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Motorized Riders Fight for Access in Montana

MISSOULA, Mont. (CN) - A group of snowmobilers, motorcyclists and ATV riders say the U.S. Forest Service unfairly denied them access to nearly 130,000 acres of non-wilderness land in northern Montana.

Several Montanans and three open-trail associations, including Montanans for Multiple Use, filed a federal lawsuit against the U.S. Forest Service and two regional supervisors, challenging a plan to ban snowmobile use and 96 percent of all summer motorcycle and ATV use in the Badger-Two Medicine area of the Lewis & Clark National Forest, a 129,520-acre, non-wilderness portion of the Rocky Mountain Ranger District.

The plan, released in March, closed 182 of the 189 miles on the Badger-Two Medicine area to all motorized vehicles, limited access to the rest, and banned access to snowmobilers.

The groups say the area has a "long and rich history" of multiple-use recreation, including mountain biking and snowmobiling trails with scenic views of Glacier National Park and the Bob Marshall Wilderness Area.

Region One, a sub-agency of the Forest Service, initially set out to improve a 1988 travel plan for the area.

According to the lawsuit, Region One was supposed to devise a new plan that would balance public need and off-highway vehicle use with environmental concerns.

Instead, forest supervisor Leslie "Spike" Thompson opted to close most of the roads to motorized vehicle use, mirroring the nearby wilderness areas where such use was already banned, the plaintiffs claim.

"With this decision, Leslie Thompson created a complete and nearly unbroken stretch of millions of acres of non-motorized recreation and closed the only multiple-use recreation area that could accommodate the large number of local Forest users who seek motorized recreation experience," the lawsuit states.

The groups say the decision unconstitutionally promotes the "Native American traditional religion," because the agency justified the move, in part, by considering how noise pollution might affect the spiritual experiences of Blackfeet Indians.

The travel plan also infringes on the access rights of Blackfeet tribal members, the plaintiffs argue, citing the tribe's 1895 treaty with the United States.

They further claim that it violates federal environmental laws, because its impact was analyzed "in a manner that is arbitrary, capricious, and not in accordance with the requirements of the law."

They say the ban on snowmobiling wasn't justified, and the analysis of the social and economic impacts was biased against motorized recreation.

The plaintiffs seek a court order voiding the Badger-Two Medicine travel plan and barring the Forest Service from implementing it, along with a declaration that the plan infringes on their constitutional rights and violates federal environmental law.

They want the court to order the agency and its officials to re-evaluate the travel plan and fix it.

Plaintiffs are represented by Anderson, Baker & Swanson in Helena, Mont.

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