Conservation groups are miffed by a new court challenge to the 2015 federal recommendations for wilderness on the Kootenai National Forest.
Snowmobile clubs and advocacy groups from Montana and Idaho are suing the U.S. Forest Service and its plan that bars motorized access in certain protected areas of the 2.2 million acre forest in northwestern Montana.
Officials recommended a total of 86,800 acres for additions to the National Wilderness Preservation System under the forests’ 2015 Land Management Plan, which was completed in January.
Only Congress can officially designate a wilderness area, but areas recommended by the managing agency usually are protected by wilderness rules until Congress acts one way or the other. Wilderness rules prohibit use of mechanized and motorized vehicles and equipment.
The lawsuit filed in federal court on Nov. 12 alleges the plan fails to follow Forest Service guidelines for recommended wilderness areas.
“A lot of wilderness has exceptions,” plaintiffs’ attorney Robert Bell told the Daily Inter Lake last week. “Some of the recent wilderness designations, for instance, have allowed specific roads to be traveled.”
The lawsuit says forest officials did not allow enough public comment before deciding on the recommended wilderness area designations. The suit also questions how Kootenai officials proposed additions to the national Wild and Scenic Rivers system.
John Todd, Montana Wilderness Association conservation director, said he’s dismayed by the motorized users’ lawsuit. The recommendations were made after 13 years of effort and more than 100 meetings convened during the forest planning process.
“We, too, are not satisfied with the wilderness recommendations because they don’t go far enough,” he said. “But we hope the decisions on how we manage our public lands are driven by folks who don’t take such a hard line. The plan needs to balance uses.
“There are a lot more special places across the Kootenai that should be protected for quiet use and wilderness characteristics. We wouldn’t still have the longest big-game hunting season in the lower 48 states if motorized travel was allowed to spread into protected areas.”
The Cabinet Mountains Wilderness, which protects 93,272 acres in the Kootenai Forest, was among the initial 54 areas across the nation protected by passage of The Wilderness Act in 1964. Since then, the wilderness preservation system has expanded to 750 wilderness areas, but no more wilderness has been designated on the Kootenai.
Most wilderness areas remained pristine into the modern era because they were naturally protected by remoteness and terrain. But modern advances in equipment and vehicles dramatically expand the range of human impact.
The previous management plans for the region’s national forests were completed around 1987. At that time, snowmobiles weren’t considered a threat to remote wilderness-quality areas and specific protections weren’t deemed necessary. Winter security for wildlife such as bighorn sheep, mountain goats and wolverines was largely uncompromised.
Nowadays, over-snow machines are designed to go farther and higher and negotiate more difficult terrain – and riders have the skills to push the vehicles to their limits.
Restrictions on motorized vehicles are needed now more than ever. But motorized groups aren’t willing to recognize the increase in their potential impact.
The plaintiffs in the case are the Ten Lakes Snowmobile Club, Montanans for Multiple Use, Citizens for Balanced Use, the Glen Lake Irrigation District, Backcountry Sled Patriots, the Idaho State Snowmobile Association and the Blueribbon Coalition.
Kootenai National Forest officials declined to comment on the pending litigation. They have 60 days to respond to the suit.
“This lawsuit smacks of a similar suit on the Clearwater National Forest filed by the Idaho State Snowmobiling Association against the travel plan and motorized use,” said Brad Smith of the Idaho Conservation League.
The Forest Service settled that suit, agreeing to prepare a supplemental environmental impact statement and issue a new decision.
“The Forest Service could adopt the same recommendations after further analysis,” he said. “But the Forest Service agreed in the settlement to lift the prohibition on motorized use in proposed wilderness areas until the EIS was completed, giving motorized users the access they wanted.
“The Idaho Conservation League intervened to block that provision of the settlement.”
Similarly, the Montana Wilderness Association is monitoring the Kootenai lawsuit.
The Kootenai National Forest has 232 miles of designated groomed snowmobile trails and thousands of acres of open play areas. Perhaps it’s confusing that the forest continues to allow over-snow travel in the Ten Lakes Scenic Area, a 15,000-acre wilderness candidate.
“The Forest Service has been a bit ambiguous in sending these mixed messages,” Todd said. “If an agency agrees it should be recommended for wilderness, the area should be managed as such so we’re not left open to these lawsuits.
“Snowmobilers already have access to 85 percent of the 2.2-million acre forest,” Todd said. “That’s a significant area in comparison with the sliver of land – 86,800 acres – recommended for wilderness in the new Kootenai plan.”
A week before the lawsuit was filed, Kootenai Forest officials issued an order outlining restrictions on motorized and mechanized uses in recommended wilderness, research and natural areas.
Areas previously closed to over-snow use, such as Cheer Creek outside of Troy, are now open. Areas in the Scotchman Peaks, Roderick and the Cabinet Addition areas either remain closed or are under new closures to over-snow use.
The Idaho Panhandle National Forest has issued similar restriction on the Idaho portion of the Scotchman Peaks recommended wilderness area.
“Snowmobile users will see the most impact on the Idaho Panhandle National Forest portion of Scotchman Peaks area, which is no longer open to over-snow motor vehicle use,” said Chris Savage, Kootenai Forest Supervisor.
The Kootenai National Forest’s Montana portion of the Scotchman’s proposal has been closed to snowmobiling for over a decade.
“In addition, some of the trails within recommended wilderness areas, which were used by mountain bikers, are now closed to mechanized uses,” Savage said.
The Kootenai Forest Plan did not make any changes in wheeled motor vehicle use on trails and areas, since most of the forest, including recommended wilderness areas, has been closed to cross-country motor vehicle use since 2001.
But now there’s a lawsuit. Where it goes, nobody knows.
“We’ve seen the benefits of collaborative effort,” Todd said. “Folks have stepped up in other states as well as in other places in Montana to form a coalition of those willing to work together for balanced solutions.
“The Kootenai National Forest is big enough for all of us, and certainly big enough to accommodate more protected landscapes.”
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