Case on forest plan wilderness recommendations

Ten Lakes Snowmobile Club v. U. S. Forest Service

(Mentioned by Brian Hawthorne here, with links to an article and the opinion.)

This case was about the decision in the 2015 revised Kootenai and Idaho Panhandle National Forest plans to recommend (to Congress) areas for wilderness and to manage them to protect their wilderness values.  The Montana district court upheld the forests’ wilderness evaluation methodology, and their decision that effects on several wildlife species warranted prohibition of motorized and mechanized activities in the recommended wilderness areas (RWAs).  It also reiterated precedents that the Forest Service may choose to manage non-wilderness areas similar to designated wilderness.  It found that the EISs included proper no-action alternatives, and that the Kootenai properly coordinated with the Glen Lake Irrigation District (and did not have to be consistent with their “Natural Resource Plan.”)

Existing policy is that areas recommended for wilderness designation will be managed to prohibit activities that would “reduce the wilderness potential” or “compromise the wilderness values” of the area.  At issue is the role that Forest Service Region 1 policy played in the decision to exclude over-snow vehicles and mechanized use from these areas; specifically whether it improperly influenced the required site-specific analysis for each area.  Plaintiffs argued that the policy “created an inflexible prohibition of all motorized and mechanized travel in the RWAs.”  The court found this argument to be “unfounded and purely speculative,” and, “The record demonstrates that the FEIS in the Kootenai and Panhandle Forests considered site-specific impacts of motorized and mechanized vehicles.”

Plaintiffs also challenged decisions to manage areas as recommended wild and scenic rivers.  The court found that the Forest Service violated NEPA by including two creeks that had not been considered in any alternatives in the planning process prior to the final Record of Decision, which was after the public objection process.  It remanded the Kootenai plan for the narrowly defined purpose of providing an objection period for that decision for these areas.  It did not require a supplemental EIS because the area involved was 0.1% of the national forest which constituted “a minor variation that was qualitatively within the spectrum of alternatives that were discussed in the FEIS.”  It did agree with the Forest Service that the creeks meet the requirements of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act to be considered eligible.

8 thoughts on “Case on forest plan wilderness recommendations”

  1. Many thanks to Jon for looking into this.
    I hope to finish a blurb on this decision and other litigation related to R1’s RWA “policy,” and will post here for your comment and critique. I will also send a copy of the R1 RWA “policy” for background. As you might expect, I do not agree with the court’s conclusions.
    For now I’d just like to offer the opinion that the R1 “policy,” at least from the motorized recreation perspective, represents the very definition of arbitrary and capricious. Using the long ago abandoned “issue in the form of question” format, I’ll proffer this: If the motorized and mountain bike use existed when the USFS found the area “suitable” and/or “recommended” for Wilderness designation, what is the rationale for a policy that directs the agency to eliminate or remove those uses? (As opposed to, for example, sustain the uses at the existing level.)
    Under former Chief Tom Tidwell’s tenure as R1’s Regional Forester, this question was answered in what I believe was a honest and forthright manner. (This rationale is not clearly stated in the policy, btw.) The rationale is this; “non-conforming recreation uses” (recreational activities not allowed in Wilderness) need to be removed because allowing such essentially creates a constituency for the opposition to any legislation that would incorporate the lands into the National Wilderness Preservation System.
    Now, I understand that this is perfectly logical to many in the USFS. But… well, sheesh.

  2. Brian, thanks for offering to write a post!

    I’d just like to add that there is some Roadless/Wilderness logic that goes like this…
    The area has had some uses that aren’t allowed in Roadless/Wilderness.
    But it still has characteristics that make it desirable for inclusion.

    You and I get stuck on the logic of “if it has those desirable characteristics now, why do you need to change management?”
    So we will just make sure that timber sales, roads, motorized or mechanized get kicked out/or don’t happen again.
    It’s got to be essential if your idea is that “more acres need to be added to (ultimately) Wilderness ” because there aren’t many acres left that don’t have roads or motorized/mechanized trails, or a history of mining, timber sales and so on..
    I don’t get why you need to kick recreation users out, and I’d like to engage someone who believes that in a back and forth to really understand the reasoning.

  3. Since wildlife was given as the reason in this case, here is how that reasoning might (hypothetically) work. The existing status of wildlife populations is one of the values warranting a recommendation as wilderness. Activities that currently occur are causing a downward trend in populations of that wildlife. If those activities continue to occur (even at current levels), they could reduce or eliminate that wilderness value.

    • Hmmm. I observe many “trends in wildlife populations”, isn’t it difficult to ascribe one cause? Especially for a specific area.. bad years for food items, competition from other species, climate change and so on? How would you know that a specific use, that has been ongoing, is the cause of a decline compared to other factors?

  4. That’s why I said hypothetically. You’d have to ask a biologist, but there are disturbance-sensitive species.

    Here’s another case of snowmobiles being excluded from recommended wilderness. (In this case through travel planning, and if you asked me why that difference, I would say that this is about a specific trail rather than an area.)

    • I get that there are species that prefer places without certain activities. But if we say 1) the climate is changing 2) there are other threats to species (say invasive species or native competitors such as barred owls) so therefore we need to stop other activities that species don’t like.. well I guess then it’s a question of when or where, knowing that it may not work to stop all those activities because the problem is ultimately something bigger. Something like the story of the spotted owl.

      Say grizzlies occur in an area. Hikers and people with horses in an area may lead to human/bear conflicts resulting in killing bears. Let’s remove hikers and people with horses from the landscape to protect bears. But you say, hikers and people with horses have been there a long time and bear pops have increased? Bears may still a “disturbance-sensitive species.” I’m just trying to follow the logic.

  5. Yes, it’s complicated. But all judges are allowed to do is decide if the agency was arbitrary and capricious in its conclusion. This means the agency must consider all relevant factors, but it doesn’t require a “best” answer.

    Another example I just read was the designation of critical habitat for jaguars by the FWS. The FWS said the desert of New Mexico was essential. Plaintiffs said there was more of it in Mexico. The judge said “whatever” but the FWS wasn’t arbitrary in its designation.


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