Judge Halts Proposed Biathlon Course Near Helena

By Beacon Staff

HELENA – A federal judge has put a halt to the Montana Army National Guard’s proposed biathlon course near MacDonald Pass west of Helena, saying a look into the environmental effects of the project was inadequate.

U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy ruled Wednesday that construction of the facility can’t move forward until the Helena National Forest takes a deeper look at the proposal. The judge said forest officials did not put together a full-blown Environmental Impact Statement because the Guard balked at the cost of such a document. Instead, officials conducted a less-stringent Environmental Analysis.

The 31-acre course would be groomed and open to cross-country skiing by the public when not in military use for biathlon, a sport that involves rigorous cross-country skiing and target shooting with .22-caliber rifles. For the military, the course would be a place to train biathletes who would represent the National Guard in national and international competitions, and possibly even the Olympics.

But Molloy said the Helena National Forest’s analysis wasn’t enough to consider the possible effects on elk, lynx and wildlife habitat connectivity as well as the overall possible cumulative effects.

Helena National Forest Supervisor Kevin Riordan said he disagreed with Molloy’s assessment that the Guard’s reluctance to pay for an Environmental Impact Statement affected the forest’s decision to conduct a less-stringent analysis.

“Nothing was predetermined,” he said. “Funding never comes into making the decision to do an EA or an EIS; we do the appropriate analysis for what we need to do.”

Riordan said he doesn’t know if the project will move forward, and Maj. Tim Crowe with the National Guard said he’s also unsure of the biathlon course’s future.

“We haven’t been able to review the entire document, so at this point it’s too early to say what we’re going to do,” Crowe said. “But we’re eager to review it.”

Molloy’s decision pleased several conservation groups who filed a lawsuit to block the project, saying it would affect wildlife traveling between Yellowstone and northern wilderness areas — including animals covered by the Endangered Species Act.

“We always thought it was obvious they weren’t following the law, and we wish they would start listening to our comments. That would have saved everybody a lot of time and money,” said Mike Garrity, executive director of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies. “They have a lot of things to fix, and I don’t think they can do that and still have a biathlon course there.”

Garrity’s group filed the lawsuit along with the Helena Hunters and Anglers, the Native Ecosystems Council and American Wildlands.