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ATV Opponents Lose Suit Over Minnesota Forest

(CN) - A federal judge rejected environmentalists' challenge to a road-designation plan for off-highway vehicles in Minnesota's Superior National Forest.

The original map published in September 2004 limited off-road enthusiasts to 1,522 miles of roads in the northeast Minnesota forest, including 244 miles of unclassified roads. Another 1,311 miles of roads were closed to this purpose. The plan does not involve an area of the Superior National Forest (SNF) known as the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW), which emphasizes nonmotorized recreation.

After concluding in 2009 that a forest-wide travel management project would not have a significant environmental impact, the Forest Service published a reclassified system of roads and trails within the forest.

Claiming that the new plan designated 142 miles of unclassified roads and decommissioned 154 miles, the agency said it would actually reduce motorized use in 108 miles of the forest.

After failing to challenge the plan at the administrative level, the Sierra Club and two Minnesota groups filed suit, claiming violations of the National Environmental Policy Act and other federal laws, including the Endangered Species Act because of the plan's supposed impact on the Canada lynx.

U.S. District Judge Susan Richard Nelson in Minneapolis awarded summary judgment to the government Thursday, rejecting the environmentalists' claims that the plan would increase off-road use "sevenfold."

"Plaintiffs' argument ... is premised on a typographical error ... such that the alternative selected by the Forest Service ... represents a decrease of almost 200 miles to 528 miles of such travelways," she wrote.

Nelson also sidelined concerns about intrusion into the natural habitat of the Canada lynx.

"While the project overall opens 46 miles of trail to OHV use ... it decommissions 157 miles of road - a net decrease of 111 miles," the 50-page decision states, abbreviating off-highway vehicle.

"And once the new system is put into place and the map of designated uses is published, any use not in compliance with the map's designations, including snowmobile use anywhere other than on designated trails, will be prohibited," Nelson added.

The court also rejected calls for an environmental impact study, which the groups had said were necessary because of "noise, water pollution, air pollution and other impacts that will clearly change the nature of the wilderness experience."

But Nelson said the arguments failed to "establish undisputed facts," and instead relied on 22-pages of claims that they submitted into the record in 2008.

"Plaintiffs appear to approach the issue of preservation of wilderness character in a literal and absolute fashion - that is, that any Forest Service action, such as the reconfiguration of the OHV roads and trails on the SNF proposed by the project, that results in any increase in noise entering the BWCAW, any increase in non-native invasive species, or any diminishment of water and air quality, 'degrades' the wilderness character of the BWCAW so as to violate the Wilderness Act," Nelson wrote.

"Plaintiffs have failed to meet their burdens of establishing any arbitrary or capricious action, abuse of discretion or violation of law," the decision states.

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