Public Land Issue Explodes In Idaho

Coming to a forest near you?

By Sandra Mitchell
Public Lands Director Idaho State Snowmobile Association

In 20 years of working on public land issues for the Idaho State Snowmobile Association (ISSA), I thought I had seen it all, but then along came the Clearwater National Forest Travel Plan and its amazing cast of characters and circumstances.

These include one former chief of the Forest Service, the current agency chief, an unwritten/written policy/guideline, a federal judge and finally a new forest supervisor caught in the middle. All of this adds up to what I consider to be one of the greatest injustices in the history of federal land management. The saddest part of this tale is that if not corrected, it will impact every snowmobiler who rides on our national forests.

It all started during the tenure of Forest Service Region One's (R-1) Regional Forester, Brad Powell. An unwritten regional policy was created and transmitted to the region's forest supervisors requiring them to manage all of their Recommended Wilderness Areas (RWAs) with the same restrictions to public use that apply to congressionally-designated wildernesses. In other words, no motorized or mechanized recreation.

The current nationwide Forest Service policy requires that all RWAs be managed in a way that will not impair their future qualification for Wilderness, but doesn't specifically exclude all historic motorized and mechanized access.

Regional Forester Abigail Kimball, who replaced Mr. Powell, supported this policy. When Ms. Kimball was appointed chief of the Forest Service, her replacement and now chief Tom Tidwell continued to support the policy.

However, in 2007 he took the next step by putting the unwritten policy onto paper, including with it a system of evaluating wilderness potential of roadless areas in view of existing motorized use. The policy statement says under "Topic: Management of Recommended Wilderness" that the region "will be evaluating the areas that were recommended for wilderness designation in the first round of planning to determine if they should still be recommended. They also will be evaluating all other inventoried roadless areas to see if they should be recommended. For all of these areas, the forest needs to determine, through public involvement and the wilderness evaluation process, the best use of each area."

The document goes on to say that areas with a significant amount of motorized use should not be designated as RWAs and if motorized use of an RWA was significant it would be removed from that designation or the boundary adjusted.

All of these happenings set the stage for what was about to take place in the Clearwater National Forest. The forest supervisor was forced by a federal court decision to put forest planning on hold, but decided to move forward with travel planning because of the 2005 Off Highway Vehicle Rule deadline. He also decided that the forest would not amend its 1987 Forest Plan with the travel plan. As a result, they would not analyze RWA boundaries to determine, as directed by the regional forester's 2007 policy guideline, if they should be adjusted to exclude areas with significant motorized/mechanized recreation use, such as snowmobiling and mountain biking.

As a result, snowmobilers got the deck stacked against them with no way to protect their use in one of the finest backcountry alpine areas in north Idaho, the Great Burn. Regardless of the persuasiveness of our arguments, the history of our use or the support of Idaho's Congressional Delegation and Governor, the Forest Service said `no way' and banned us. No resource issues were at stake; we were banned simply because of a policy created behind closed doors with absolutely no input from the public.

ISSA, along with other recreation groups and the affected counties, appealed the Travel Plan decision, but to no avail. However, this issue was too big and the implications too great for us to simply walk away. In August, ISSA and the BlueRibbon Coalition filed suit in federal court challenging the Clearwater National Forest's decision to manage RWAs as wilderness and for National Environmental Policy Act violations they made to get to that point.

There are many reasons to be angry over the actions of Region 1 and the Clearwater National Forest, but the most glaring is the fact that this decision was made because a few people decided that managing RWAs as wilderness would reduce future opposition to the passage of wilderness bills.

Since when did the Forest Service become a political activist organization? The Forest Service is responsible for the stewardship of the public's land, not for managing the political landscape. We begged and pleaded with them to postpone any decisions on RWAs until they had completed revision of their forest plan, but they refused to consider it. We didn't even get the often insincere, "Put the request in your comments and we will consider it." The Clearwater has now started Forest Plan revision, but because our use has been eliminated from the RWAs we can no longer make a case to adjust the boundaries for an historic use that is not compatible with wilderness; we aren't there anymore.

Even more sobering is the possibility that this policy, which effectively creates an enduring system of administratively designated wildernesses, could be adopted nationwide. We cannot allow it to go unchallenged and the Clearwater is the agency's test case for the nation.

ISSA is committed to take this fight to its conclusion. The issue is too important and the injustice too glaring, but legal battles are costly.

If you agree with us and want to help, please send a contribution to the Idaho State Snowmobile Defense Fund, 10400 Overland Road #384, Boise, ID 83616.

I assure you it will be greatly appreciated.

(ED--Mitchell has served as the Public Lands Director for the Idaho State Snowmobile Association for the past 20 years. She previously worked for 12 years for former Congressman/Senator Steve Symms in Lewiston, ID.)

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