A new lawsuit, filed by the Blue Ribbon Coalition and the Idaho Snowmobile Association, takes on the Clearwater National Forest’s travel plan for banning motorcycles, ATVs, snowmobiles and mountain bikes in a wilderness study area.
Motorized and mechanized use is prohibited in wilderness designated by Congress under the Wilderness Act of 1964. But the Forest Service traditionally has allowed motorized use in wilderness study areas, which are not designated by Congress but are identified by agency managers as qualifying for that designation.
Wilderness advocates have long pointed to the agency’s unwillingness to keep motorized users out of study areas as a failure to protect their wilderness character.
Trails have been built, and once motorized users are established in the areas, they came off of wilderness lists. But now after 40 years of motorized use in many of these areas, plans to restrict use in one such area has motorized users questioning the agency’s authority.
“Only Congress can designate wilderness,” said Sandra Mitchell, public lands director of the Idaho State Snowmobile Association. “We cannot stand idly by and watch them change the long-established system for managing these treasured lands.”
Brad Brooks, deputy regional director of the Wilderness Society in Boise, said the lawsuit questions the ability of the Forest Service to protect wilderness character at all.
“I see this as full frontal assault on wilderness,” Brooks said.
“They are making essentially the argument that the Forest Service doesn’t have the power to protect wilderness character as a multiple use of public lands,” he said.
But the lawsuit is actually more technical about how the Forest Service involves the public in its decisions under the National Environmental Policy Act, Mitchell said. The suit zeros in on the “Great Burn” area near the Idaho-Montana border. The area has been a popular snowmobiling destination for decades but got minimal motorcycle and mountain bike use.
The Clearwater Travel Plan closes the Great Burn wilderness study area on the Montana border to all of those users to protect its wilderness character. The Forest Service’s Northern Region, headquartered in Missoula, Mont., has long had an unwritten policy to keep motorized uses out of wilderness study areas in its forests, Mitchell said.
Some of the region’s Montana forests already have travel plans that ban motorized use in wilderness study areas. But the policy has never been taken out to the public, she said.
“The Northern Region’s guidance to its national forests contradicts not only the law but the reality of modern-day wilderness,” said Brian Hawthorne, public lands policy director of the BlueRibbon Coalition. “Any wilderness designation today will necessarily be a creative balance that allows a variety of uses that would be prohibited under a pure reading of the 1964 Wilderness Act.”
Essentially, Hawthorne says, recent wilderness bills have not been as “pure” as earlier ones. But his argument suggests that the 1964 Wilderness Act limits the Forest Service’s ability to protect wilderness administratively, which it has done since the 1920s.
Idaho’s Boulder-White Clouds, one of the largest roadless areas in the lower 48 states, has been criss-crossed with motorized trails since the 1960s, forcing it to be cut up in the latest wilderness proposals from Republican U.S. Rep. Mike Simpson. The two motorized groups still oppose the bill despite Simpson’s attempts to satisfy them.
Mitchell is especially angry over the Clearwater decision because her snowmobile association is in the middle of talks about future wilderness, and managers made the decision without making the boundary adjustments she sought. She compares it to the divisive decision over limiting jet boating on certain days in the Hells Canyon Recreation Areas, one of her most bitter defeats in the 1990s.
“This is the greatest injustice since Hells Canyon,” she said. That’s what makes this lawsuit a line in the sand for both sides.
“Our contention is that wilderness is a multiple use of public land just like other uses,” the Wilderness Society’s Brooks said. “I see this as a very big deal, and I imagine it’s one fight we will not sit on the sidelines and watch happen.”
Rocky Barker: 377-6484