Done Right

Montana wasn’t dubbed “Big Sky Country” without reason. Pedaling through the evening at Acton always results in some spectacular views.

Done Right A Better Way Forward in Billings, Montana

In southeastern Montana, things have a way of springing up overnight.

Billings, the state’s largest city, earned the nickname “Magic City” for the speed at which it seeded itself around the Northern Pacific Depot in the early 20th century. Like many stories out here, this one begins with a group of hardy souls scratching something new out of an unforgiving landscape. And like many stories of community trail systems, it nearly ends when land managers bust the builders of unsanctioned trails.

A decade ago, a group of guerrilla builders discovered the Acton Recreation Area about 18 miles north of town. With their eyes set on freeride lines on the rimrock and pine woodland, they began building gap jumps and sketchy wooden ramps on the cattle trails that wound through the 3,800-acre area.

“There were these massive, steep, huck-yourself lines out there—the kind where you hope you land in the right spot and roll away from it,” local rider Mckay Martwig says.

It wasn’t long before the Bureau of Land Management, which oversees the recreation area, caught wind of the illegal features. Tim Finger, the recreation manager at the time, confronted the “trail bandits,” as they came to be known. But this is where the story diverges from most.

After issuing citations, Finger told the builders there was a better way forward. His BLM career until that point had taken him throughout the American West, and he had shepherded several groups through the trailbuilding process. He also knew the Billings office had areas dedicated to offroad vehicles, equestrians and moto hill climbs. Mountain bikers could have their zone, too. They just needed to ask.

Unlike many trail systems that come kicking and screaming into the light of day after years—or decades—of hand slapping and finger pointing, Acton began with a process so well thought out it could have been a Schoolhouse Rock! song on how to build a trail system.

About this time, Dean Cromwell, owner of The Spoke Shop in Billings, began asking state and federal government representatives in the area where mountain bikers could develop a trail system. Acton Recreation Area came up again. Cromwell, who sat on the board of Pedal United, the local bike club, ran with it.

The BLM handled all the environmental assessment work, while Cromwell and Jason Hudson of Pedal United did the footwork of plotting potential trails. The process was slow, with several years passing from the initial meetings to the first turn of the shovels. But it had its advantages, aside from legal standing.

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