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Sun., Nov. 12, 2006

Proceed with care

Saving the last caribou in the lower 48 states is important. But saving the winter economy of the Priest Lake area is important, too.

U.S. District Judge Robert Whaley, of Spokane, weighed those factors when he handed down a Solomonic decision last week that tried to split the difference.

In lifting a ban on snowmobile activity on about 300,000 acres of national forest northwest of Priest Lake, Whaley gambled that snowmobilers and finicky caribou can coexist. The U.S. Forest Service believes they can: It’s mapping out trails for snowmobile use, based on guidelines prepared by state and federal caribou experts. Resort owners and snowmobilers hope they can. But environmentalists don’t think they can coexist. They’re outraged that the judge allowed too much margin for error.

Snowmobilers should proceed with caution as they cheer Whaley’s ruling.

They were handed an unexpected gift from the judge – one that allows them access to a controversial loop trail on the north end of the lake that connects to a vast network of other trails and crosses important caribou habitat. Abuse of this access by thrill seekers on runners could lead back to court and another ban. The snowmobilers would be wise to police themselves diligently this winter. They would be wiser still to continue working with the Selkirk Conservation Alliance and other environmentalists to develop a new approach to their winter sport, based on the judge’s decision.

After the ban was instituted by Whaley in September, the two sides hammered out a trail-specific agreement that didn’t include the important loop trail. Environmentalists said inclusion of the connective trail was a deal breaker. Now, they have to deal. Or take to the skies above the caribou habitat as they have done in the past, hoping to photograph scofflaw snowmobilers venturing off trails. Rather than gloat and eschew the other side’s concern for an endangered species, the snowmobilers should rein themselves in. Rather than seek an excuse to go court again, the environmentalists should quit digging in.

Despite a harsh reaction from environmentalists to his ruling, Whaley has found middle ground.

The judge embraced a proposal from the U.S. Forest Service that will continue to restrict or close snowmobile riding in 89 percent of the agency’s caribou recovery area, according to USFS spokesman Dave O’Brien. Also, O’Brien said, the agreement will protect “99 percent of the high-quality late winter habitat.” Additionally, it will protect winter recreation in an economically fragile corner of Idaho.

Environmentalists, in situations like this, overplay their hands when they ignore the human consequences of road closures and bans on certain outdoor activities. Reservations at the popular Hill’s Resort and others slowed significantly after the ban. Americans sympathize with struggling wildlife populations, like the 35 or 40 caribou that constitute the Selkirk herd. But those feelings wane when they realize only two or three animals in the endangered herd have ventured into this country in recent years.

The latest court ruling doesn’t slam the door on a compromise that will enable Priest Lake’s caribou and troubled winter economy to survive.

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