(CN) - The U.S. Forest Service neglected to consider how a boom in snowmobiles, motorcycles and mountain bikes in Montana's Gallatin National Forest will affect opportunities for backwoods quiet and solitude outside Yellowstone National Park, the 9th Circuit ruled.
Federal law requires the service to maintain the 155,000-acre Hyalite-Porcupine-Buffalo Horn Wilderness Study Area, near Yellowstone's northern boundary, as if it were still 1977. While dirt bikes, snow mobiles and even mountain bikes are not allowed within the study area, an explosion in their use over the last several decades has challenged the agency's ability to maintain the area's wilderness character. It is an issue that continues to frustrate forest officials, wilderness advocates and motorized-recreation groups across the country.
A 2006 plan meant to address the issue in the Gallatin satisfied neither the environmental groups nor the off-highway vehicle (OHV) enthusiasts. One side said the plan illegally increased the amount of acreage within the forest open to motorized use, with the other claiming the contrary. Regardless, the plan restricted motorcycles and mountain bikes to 168 miles of trails, with snowmobiles confined to an 11,000-acre open area surrounded by a 7000-acre buffer zone. The forest itself covers just over 2 million acres.
Represented by Earthjustice, the Montana Wilderness Association, the Greater Yellowstone Coalition and other environmental groups filed a federal lawsuit against the Forest Service in Montana. Citizens for Balanced Use and other groups representing OHV advocates filed their own suit. U.S. District Court Judge Donald Molloy consolidated the cases and granted summary judgment to the environmental groups, finding that the service had failed to properly and completely address how a recognized increase in motorized vehicles in the forest would affect the wilderness study area.
The service had told the trial court that it "lacked complete historical data" and so could not accurately quantify the otherwise obvious boom in OHV-use, according to the ruling. But "observations by Forest Service personnel" suggested that in the winter of 1999-2000, snow-mobile traffic on a trail that passes through the wilderness study area was roughly twice that of the same period 20 years before.
A three-judge panel of 9th Circuit judges recognized the service's data quandary, but was largely unmoved, affirming the District Court on Thursday from Portland.
"The proper response to that problem is for the service to do the best it can with the data it has, not to ignore the volume of use increase completely," Judge Raymond Fisher wrote for a three-member panel.
Lacking reliable statistics, the service had simply "ignored the obvious impact of increased volume of motorized and mechanized use on current users' ability to enjoy the study area's 1977 wilderness character," Fisher added.
A substantial part of that "wilderness character," according to the Wilderness Act, is the ability to enjoy quiet and solitude. But "an area's ability to provide solitude depends on a current user's perception of other users around him - not just on the physical characteristics of the land," according to ruling.
"The travel plan improperly ignores the impact of increased volume of motorized and mechanized use on current users' ability to seek quiet and solitude in the study area," Fisher wrote.
Earthjustice attorney Tim Preso said in a statement that the ruling "reaffirms that this stretch of wild land adjoining the park boundary is a special place that should not become a motorized playground."
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