Clearwater National Forest, Idaho
Lawsuits threaten IMMEDIATE CLOSURE of OHV trails!
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BRC & ISSA Challenge "De Facto Wilderness" At Clearwater
BlueRibbon and the Idaho State Snowmobile Association have again joined forces in the courtroom, this time to challenge the 2011 Clearwater National Forest Travel Plan and its rollout of the Northern Region Recommended Wilderness Area ("RWA") Policy. Under the Policy, RWA's will effectively be managed as formally designated Wilderness, which in the Clearwater meant eliminating long-occurring snowmobile, motorcycle and mountain bike use.
"We believe the RWA Policy is just wrong," said Brian Hawthorne, BRC Public Lands Policy Director. "First, only Congress can create Wilderness. Second, the RWA Policy creates a "pure" Wilderness unlike any defined by Congress in at least a decade. Third, the Policy has never been legitimately promulgated or otherwise daylighted before the public. Lands like RWA present sufficient management challenges without the agency illegally tilting the regulatory template," Hawthorne noted.
Roughly half of the Clearwater Forest (about 950,000 acres) consists of "inventoried roadless areas." Of these, four totaling 198,200 acres have been labeled as RWA's by the Forest Service, meaning the agency has determined they meet the criteria for Wilderness designation. But absent formal designation as Wilderness by Congress, they can be, and for decades have been, designated for uses that would be prohibited in most Wilderness areas, including motorized and mechanized vehicle access. In the Clearwater, these "nonconforming" uses have included premier off-trail snowmobile riding in the Great Burn area near the Idaho-Montana border, and limited motorcycle access to single track trails near Kelly Creek. Idaho's rich Wilderness legacy in the Frank Church, Selway-Bitterroot and most recently Owyhee Canyonlands Wilderness Areas have included extensive motorized access that did not impair Wilderness resources or otherwise impede Congressional designation.
For years, BlueRibbon and ISSA have pushed the Forest Service to produce and defend the rumored RWA Policy. Following a series of pleasant but largely unproductive meetings, the agency finally in 2007 first produced a written document outlining the guidance provided to Northern Region Forests on RWA. According the lawsuit, that guidance suffers numerous legal flaws, and essentially forces land managers into an improper dichotomous choice between "Wilderness" and "non-wilderness" management for RWA. The Clearwater Travel Plan appears the first instance where the RWA Policy has clearly been applied to dictate a meaningful on-the-ground designation by the agency.
"The recreation and multiple use communities need answers to the questions posed in this suit," Hawthorne observed. "We know there are folks within and beyond the agency that are out to get us, but we need to know if they're allowed to play by this version of the rules," he cautioned.
The case was filed on August 29, 2012, and is in its early stages. Counsel has not yet entered an appearance on behalf of the Forest Service.
This case challenges an alleged Forest Service "Region 1 Recommended Wilderness Policy" brought by plaintiffs Idaho State Snowmobile Association and BRC. We cannot report the details, but can advise that recent status reports filed with the Court indicate that counsel has agreed to settlement terms which are undergoing final approval with federal officials. Rather than rush to judgment on the merits, our Legal Team engaged a creative strategy focusing on "expanding" review beyond the paper record, which resulted in a preliminary ruling from the Court that provided a basis for discovery and deposition of key Forest Service officials. Facing this possibility, the Forest Service is choosing to settle the case. We look forward to revealing more information as the approval process is completed.