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Federal judge: No mountain bikes in Sapphire, Blue Joint wilderness study areas

Ravalli County residents are sharply divided over the future of the Sapphire-Blue Joint wilderness study areas. (Zack Porter/Montana Wilderness Association)

A federal judge’s clarification has caused backcountry groups to resume their tug-of-war over areas in the Sapphire Mountains.

Missoula U.S. District Judge Dana Christensen issued a clarification Aug. 8 after the Bitterroot National Forest mistakenly took action that went against a June 29 order. In that order, Christensen told the forest to allow the public another opportunity to weigh in on 110 miles of trail closures in the Sapphire and Blue Joint wilderness study areas and, if necessary, reconsider its travel policy.

Bitterroot Forest officials agreed to do so, but while taking and considering comment, it announced on July 10 that the trails would be open to mechanized use.

That is not what the judge intended.

So he reissued his order last week, closing the trails, at the prompting of the Friends of the Bitterroot, the Montana Wilderness Association and WildEarth Guardians, which originally intervened in the lawsuit on behalf of the Bitterroot National Forest.

The Bitterroot Backcountry Cyclists were not pleased, according to their Facebook page.

“Feeling a little gobsmacked right now,” read one post from Sunday. “Don’t blame the FS for this, once the judge made his original decision, the FS accepted that their failure to follow proper procedures had harmed us and gave us the chance to once again ride these beloved trails. However some groups such as Friends of the Bitterroot, Montana Wilderness Association, and Winter Wildlands Alliance believe that bikes are an impediment toward their fantasy of eventual wilderness designation.”

Christensen’s ruling was the result of a lawsuit that recreation groups filed against the Bitterroot National Forest in January 2017. Those groups included the Bitterroot Ridge Runners Snowmobile Club, Ravalli County Off-Road User Association, Bitterroot Backcountry Cyclists, Montana Trail Vehicle Riders Association, Montana Snowmobile Association, Citizens for Balanced Use and Backcountry Sled Patriots.

They opposed the 2016 Forest Travel Plan, which closed the WSAs to mountain bikes and snowmobiles after the previous 1987 plan hadn’t done so. The 2016 plan also pulled 205,000 acres from the regions where snowmobiles could operate in recommended wilderness areas, leaving about 544,000 acres for snowmobile use.

“These are areas that we’ve been riding for 20 years without any impact. The travel plan said we were having an impact. So we felt that the travel plan didn’t justify closing the trails to us,” said Bitterroot Backcountry Cyclists president Lance Pysher.

The recreation groups argued that the Forest Service didn’t do enough site-specific analysis to be able to compare current conditions to those that existed in 1977 when the Montana Wilderness Study Act was passed.

The judge disagreed on that point. He cited a report on the Blue Joint WSA that found, from 1977 to 2009, snowmobile use grew more than four-fold, off-highway-vehicle use grew nine-fold and bicycle use went from non-existent to common.

The Montana Wilderness Study Act requires that WSAs be managed to maintain their existing wilderness character until Congress decides whether they should be designated as wilderness. So the Forest Service must consider not only potential damage to the land, but also effects of noise and pollution on wildlife and the overall wilderness feel.

The Forest Service concluded that motorized and mechanized use had sharply increased over the past 40 years and that prohibiting such uses would “protect the existing high value of the areas for providing primitive recreation experiences, and ensure the area retains its wilderness qualities.”

Christensen also noted that the 110 miles of trails in the WSAs amounted to 9 percent of the 1,222 miles of trail open to mechanized use in the Bitterroot.

However, Christensen did acknowledge that the Forest Service hadn’t allowed adequate public comment related to the WSA closures because the draft environmental study hadn’t totaled all the miles of trail that would be closed to mountain bikes in both the recommended wilderness and wilderness study areas.

So he ordered an additional comment period.

Pysher said his group of about 50 cyclists had been hoping the judge would order the Forest Service to redo the environmental study and that the study would find that mountain bikes have no impact.

“Just having a comment period is less than ideal. Hopefully, we can get a lot of comments that will convince the Forest Service that there’s a lot of passion in this area and that mountain biking access should be reinitiated,” Pysher said. “We need to find a long-term solution that everyone can support at least partially. These lands are definitely worth protection.”

WildEarth Guardians hailed the judge’s overall decision and his clarification as a win for wildlife and quiet recreation.

“We are pleased to see the court correct the Forest Service’s interpretation to protect these wild landscapes,” said Marla Fox of WildEarth Guardians. “These WSAs are special places for a host of recreational uses and imperiled wildlife including wolverine. Preventing environmental degradation is an important step towards preserving the forest and its unique values for future generations.”

The Sapphire and Blue Joint areas are two of the five WSAs that would be pulled from wilderness consideration under a Congressional bill sponsored by Sen. Steve Daines.

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at lundquist@missoulacurrent.com.