Boise, ID -- Two leading Idaho-based recreation
organizations have sued the United States Forest Service, challenging the
Clearwater National Forest's decision to impose the same public use restrictions
on areas they have recommended for possible Wilderness classification as one
would find in lands actually designated by Congress.
The Forest recently issued
a new Travel Plan limiting motorized and mountain bike access to designated
trails and areas. Motorized vehicles and mountain bikes are prohibited
uses in the 1964 Wilderness Act, and this prohibition is in effect in the vast
majority of designated Wilderness areas ever since, now about 110 million acres
nationwide. However, these uses have previously been allowed in areas
recommended for Wilderness designation unless they were proven to negatively
affect future Wilderness qualification. The new Travel Plan changes that,
imposing the same prohibitions on motorized and mechanized transport in areas
the Forest considers Wilderness candidates, as are found in formal Wilderness,
such as Idaho's
Selway-Bitterroot and Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness areas.
"Only Congress can designate Wilderness," Sandra
Mitchell, Public Lands Director of the Idaho State Snowmobile Association, the
lead plaintiff, said. "For many years we have heard rumors the
Northern Region was going to start illegally limiting their management options
in potential Wilderness areas, effectively creating a new system of administratively
designated Wilderness. In the Clearwater Travel Plan they have followed
through on that vision. We cannot stand idly by and watch them change the
long-established system for managing these treasured lands."
"The Northern Region's guidance to its National Forests
contradicts not only the law but the reality of modern-day Wilderness,"
Brian Hawthorne, Public Lands Policy Director of the BlueRibbon Coalition, a
co-plaintiff in the suit, said. "Any Wilderness designation today
will necessarily be a creative balance that allows a variety of uses that would
be prohibited under a pure reading of the 1964 Wilderness Act. Congress
has allowed energy and water developments, military overflights, or continuing
motorized access in dozens of Wilderness bills. This illegal imposition of
a 'pure' Wilderness standard for public use of proposed Wilderness areas on the
almost certainly goes further than Congress would in formally designating the
areas as Wilderness."
The suit particularly focuses on management of the
"Great Burn" area near the Idaho-Montana border. That area has
been a popular snowmobiling destination for decades, and, prior to issuance of
the Travel Plan, also received occasional motorcycle and mountain bike
use. None of these activities are allowed by the Wilderness Act, unless
specifically authorized in a particular piece of legislation.
Yet with these uses the Great Burn area has always received
"high" ratings for Wilderness attributes in all assessments
undertaken by the Forest Service. There is no documentation of resource
impacts or other threats to Wilderness character from existing recreation
activities that would limit Congressional discretion should Congress ever
decide to formally designate it as Wilderness.
The case is entitled Idaho State Snowmobile Ass'n v. U.S. Forest Service, Case
No. CV-09-2523. A copy of the recreation groups' complaint may be