating a designated trail system that user created routes would decrease. As part of the Travel Management Processes, the Forest Service personnel reached out to hikers, equestrians, trail motorcycle riders, neighboring land owners, community leaders, and others. They asked all of the interested parties to help them inventory all of the trails in the area whether those trails were user created or not. They also began a collaborative effort to get all of the parties working together, starting with finding common ground.

Their efforts paid off. In 1993, the area was designated with 29 miles of multiple use trails, 9 miles of equestrian and hiking trails, and 2 miles of hiking only trails. More importantly, although none of the groups got everything they wanted, they all agreed that the plan could work and signed on working together to assist the forest service with the implementation of the plan.

photo of people with horses

C.M. Russell Backcountry Horsemen installing a trail sign

In the first stages of implementation, most of the implementation work was completed by volunteer organizations including: The Great Falls Trail Bike Riders, The C.M. Russell Backcountry Horsemen, Youth Groups, and Eagle Scouts. The Montana off-highway vehicle account helped provide funding through grants to pay for work completed by the Chief Mountain Hotshot crew and other contractors. Only one trailhead was funded with Forest Service capital investment money.

During the implementation groups worked together. During this cooperation, it was discovered that equestrians and trail bike (motorcycle) riders complement each other very well. Trail bike riders can get to an area to work in a fairly short amount of time. This leaves a lot of time for work to be completed on the site. Unfortunately, they can’t carry much equipment or supplies on their bikes.

Equestrians, on the other hand, can carry a lot of supplies and equipment to an area, but it takes them a lot more time to get to the areas which need the work. The trail bike riders and the equestrians formed a partnership to perform the work, and now the maintenance in the area. The equestrians carry the equipment and the supplies to an area on an agreed upon date. The next day or weekend, the trail bike riders will ride to an area and complete the maintenance. Afterward, the equestrians will follow up to pick up the equipment and the remaining supplies to bring back. If the area that requires work is not too far away from a staging point, the equestrians and the trail bike riders will meet at the area to perform the work.


photo of moptorcyclist sawing tree

Great Falls Trail Bike Riders working on trail maintenance

The results from the collaboration are a trail system that is fun to ride; off-trail travel by any group is exceptionally low, and conflicts between user groups are rare even though the trails are used by several user groups simultaneously. Of the trails, 19 miles of multi use trails have been adopted by the trail bike riders, 10 miles of multiple use and 8 miles of stock trail have been adopted by the equestrians. And the two groups continue their partnership and help each other with the multiple use trail sections.

Each of the user groups has an incredible sense of ownership and pride in their trail system. When problems surface the groups and the agency all work together to find a solution. There is no preferential treatment given to one user group over another. They work to keep conflicts down by doing outreach in their communities. The groups realize that by letting people know what to expect before they reach an area, the amount of conflicts will decrease dramatically.

This area would not be such a success if either the equestrians or the trail bike riders believed that non-motorized and motorized recreationists could not get along or work together. This is where the success of this area began, a bunch of people who love to be in the great outdoors working together to make a great trail system.


Karen Umphress works as Project Coordinator with the National Off Highway Vehicle Conservation Council and is a member of the American Trails Board. Read her article with additional photos in the American Trails Magazine Fall 2009 issue at

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