BOISE (CN) - A federal judge ordered that road plans in an Idaho national forest - the largest wilderness area in the Lower 48 States - be re-evaluated for environmental impacts.
The 2.3 million-acre Payette National Forest, in west-central Idaho, includes most of the 790,000-acre Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness, the largest designated wilderness area in the Lower 48.
Many communities, such as the resort town of McCall, have a recreational and economic stake in forest access roads, which were once considered "open unless closed" by the U.S. Forest Service.
In 2005, however, the Forest Service issued new travel management regulations that required each national forest to designate roads open to motorized vehicles and prohibit vehicles off of the new designated system.
Public criticism erupted after the Payette National Forest's subsequent 2007 Final Environmental Impact Statement and 2008 record of decision that closed about 972 miles of "unauthorized" roads.
The Payette National Forest defined those roads as "roads that are not part of the National Forest System of roads and included in the forest transportation atlas."
The Forest Service weathered further public criticism when it was revealed the agency based its environmental impact statement on a proxy method of evaluating the roads' environmental impacts - in other words, it did not actually inspect the roads.
The Forest Service claimed it was necessary because of budget constraints and lack of manpower to conduct studies on all 972 miles of roads.
The criticism, however, prompted the Forest Service to conduct an environmental assessment of two of the forest's 13 management areas, in 2010. The environmental assessment recommended that two areas, areas 12 and 13, be closed to off-road motorized vehicles.
Valley County sued the Forest Service in 2011, challenging the Payette National Forest's travel management plan.
In 2012, both parties filed for summary judgment, and the court partially granted Valley County's motion, finding that the 2007 environmental impact statement and 2008 record of decision violates the National Environmental Poly Act.
The court also partially granted the Forest Service's motion, finding that the 2010 environmental assessment did not violate the NEPA.
Citing Kern v. BLM (9th Cir. 2002), U.S. District Judge B. Lynn Winmill on Monday granted Valley County's May 2014 motion for reconsideration in full because the 2010 environmental assessment cannot "stand alone" from the "flawed" 2007 environmental impact statement.
"Kern requires that to stand alone, the 2010 EA must conduct a cumulative impacts analysis that evaluates impacts beyond management areas 12 and 13," Winmill wrote in his Monday order.
"The 2010 EA contains no such cumulative impact analysis. Accordingly, the 2010 EA cannot pass muster under the NEPA. The court will therefore grant Valley County's motion to reconsider and add management areas 12 and 13 to the other eleven management areas that the PNF must reevaluate."
He also granted motions by Adams County and Idaho County to intervene, but denied Washington County's motion to intervene because the county has "no land within the areas studied by the 2007 EIS and 2008 ROD."
Winmill added that his ruling does not resolve the issue of remedy.
Read the Top 8
Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.