Beaverhead-Deerlodge Forest Plan NEPA not site-specific enough

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the decision in the Beaverhead-Deerlodge (B-D) National Forest’s revised forest plan to designate areas for use by winter motorized vehicles. It found that the forest plan EIS failed to provide analysis that was site-specific enough to make an informed decision, as required by NEPA, and that the planning process did not comply with the “minimization” requirements of Executive Order 11644 for off-road vehicles, including evaluation of specific areas open to motorized vehicles.

This was a rare loss at the forest plan level on a NEPA issue.  While courts often accept more general NEPA analysis for programmatic decisions, this court recognized that the essence of forest plans is land allocation decisions.  Here it was important to know where winter range was in order to consider how the plan affected it or to propose alternatives for it.  The court stated that, “Without data on the location of the big game winter range, the public was severely limited in its ability to participate in the decision-making process.”  This principle should be applicable to other wildlife issues in plan revisions.

The holding on motorized use may also be precedent-setting.  It found that the plan ‘designated’ ‘areas open to snowmobile use.’  That made it subject to the executive order and to the Travel Management Rule (TMR) the FS adopted to implement the executive order.  The court stated, “What is required is that the Forest Service document how it evaluated and applied the data on an area by-area basis with the objective of minimizing impacts as specified in the TMR.”  It held that the Forest Service had instead deferred that level of analysis to subsequent travel planning.  The B-D plan had more site-specific direction for motorized use than many plans would have, but this holding could arguably apply to any forest plan components that identify areas in which motorized use would be allowed (especially where it is already occurring without prior compliance with the TMR).  This opinion blurs the distinction between forest planning and travel planning that the Forest Service has tried to maintain.

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