In a victory for wildlife habitat in the Sierra Nevada, a federal judge has ruled that the U.S. Forest Service failed in its management of forest trails created by off-road vehicles in the Stanislaus National Forest. The court decision released on Friday stated that the Travel Management Plan (TMP) violated federal law because it did not minimize damage to the environment caused by off-road vehicles.
U.S. District Court Judge Kimberly Mueller ordered a hearing on February 15th to consider remedies for the illegal TMP.
"The Forest Service squandered an important opportunity to finally do something about highly destructive impacts caused by off-road vehicles in the Stanislaus Forest,” commented Erin Tobin, attorney for the public interest law firm Earthjustice. “This decision confirms that the Forest Service needs to do a better job of protecting the forest and its streams and wildlife from these damaging machines.”
Conservation groups took legal action in August 2010 to stop Forest Service approval of 137 miles of unauthorized off-road vehicle routes—many of which cause environmental harm in the Stanislaus National Forest. The suit sought to block a significant expansion of motorized trails that often damage streams and habitat for rare species. Among the affected wildlife are California spotted owls, northern goshawks, and western pond turtles, the only species of turtle native to California. The newly authorized routes would have allowed noisy off-road vehicles to enter 55 separate “protected activity centers” that the Forest Service had previously established to protect spotted owls and goshawks while they are nesting and raising young.
“We recognize the importance of balancing the desires of off-highway-vehicle advocates with the needs of the vast majority of forest visitors who seek quiet recreation and want appropriate protection of water and wildlife resources,” said John Buckley, executive director of the Central Sierra Environmental Resource Center. “Now we hope that all parties can work cooperatively to come up with a revised plan that steers off-road vehicles to those specific areas of the national forest where they cause the least resource impacts and the least conflict with non-motorized recreational visitors.”
The Stanislaus is a popular forest destination area in the Sierra Nevada, offering exceptional opportunities for hiking, camping, backpacking, horseback riding, and wildlife viewing. In the 1970s, Presidents Nixon and Carter ordered the Forest Service to better protect plants, water, and wildlife from off-road vehicles and to close areas damaged by off-road vehicles. However, Forest Service officials delayed complying with those and numerous other legal mandates until finally approving a still-inadequate plan in November 2009. That plan is the focus of the legal ruling.
The court did not order closing of any specific off-road vehicle trails, but will consider in a future proceeding what the appropriate remedy should be to rectify the Forest Service's violations of law. But the court ruling does side with the conservation groups in finding that the Forest Service failed to affirmatively take steps to minimize damage caused by off-road vehicle trails, as required by law.
“Off-highway vehicle users have already illegally created more than one hundred miles of unapproved motorcycle and all-terrain-vehicle routes in the forest,” said Karen Schambach with Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility. “The Stanislaus management plan would have rewarded those destructive activities that cut across streams and slice through winter deer range and other key wildlife areas. A new look at the plan offers a new chance to fix this problem.”
Earthjustice represented The Wilderness Society, the Central Sierra Environmental Resource Center (CSERC), and Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) in the lawsuit.