MT Forest Recreation Plans Suffer Court Blow

     SEATTLE (CN) – Federal regulators must reassess how snowmobile use will affect 2 million acres of Montana’s largest national forest, the Ninth Circuit ruled Monday.
     WildEarth Guardians, Friends of the Bitterfoot and Montanans for Quiet Recreation brought the challenge at issue after the U.S. Forest Service designated 60 percent of the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest for use by winter motorized vehicles.
     Contending that the agency’s environmental impact statement failed to adequately evaluate how snowmobiles will affect the area’s big-game wildlife, the groups alleged violations of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).
     They also claimed that potential conflicts between snowmobiles and other recreational uses of the land warranted consideration.
     A federal judge ultimately found the agency’s analysis unclear but said it was nevertheless adequate and granted the government partial summary judgment.
     The Ninth Circuit revived the claim regarding wildlife impacts Monday, saying the environmental impact statement provided “virtually no information about where the big game winter range is actually located, nor the concentration of game in each area.”
     Though the Forest Service had cited tables and data in the statement regarding species as moose, elk and mule deer, the three-judge appellate panel rejected the proffered “paltry information.”
     “The Forest Service asks us to assume the adequacy and accuracy of partial data without providing any basis for doing so,” Judge Richard Paez wrote for the court. “NEPA requires more.”
     Paez said that the environmental impact statement “does not provide the public adequate access to information about the impact of snowmobiles on big game wildlife and habitat.”
     “The information included in and referenced by the EIS therefore does not allow the public to ‘play a role in both the decision-making process and the implementation of that decision,'” the 30-page opinion continues.
     Paez likewise revived claims under the Travel Management Rule (TMR), saying the service is required to minimize soil and watershed damage, as well as wildlife harassment.
     “The EIS’s reference to plan-wide data and general decision-making principles is inadequate under the TMR,” Paez said. “There is nothing in the TMR, or anywhere else, that allows the Forest Service to designate multiple areas for snowmobile use on the basis of a single forest-wide analysis and general decision-making principles.
     “Instead, the TMR requires the Forest Service to apply the minimization criteria to each area it designated for snowmobile use.” (Italics in opinion.)
     Paez said that “mere consideration” of the TMR’s minimization criteria is not sufficient to comply with the regulation.
     Uncle Sam did get credit in the decision, however, for its assessment of the potential conflict between snowmobiles and other winter recreational activities such as cross-country skiing and snowshoeing.
     “WildEarth’s argument that the Forest Service did not adequately review the consequences of its recreation allotments is not supported in the record,” Paez said.
     The environmental impact statement’s sections addressing seasonal visitation levels and forestwide recreational trends and opportunities provided sufficient information to establish that the Forest Service took the NEPA-mandated “hard look” at the impacts of snowmobile use on non-motorized recreation in the area, the court found.
     Neither side immediately responded to request for comment on Monday.

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