Lawsuit Challenges Bitterroot Snowmobilers' Use Of Forest Road



Confusion over boundary lines and a pending lawsuit has Bitterroot Ridgerunner Snowmobile Club members worried about the future of a popular snowmobile route at Lost Trail Pass.

Club president Dan Thompson said the group submitted a request in 2010 to the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest to groom the 1260 Road, which begins at a snowmobile parking area at Lost Trail Pass and drops down into Trail Creek.

"It's a popular route that can get really rough in the wintertime," Thompson said.

During the course of processing the club's request, Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest officials found the road had been included in an area designated for winter non-motorized use on a map in the 2009 forest plan revision.

That non-motorized area was originally set aside to protect the cross-country ski area at Chief Joseph Pass.

Thompson said Forest Service officials have told him the road was never intended to be included in the non-motorized winter allocation, though.

Still, fixing the mistake isn't as simple as just redrawing a line on a map.

From the agency's perspective, Wisdom District Ranger Russ Riebe said, their actions are guided by laws and regulations.

"When the regional forester signs a decision and says it's so, it's so," Riebe said. "Whatever comes out in black and white is the law of the land."

At this point, Forest Service officials have decided the only way to fix the problem is to do an amendment to the forest's land-use plan.

But they're not willing to do that until judges make a decision on pending litigation that challenges the way the forest allocated winter motorized use.

Three environmental groups sued the Beaverhead-Deerlodge Forest over its decision to not do a site-specific analysis for motorized winter recreation when it updated its land use plan

That issue is currently before the Ninth Circuit of Appeals.

Adam Rissen of Wildlands CPR said the lawsuit could have national ramifications in the way the Forest Service addresses winter motorized recreation.

Under the current rules, Rissen said, national forests have the option to avoid analysis of impacts to soil, water, wildlife and other forms of recreation created by snowmobile use.

"We don't think it should be a choice," Rissen said. "It's not a choice for ATVs or motorcycles. Why do snowmobiles get a pass?"

So, Rissen said, environmental groups are challenging that rule in their lawsuit against the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest.

At this point, Rissen said the groups can't give a position on the road in question because they don't have enough information to make that determination since the agency hasn't done a site-specific analysis.

"That one road might not be an issue," he said. "We don't know how much snowmobile traffic it receives. We don't know if wolverines or mountain goats travel through there. We need more information."

"That's what we've been asking the Forest Service to do," Rissen said. "We need that information so we can say one way or the other."

Rissen said the groups are not looking to close down snowmobiling on national forest lands, but do want the agency to be required to complete an analysis of that use's impacts.

In the meantime, Riebe said the agency doesn't have any plans to patrol the road in question this winter.

"With our declining budgets, we very seldom patrol anything after hunting season," he said. "I can't come out and tell you we won't cite anybody. I think it would depend on how flagrant the violation was. But we can't allow the group to groom the road for motorized use in a non-motorized area."

The agency will suggest snowmobilers take alternative routes to stay out of the area marked as non-motorized.

The uncertain status of the road makes snowmobilers uneasy.

"We really feel exposed," Thompson said. "All it takes is one person with a lawyer to file a lawsuit that says this area is closed to snowmobiling and then the Forest Service won't have a leg to stand on."

"There are a lot of nut cases out there who would just file a lawsuit just to be mean," he said. "It's a route that we need to continue to have. It's also used by cross-country skiers and mushers. Everyone wants it open to snowmobiling."

Reach reporter Perry Backus at 363-3300 or

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