9th Circuit: Bitterroot NF justified in closing Wilderness Study Area trails

The Sapphire-Blue Joint wilderness study areas. (Zack Porter/Montana Wilderness Association)

Wildlife conservationists are cheering an appeals court ruling that keeps motorized and mechanized use out of potential wilderness areas on the Bitterroot National Forest.

Earlier this week, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals said the Bitterroot National Forest had done all it was required to do before approving its 2016 Travel Plan, which closed 110 miles of trails in the Sapphire and Blue Joint wilderness study areas to snowmobiles and mountain bikes and prohibits snowmobiling on 205,000 acres of recommended wilderness.

The 1987 Bitterroot Forest Plan hadn’t really protected those areas until the travel plan was approved and prohibited motorized or mechanized vehicles on trails within any Wilderness Study Areas or Recommended Wilderness Areas.

“In sum, we conclude that the agency articulated a “rational connection between the facts found and the choice made,” the Circuit judges wrote.

Angered with the loss of recreational opportunity, six user groups sued the Bitterroot National Forest in January 2017. They 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.

The groups argued that their use had done little to degrade the areas.

“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 in August 2018.

However, a survey of the Blue Joint Wilderness Study Area found that although historic use might have been low, the trend is toward more impacts on the area. Snowmobile use grew more than four-fold, off-highway-vehicle use grew nine-fold and bicycle use went from non-existent to common from 1977 to 2009.

Wilderness study areas and recommended wilderness don’t have wilderness protection but are supposed to be preserved until they are made wilderness or released from designation. But Montana’s wilderness study areas have sat in limbo for more than four decades.

In June 2018, Missoula federal judge Dana Chistensen ruled the Bitterroot Forest had justified its conclusion 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.”

However, Christensen did order the Bitterroot Forest to allow and consider more public comment on the wilderness study area closures because the public hadn’t been told how many miles would be closed.

During the resulting objection period, the Forest Service received 3,200 responses from across the nation, 2,900 of which were form letters.

Matt Anderson took over from Julie King as Bitterroot Forest supervisor on March 8, 2019, shortly before the Region 1 issued its response, reiterating most of Christensen’s ruling. But it also said the forest supervisor could consider opening specific trails in wilderness study areas to mountain bikes.

In the meantime, the user groups had appealed Christensen’s ruling in October 2018, arguing Forest Service leadership had approved the Travel Plan for personal or political reasons. That didn’t wash with the circuit judges.

“We need not dwell on these contentions because Appellants have adduced no evidence to support them. Even if they had, evidence of personal or political preferences would likely not invalidate the action at issue here, given the objective evidence on the record,” the Circuit judges wrote.

Environmental groups who had sided with the Bitterroot National Forest were relieved. They had joined in the lawsuit to protect the areas for wildlife corridors and habitat, saying people could still enjoy the areas on foot and on horseback. The groups include the Friends of the Bitterroot, Hellgate Hunters and Anglers, Missoula Back Country Horsemen, Montana Wilderness Association, Selway-Pintler Wilderness Back Country Horsemen, WildEarth Guardians, and Winter Wildlands Alliance.

“This ruling is a long-awaited victory for Montana’s wildlife and our conservation community,” said Walker Conyngham, president of Missoula-based Hellgate Hunters & Anglers. “Sportsmen and women recognize that the species we rely upon deserve healthy, undisturbed habitat in order to thrive. We look to this ruling as a clear precedent for preserving valuable wildlife sanctuaries like our wilderness study areas.”

For the past four years, they’ve been pushing back not only against those opposed to the travel plan but also against attempts by Montana’s Republican Congressmen to pass legislation releasing between five and 24 of Montana’s 44 wilderness study areas from Congressional review, including the Blue Joint and Sapphire areas.

In December 2017, Sen. Steve Daines and Rep. Greg Gianforte said they supported getting rid of the areas because they weren’t good for wilderness and the designation blocked access and job opportunities. The bills died a year later, and neither politician reintroduced the bills during this Congress.

Adam Rissien with WildEarth Guardians said the closed areas are only a smal part of the Bitteroot National Forest and plenty of trails still remain.

“Today’s victory is a win for wild places and a clear rebuke of the challenge from motorized activists and those opposed to protecting wildlife habitat,” Rissien said. “The Forest Service can now firmly reject political meddling from Sen. Daines who pressured the agency to ignore safeguards enacted in Montana’s 1977 Wilderness Study Act.”

With the courts’ validation of the 2016 Travel Plan, it’s up to Bitterroot National Forest Supervisor Anderson to issue a final decision on what’s allowed on wilderness study areas and recommended wilderness areas.

“(He) has no reason to sign a decision that modifies what’s in place (with the travel plan). But he still can do that,” Rissien said. “If he does, we’ll file another complaint. But the Forest Service has no reason to cave to political pressure.”

Calls made Friday to the Bitterroot National Forest for information on Anderson’s potential decision were not answered by the end of the day.

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at lundquist@missoulacurrent.com.