"Building a road into the Absaroka-Beartooth wilderness is like throwing a brick through a church window – it is an assault on one of Montana's treasures, and we will oppose it," said Earthjustice attorney Tim Preso, who is representing conservationists in the case.
The court filing was in response to a lawsuit filed by the Absaroka Trust, a trust established by Livingston resident James Sievers. The Trust seeks to overturn a decision by the U.S. Forest Service denying the Trust's request to build a 20-foot-wide gravel road through the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness Area to access a 120-acre private inholding. The Forest Service has estimated that 8.6 miles of new road would be required to reach the property. The wilderness, which adjoins the northern boundary of Yellowstone National Park, is a 943,626-acre expanse of alpine lakes, sweeping tundra, steep canyons and dense forests. Elk, moose, and grizzly bears find refuge within its boundaries, and its 700 miles of trails provide outstanding opportunities for hiking, backpacking, horseback riding, and hunting.
The proposed road would be used to log and mine the inholding property, and to construct and operate a hunting and fishing lodge, according to court documents. The Forest Service denied the Absaroka Trust's request to build the road in November, and the Trust sued the Forest Service in Montana's federal district court late last year.
"The Forest Service was right to deny the request to build a road into the Wilderness," said Bob Ekey, Northern Rockies Regional Director for The Wilderness Society. "When you buy property in the heart of a Wilderness area, you shouldn't expect to drive to it. Access by trails in the area is adequate."
"What makes this road-building proposal even more offensive is that the landowner wants the taxpayers to finance it," added Bob Decker, Executive Director of the Montana Wilderness Association. He noted that among the lawsuit's demands is that the Forest Service pay for all costs and expenses incurred in constructing the road – a sum that has been estimated at well over $1 million. "Not only should this road never be built, but it is adding insult to injury to insist that Americans pay for the destruction of their own wilderness."
Several of the conservation groups involved in today's court filing played critical roles in obtaining protection for the Absaroka and Beartooth Moutain ranges as federal wilderness. Conservationists waged a long campaign in support of Absaroka-Beartooth wilderness legislation in the late 1970s. The legislation was introduced by the late Montana Sen. Lee Metcalf and finally was enacted in 1978, shortly after Sen. Metcalf's death.
"The Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness Area is a critical piece of Montana's conservation legacy," said Tim Stevens of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition. "We will not stand by while that legacy is destroyed to advance the private interests of a single landowner."
George Nickas, Executive Director of Wilderness Watch, noted that the Absaroka Trust's lawsuit represents just one of many controversies that have arisen recently over motorized access to private lands within wilderness areas: "This case will have a profound impact on the entire National Wilderness Preservation System. With literally thousands of individual parcels of private lands scattered throughout the system, a ruling in the Trust's favor threatens to eviscerate millions of acres of Wilderness designated to date."
"Wilderness areas are Americans' loftiest expression of respect for our natural world, and a vast majority of Americans do not want that expression to be trampled," added Jim Barrett, Executive Director of the Park County Environmental Council. "Attempting to build a road through our Wilderness area is a blatantly arrogant violation of Americans' desire to respect the sanctity of these rare landscapes."