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Minnesota Snowmobile Trail Gets Go-Ahead

MINNEAPOLIS (CN) - Plans for snowmobile trail in a Minnesota forest pose no major environmental problems, a federal judge ruled, ending a protracted legal battle between environmentalists and the U.S. Forest Service.

The Sierra Club and several other environmentalist groups brought the lawsuit in 2006, alleging that the proposed South Fowl Trail in the Superior National Forest would create noise pollution in violation of the Wilderness Act.

NEPA, short for the National Environmental Policy Act, also requires the agency ti properly complete an environmental impact statement (EIS), the groups said.

After the court in Minneapolis ordered completion of that statement, along with several alternative routes for the snowmobile trail, the agency selected a suitable alternative trail that minimized noise pollution.

An appeal from the groups when the court approved that plan led the Forest Service to further study acoustic issues.

A report that the agency presented in March 2013 report predicting that the decibel levels of the increased noise pollution worrying the groups "would be relatively quiet to the ear."

All parties sought summary judgment on the amended complaint, but U.S. District Judge John Tunheim sided with the government on Friday.

"Snowmobile sounds can already be heard throughout the impacted wilderness area and visitors' expectations for isolation and solitude should be 'moderate to low,'" the Feb. 13 ruling states.

Since "snowmobiles and other motorized sounds are already audible throughout the affected wilderness," Tunheim added that "the construction of a new snowmobile trail is not in conflict with the existing character of the wilderness and is not, by itself, enough to establish a Wilderness Act violation."

The plaintiffs argued that the proposed trail will "more than double" the sound currently experienced by visitors to the Superior National Forest, and increase noise by up to 27 dBA.

Judge Tunheim played down this concern. "While a 27 dBA increase appears dramatic on paper, the increase in sound will not be as significant, practically speaking, as the plaintiffs allege," he wrote. "Indeed, the sound level will, at most, change from that of rustling leaves or a whisper to moderate rainfall or a wooded residential neighborhood."

Admittedly, "if one is standing at Royal Lake in winter, hearing nothing more than a whisper, the sound of moderate rainfall ... would change the experience at that lake, to be sure," Tunheim wrote.

But the increased noise "is not sufficient alone to establish that the Forest Service's determination that the change in sound is 'small in scope' ... amounts to arbitrary and capricious action that violates the Wilderness Act," according to the ruling.

That snowmobiles will primarily be used on weekends, when many recreationists also visit the forest, also fails to support the environmentalists' claims, the court found.

"The Royal Lake and Royal River area, where the impacts of [the trail] are the greatest, is virtually unvisited during the winter," Tunheim wrote. "Indeed, the record shows that Royal Lake is difficult to reach at the time of year when snowmobiles will be in use. Therefore, the practical effect on wilderness visitors during the entire winter is minimal at most."

As to the NEPA claim, Tunheim agreed that the Forest Service had failed to properly disclose all details of its alternative plans and the impact each of those plans would have on the surrounding environment.

Finding such error harmless, however, Tunheim said "very little relevant information was missing from the [impact statements].

Moreover, "the amount of analysis that was done and breadth of information on which the public had the opportunity to comment make it likely that the error had no practical effect," the ruling states.

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