A federal court has ruled that the U.S. Forest Service must protect a wilderness study area in a national forest immediately north of Yellowstone National Park from damage and disruption caused by off-road motor vehicle enthusiasts. In a decision issued on September 30, 2008, the court also ruled the Forest Service was correct to restrict off-road vehicles in other parts of the forest.
The ruling by U.S. Magistrate Judge Jeremiah Lynch addresses two lawsuits concerning the Forest Service’s Travel Management Plan for southwest Montana’s Gallatin National Forest. The Gallatin Travel Plan, which is the first of a series of similar plans to be issued by national forests nationwide, was finalized in 2007 to designate areas where motor vehicles may be used in the Gallatin forest.
In response, three conservation groups, represented by Earthjustice, challenged the plan’s rules for the Hyalite-Porcupine-Buffalo Horn Wilderness Study Area, a 155,000-acre region running along the Gallatin Mountain Range from Hyalite Peak south of Bozeman, Montana, to the north boundary of Yellowstone National Park. The Wilderness Study Area contains important habitat for grizzly bears, wolverines, and lynx, but the Forest Service authorized increased levels of snowmobile and motorcycle use in the area.
The court’s ruling agreed with the conservation groups that the Forest Service’s decision improperly degraded the wilderness character of this area in violation of federal law.
“The Gallatin Crest is the bridge that brings the spectacular scenery and wildlife of Yellowstone right down to our Bozeman backdoor,” said Bob Ekey, Regional Director of The Wilderness Society. “It is a big part of why we all choose to live here, and it deserves to be managed in a way that assures we will never lose the Gallatin’s wild character.”
“It is unfortunate that past decisions by the U.S. Forest Service were failing to protect the wild character of the Gallatin Crest from rampant off-road vehicle use, degrading wildlife habitat and the wild character Congress acted to protect 31 years ago,” added Tim Preso, staff attorney for Earthjustice, who represented conservationists in the lawsuit. “We are pleased the magistrate judge agreed the law does not permit this area to become a motorized playground.”
The ruling also addressed a second lawsuit, this one by off-road enthusiasts, asserting that the Forest Service had gone too far in restricting motorized uses elsewhere in the Gallatin forest. The magistrate judge rejected the off-roaders’ arguments.
“This is a good day for wildlife and for people who love this part of the forest. It moves us toward a balance that protects the wildlands and winter habitat of special places like the Gallatin Crest,” said Craig Kenworthy, Conservation Director for Greater Yellowstone Coalition.
The magistrate judge’s ruling now must be reviewed by U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy, who will enter a final judgment in the case.
“We’re very pleased the findings protect our historic mountain trails by rejecting motorized users’ claims that ATVs should have been allowed on wilderness study area trails,” said John Gatchell, Conservation Director at Montana Wilderness Association. “We’re hopeful these findings — if adopted by the court — will ensure the quiet beauty and magnificence of the wild Gallatin Range is maintained without loss until Congress acts.”