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Friday, July 12, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Off-Highway Fans Lose Speed in Trail Dispute

(CN) - The U.S. Forest Service did not violate federal environmental laws by limiting the use of dirt bikes, ATVs, snowmobiles and other off-highway vehicles in Montana's Lewis and Clark National Forest, the 9th Circuit ruled Wednesday.

The federal appeals court in Portland dealt a blow to the Montana Trail Vehicle Riders Association and other groups that claimed that the agency's 2007 travel-management plan for the forest improperly cut back on the number of trails open to off-highway vehicle (OHV) enthusiasts.

The plan left open 1,366 miles of trails and roads within the 2,800-square mile forest. Within the forest's Middle Fork Judith Wilderness Study Area, the Forest Service cut the number of miles open to OHVs from 112 miles to 38 miles. Also, the agency dropped a rule that allowed camping within 300 feet of a road, limiting off-road travel to within 70 feet of the road for purposes of parking or turning around.

The off-highway groups sued the Forest Service in Montana federal court, claiming that the agency had chosen an unfairly restrictive plan among several options. The groups favored changes that would have allowed use of between 1,287 to 2,262 miles of roads and trails, according to the ruling. They argued that the agency, by choosing such a restrictive option, needed a supplemental environmental impact statement before implementing the plan. They also contended that federal wilderness laws barred the agency from making wilderness-study areas more restrictive than they were when first designated.

U.S. District Judge Sam Haddon sided with the recreation groups, though the decision proved shaky on appeal.

Since the agency's final plan reduced the total mileage available to off-highway vehicles by about 30 percent "beyond the most restrictive ... alternative," a supplemental impact statement was required, Haddon ruled. He also found that while federal wilderness law requires the agency to preserve the "wilderness character" of a wilderness study area against decline, it also prohibits it from "enhancing" that character, according to the ruling.

In a unanimous reversal, a three-judge panel of 9th circuit judges found that Judge Haddon had committed an early, fatal error when he relied on the recreation groups' interpretation of the travel plan rather than that of the agency.

The groups initially claimed that their favored option would have allowed motorized use on between 1,951 and 3,036 miles of routes, which placed the 1,366 miles included in the final travel plan outside the range of alternatives considered in the draft environmental impact statement (DEIS) and thus would have required a supplement. But those numbers, which Haddon used to make his ruling, were the result of "double counting," according to the 9th Circuit.

"The recreational groups offer no credible reason to doubt either the accuracy of the service's mileage figures, which are supported by the administrative record, or the service's assertion that the numbers relied on by the District Court are inappropriate for comparison to the 1,366 figure because they reflect double counting," Judge Raymond Fisher wrote for the panel. "We therefore credit the service's mileage figures. As a consequence, the overall motorized-use miles authorized by the travel plan are within the range of alternatives included in the DEIS."

The appellate panel also objected to the lower court's reading of the Montana Wilderness Study Act, finding that the agency's further restriction of motorized vehicles within the forest's wilderness-study area conforms to both the letter of the law and congressional intent.

"We hold that nothing in the Study Act, which requires the service to manage a wilderness study area so as to 'maintain' its wilderness character as it existed in 1977, prohibits the service from exercising its discretion to enhance the wilderness character of a study area," Fisher wrote.

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