SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) - The U.S. Forest Service improperly opened 2,000 miles of Sierra Nevada trails to vehicles legal both on and off public highways, a federal judge ruled.
Stanislaus National Forest stretches from Lake Tahoe to Yosemite National Park in California.
The battle over the use of public lands by unauthorized off-highway vehicles, or OHVs, has simmered for decades.
In 1972, President Nixon issued an executive order holding that OHVs are "in frequent conflict with wise land and resource management practices, environmental values and other types of recreational activity." He bolstered that finding with a second order in 1977.
The Forest Service's Travel Management Rule (TMR) implements the executive orders that manage OHV use to protect resources and public safety, and minimize use conflicts.
In 2009 the Forest Service concluded a four-year review and updated its motorized travel management decision for the area. This decision restricted motorized travel within Stanislaus National Forest to National Forest Transportation System (NFTS) routes only, though it added 137 miles of previously unauthorized trails and logging roads to the official map.
While the Forest Service also changed 93 miles of NFTS roads to allow off-road vehicles, it restricted another 400 miles of roads once open to OHV to highway-legal vehicles only.
Three environmental groups - Central Sierra Environmental Resource Center, the Wilderness Society and Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility - sued the U.S. Forest Service in 2010, claiming violations of the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA) and the Administrative Procedures Act (APA).
They said the Forest Service failed to analyze alternatives or the potential consequences of adding additional roads to its map. And they said it had improperly defining the baseline of existing NFS roads and trails.
The groups admitted that the number of roads closed to vehicles was negligible in each of alternative plan. They also accused the agency of failing to consider their proposal, which would have closed 205 miles of road and added 26 miles of previously unauthorized trails to the NFTS map.
U.S. District Judge Kimberly Mueller disagreed Friday.
"The court finds the Forest Service analyzed a reasonable range of alternatives," Mueller wrote. "An alternative closing more NFTS roads, as plaintiffs proposed, would not have been inconsistent with the Purpose and Need [section of its NEPA analysis], but this does not mean the Forest Service was obligated to consider such an alternative if it would not have aided the Forest Service in making a 'reasoned choice.'"
"There is no requirement that the Forest Service consider every possible alternative, he added.
Mueller also did not find flaws in the agency's finding that the new plan would not cause negative cumulative impacts.
"Here, it was reasonable for the Forest Service to determine that reducing the overall miles available for motorized use would not cause negative cumulative impacts," Mueller wrote.
But the court did fault the Forest Service for failing to "actually show that it aimed to minimize environmental damage when designating trails and areas."
This is a requirement of the agency's own Travel Management Rule, Mueller said.
"While the final outcome of the Forest Service's designation process may not necessarily minimize environmental damage to the greatest extent possible, the Forest Service must show that it satisfies the objective of minimizing environmental impacts," he wrote. "This means the Forest Service must do more than merely consider those impacts."
Environmentalists pointed to numerous OHV routes that have suffered "substantial environmental harm," and the Forest Service's own specialist recommended that it omit these routes from the final map, the ruling states.
"In the face of plaintiffs' challenges, the Forest Service has not made the required showing that it minimized environmental impacts as required by the TMR," Mueller wrote.
"Unlike NEPA, which requires agencies to assess environmental consequences of their decisions but does not obligate agencies to take actions that minimize those consequences, the TMR requires the Forest Service to aim to minimize environmental damage when designating routes," Mueller concluded. "The Forest Service has not explained how satisfying the procedural requirements of NEPA through the EIS analysis meets the substantive requirements of the TMR, nor pointed to any specific parts of the EIS [environmental impact statement] that sufficiently demonstrate its application of the minimization criteria."
A hearing on remedies for the Forest Service's violation of its TMR is set for Feb. 15.
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