Recreation Groups Settle Illegal Wilderness Lawsuit

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Boise, ID - A newly-filed settlement agreement would withdraw restrictions on motorized and mechanized access to "Recommended Wilderness" Areas (RWA) in Idaho's Clearwater National Forest.

The settlement comes in a lawsuit filed in 2012 by the Idaho State Snowmobile Association and the BlueRibbon Coalition, which alleged that the Northern Region of the Forest Service (FS) created an internal "recommended wilderness policy" that illegally limited management options. In the settlement, the Forest Service "dispute Plaintiffs' claims" but acknowledges "that regional issuance of documents described as guidance for forest planning, including planning for RWA management, has led to confusion and misperception regarding the role that such documents serve with respect to FS planning, including motorized travel planning..."

The FS commits in the settlement to issue a new decision that will govern motorized and over snow access management to RWAs. The agreement states the FS will endeavor to implement a new decision before the 2014-15 winter season. In the absence of such a new decision, management will revert "to previous management direction" which has authorized snowmobile, motorcycle and mountain bike access to some portions of these remote areas, particularly including the "Great Burn" along the north central Idaho-Montana border.

"We are pleased by this development," stated Sandra Mitchell, Public Lands Director of the Idaho State Snowmobile Association, the lead plaintiff. "The concern over administratively designated wilderness will likely continue, but at least in this case the Service is agreeing to reconsider what we contend was an illegal expansion of the agency's role."

The settlement is awaiting court approval. Wilderness advocacy organizations have intervened in the case and court documents suggest they will object to the settlement agreement. "We have on numerous occasions reviewed similar settlement agreements where the parties' roles were reversed," noted Paul Turcke, the Boise, Idaho lawyer representing the recreation plaintiffs. "We look forward to responding to any objections the intervenors may seek to raise."

The case is entitled Idaho State Snowmobile Ass'n v. U.S. Forest Service, Case No. CV-12-447-BLW. A copy of the complete settlement agreement may be viewed at http://www.sharetrails.org/uploads/ISSA_v_USFS_Case_CV-12-447-BLW.

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