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Judge Upholds Protections on Kootenai National Forest

Snowmobilers sought to overturn motorized restrictions in proposed wilderness areas

A federal judge on Oct. 18 ruled against a group of snowmobilers and other interest groups seeking to challenge wilderness provisions in the Kootenai and Idaho Panhandle national forest plans, upholding protections that restrict or limit motorized use.

At issue was the U.S. Forest Service’s 2015 revised forest management plans for the two forests, which recommended certain rugged and unspoiled areas for wilderness designation.

Plaintiffs in the lawsuit accused the Forest Service of improperly excluding snowmobile use from the forest’s recommended wilderness areas and improperly recommending new waterways for the national Wild and Scenic River Act designation. They include the Ten Lakes Snowmobile Club, Montanans for Multiple Use, Citizens for Balanced Use, the Glen Lake Irrigation District, Backcountry Sled Patriots, the Idaho State Snowmobile Association and the Blueribbon Coalition.

Defendants include the Forest Service, Kootenai National Forest, Idaho-Panhandle National Forests, and a host of forest officials. The lawsuit also included a coalition of conservation groups that intervened to support the Forest Service’s recommended wilderness areas.

They include the Wilderness Society, Headwaters Montana, Idaho Conservation League, Montana Wilderness Association, Winter Wildlands Alliance, Panhandle Nordic Club, and Montana Wilderness Association.

Last week, U.S. District Court Judge Dana Christensen ruled that the plaintiffs failed to establish that the Forest Service’s were “arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion, or otherwise not in accordance with the law.”

Both the Kootenai and Idaho-Panhandle forests issued new forest plans in January 2015, replacing versions dating back to 1987. They also issued draft travel management plans, which closed access to some recommended wilderness areas where snowmobiles had been allowed to ride in the past.

According to Ten Lakes attorney Paul Turcke, the Forest Service’s process for determining wilderness areas in its new plans was flawed, particularly as it named the Roderick and Scotchman Peaks areas as recommended wilderness subject to motorized restrictions.

Attorneys representing the conservation groups argued that snowmobilers already enjoy access to 86 percent of the Kootenai forest and 70 percent of the Idaho Panhandle.

Dave Hadden, director of Headwaters Montana, one of the environmental groups that intervened, commended the court’s decision.

“This court decision demonstrates that the Forest Service can and should protect the last vestiges of wilderness land on our national forest,” Hadden stated in a press release. “ The Kootenai and Panhandle forests are heavily devoted to timber and motorized recreation. This decision protects the small percentage of our wild country for wildlife and for people seeking a wilderness experience.”

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