In a ruling that will help preserve a potential wilderness area against a rising tide of motorized recreation, a federal judge has invalidated a U.S. Forest Service decision to allow a major helicopter skiing expansion in the Bridger-Teton and Caribou-Targhee National Forests.
A coalition of concerned citizens and conservation groups challenged the Forest Service’s issuance of a new 10-year helicopter skiing permit for the Palisades area on the Wyoming-Idaho border in a lawsuit filed in January of 2006. The new permit would allow up to 1,200 helicopter skiers each year, with the great majority of helicopter activity occurring in the Palisades Wilderness Study Area.
In today’s ruling, U.S. District Court Judge B. Lynn Winmill concluded that the permit violated the 1984 Wyoming Wilderness Act’s mandate to preserve wilderness character, stating: “The Palisades WSA has been carved out by Congress for special protection. Public demand for heliskiing, the balancing of competing interests, and ‘managed growth’ are not the governing standards under the Wyoming Wilderness Act. Instead, Congress has directed the Forest Service to maintain the 1984 wilderness character of the area. That is the primary duty of the Forest Service, and it must guide all decisions as the first and foremost standard of review for any proposed action.”
“The Forest Service’s decision would have channeled more and more motorized use into the Wilderness Study Area,” said Earthjustice lawyer Tim Preso, who represented conservationists in the case. “That is not appropriate for a potential wilderness.”
Congress specifically told the Forest Service when it passed the Wyoming Wilderness Act in 1984 to manage the Palisades Wilderness Study Area to preserve its “wilderness character” as it existed then. Forest Service records from 1984 indicate that fewer than 100 heliskiers used the Palisades each year back then, a far cry from the 1,200 heliskiers allowed by the challenged permit.
The judge’s ruling agreed with the conservationists’ offer to negotiate an acceptable helicopter skiing plan for the area.
“We are glad the judge decided that increased use in the Wilderness Study Area is not acceptable,” said Lloyd Dorsey of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition. “In the near future, we’re eager and willing to sit down and hammer out a well-balanced solution to this issue.”
Earthjustice represented Greater Yellowstone Coalition, the Sierra Club, Wyoming Wilderness Association, Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance and Deb Patla and Merlin Hare.