A federal judge today rejected a challenge by motorized recreation groups to a U.S. Forest Service plan for Montana’s largest national forest, the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest, that designated 322,000 acres of pristine lands as recommended wilderness open to traditional foot and horse access.
A coalition of off-road vehicles groups and sympathetic county commissioners sued the Forest Service in December 2010 in an effort to overturn the recommended wilderness protections, which stem from a 2009 forest plan revision. The revised plan allowed motorized-vehicle use across 55 percent of the Beaverhead-Deerlodge forest in the summer and 60 percent in the winter, but the plaintiffs asked the court to open forest lands to even more motorized vehicle use.
In today’s ruling, U.S. District Judge Sam Haddon rejected the plaintiffs’ challenge, holding that the Forest Service had adequately considered impacts of the recommended wilderness designations and finding that the plaintiffs had failed to establish standing to sue on some of their claims. Earthjustice attorney Tim Preso argued the case on behalf of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition and the Montana Wilderness Association last Friday, July 19, before Judge Haddon at a court hearing in Butte.
The following are statements from the groups who defended the recommended wilderness designations in the case:
Earthjustice Managing Attorney Tim Preso: “This court decision protects pristine mountain ranges of the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest from motorized traffic while preserving traditional access on foot and horseback. We are pleased that present and future generations of hikers, horse packers, anglers and hunters will be able to enjoy these wild Montana mountains undisturbed by engine noise and exhaust.”
John Gatchell of the Montana Wilderness Association: “We are pleased this ruling enables the U.S. Forest Service to safeguard the quiet beauty and historic wilderness character of the Pioneers, Snowcrest, Sapphires and other wild mountain gems along the rugged Continental Divide. Without the protections afforded by the forest plan, even these remote mountain lands would quickly become scarred and degraded by unmanaged motor vehicles and future generations would lose the opportunity to experience their untrammeled wild majesty.”
Greater Yellowstone Coalition spokesperson Jeff Welsch: "Obviously, we're pleased—and applaud Earthjustice for helping to protect yet another extraordinary collection of landscapes. The Forest Service did the right thing from the start by recognizing the unique characteristics and values of these relatively small parts of the forest, and the court's decision reaffirms this."
At 3.35 million acres, the Beaverhead-Deerlodge is Montana’s largest national forest. It encompasses more roadless lands—1.8 million acres—than any Montana national forest. The revised forest plan allocated a small minority (18%) of those roadless lands to recommended wilderness. Those lands remain accessible by traditional foot and pack stock. Recommended wilderness lands include sensitive alpine areas of the East Pioneers, Lima Peaks, Snowcrest Range and Italian Peaks.