Northern Region Regional Forester talks about bikes in recommended wilderness

I’ve excerpted the portion of the Regional Forester’s objection decision on the revised forest plan that addresses this issue, dated August 15, 2018 (p. 46).  It upholds the Flathead Forest Supervisor’s decision to designate recommended wilderness as not suitable for mountain bikes.  I’ve highlighted the language in the regulation that addresses the question about whether the only concern should be physical impacts.  The objection decision also indicates that the decision to recommend wilderness or not took into account existing mountain biking.  It also addresses the alleged bias towards this solution in the Northern Region.  This probably pretty much summarizes the current state of the debate from the Forest Service perspective.

Some objectors requested that bicycle use (mechanized transport) be allowed in recommended wilderness, along with chainsaws (motorized equipment) for the development and maintenance of trails, as long as these uses do not preclude wilderness designation.

The areas recommended as additions to the National Wilderness Preservation System are allocated to management area 1b. This management area has plan direction in the form of desired conditions, standards, guidelines, and suitability to “provide for…management of areas recommended for wilderness designation to protect and maintain the ecological and social characteristics that provide the basis for their suitability for wilderness designation” as required at 36 CFR 219.10(b)(iv).

The suitability component MA1b-SUIT-06 indicates, “Mechanized transport and motorized use are not suitable in recommended wilderness areas” as a constraint on these uses to help achieve desired condition MA1b-DC-1 that states, “Recommended wilderness areas preserve opportunities for inclusion in the National Wilderness Preservation System. The Forest maintains and protects the ecological and social characteristics that provide the basis for wilderness recommendation” (revised plan, p. 9).

As one of the key issues identified from the public scoping comments, the draft EIS analyzed a range of alternatives for managing mechanized transport and motorized use in recommended areas. Alternative C included the suitability component MA1b-SUIT-06 and alternative B did not. The intent of varying the direction was to assess how this plan component would help the Forest achieve the desired conditions for recommended wilderness. After considering the analysis and the public comment on the draft EIS, Forest Supervisor Weber found the MA1b-SUIT-06 component analyzed in alternative C was the appropriate first step in ensuring the protection and maintenance of the areas he decided to recommend in the draft decision (draft ROD p. 19).Therefore, he modified alternative B to include MA1b-SUIT-06.

The intent of suitability component MA1b-SUIT-06 is to not establish or authorize continued uses that would affect the wilderness characteristics of these areas over time (draft ROD pp. 18-19). By deliberate design, the areas being recommended for wilderness in alternative B modified do not currently have significant mechanized transport use occurring. Per public comment on the draft EIS, boundary adjustments were made in the final EIS to remove areas from recommended wilderness that currently allow mechanized transport and over-snow motorized vehicle use (FEIS, pp. 27-28). As there is some over-snow motor vehicle use allowed in one recommended wilderness area (Slippery Bill-Puzzle) (FEIS, section 3.15.3; appendix 8, p. 8-261), Forest Supervisor Weber has endeavored to accommodate this desired recreation opportunity by changing the desired recreation opportunity spectrum in another area of the forest for potential site-specific designation of additional snowmobile areas 2. With these changes between draft and final EIS, the decision maker found that the eight areas recommended represent high-quality areas on the Forest capable of maintaining their unique social and ecological characteristics, while considering the tradeoffs regarding public desires for other uses of the land.

At the resolution meeting, some expressed a concern regarding an “unwritten rule” in the Northern Region that precluded Forest Supervisor Weber from exercising his discretion to choose the appropriate management of recommended wilderness on the Forest. Although previous Northern Region staff drafted guidance for management of recommended wilderness during land management planning, this was prior to the 2012 planning rule and associated implementing directives. I would like to assure objectors and interested parties that I allowed and encouraged Forest Supervisor Weber the discretion to determine management direction for the Forest per the forest-specific conditions, public engagement, law, regulation, policy, and the direction in FSH 1909.12, chapter 70. As a result, per the discretion described in the Agency’s direction at FSH 1909.12 chapter 74.1, option 2, Forest Supervisor Weber did analyze allowing existing uses to continue (DEIS, p. 26). However, as indicated in the draft ROD, he found the best strategy to protect the wilderness characteristics was to eliminate existing uses per chapter 74.1, option 4.

14 thoughts on “Northern Region Regional Forester talks about bikes in recommended wilderness”

  1. Jon, thanks for looking that up! The objection responses are very handy for getting the FS side of the story, but sometimes it’s hard to find what you’re looking for in them.

  2. Of course the price that was paid to exclude bikes from RW, was limiting the amount of RW that to only those areas where mountains bike use is not established. In theory, more RW could have been included such a the pristine Swan Crest area around the Alpine #7 (9? I forget the trail number off the top of my head). Such is price of purity

      • From a pragmatic standpoint I think it was a reasonable decision. From a philosophical perspective I prefer maximizing RW acreage with transient uses such as bikes and chainsaws managed, but I’m not one to fight against reasonable balanced workable solutions.

        Anyways it is already going to be litigated, primarily over alleged inadequate grizzly protection, and knowing the groups suing, I’m sure one argument will be too much mountain bike access in grizzly habitat.

  3. Lance, it has and continues to be litigated.

    R-,1’s RWA controversial “policy,” written years ago (2005 I think) without any public input and implemented on the Kooteni, Idaho-Panhandle, Gallatin, Bitterroot, Idaho-Clearwater has been the subject of at least 3 lawsuits.

    I actually have a copy of the original planning order signed by Tom Tidwell. f Jon or Sharon will send me an email address, I would be happy to share.

  4. Question: If Wilderness characteristics are found in areas where non-conforming uses are currently allowed, why then does the USFS give no option but to eliminate those non-conforming uses?

    I have and will continue to argue this is the very definition of arbitrary and capricious.

    • I’m stuck on the same logic, either it has wilderness characteristics with the current uses or it doesn’t and shouldn’t be considered. “If you got rid of uses” or “when the trees grow back after fuel treatment projects” or “when the oil and gas roads are obliterated” seems like an endless slippery slope. I think the Forests are doing a good job of trying to navigate this, but still, it seems like such an important policy that perhaps there should be a national discussion and public comment about it.

      I wonder what the Planning Rule FACA committee thought about this.

  5. Sharon is more adept at using the site, so I’ll defer to her (her email is provided in the donations box). I can provide the recent court opinion on how the regional policy was used in the Bitterroot Travel Plan. If there was another lawsuit on the policy itself, I couldn’t find it. I suspect that a court would find the policy did not constitute a final agency action to litigate. Then, when it was applied in a final agency action, where the contention is that the policy predetermined the outcome, “Predetermination is a high standard to prove.” (As a NEPA violation.)

    The court found:

    “After reviewing the record in this case, the Court finds that there is no indication that the Forest Service made such an irreversible and irretrievable commitment to close the Bitterroot RWAs. The Court acknowledges that the record here does have more evidence that the regional guidance existed and that forest service personnel understood this guidance and attempted to be consistent with it when revising the forest plan. See AR 43785, 43733, 43496, 43655, 43644-45. However, the Court does not agree with Plaintiffs that “key personnel undertook a mission to change RWA management, in which they unabashedly advocated for an outcome.”

    “While Plaintiffs demonstrate in Exhibit A[4] that the language found in the text of the guidance is found verbatim in the DEIS, the Court does not find that this is indicative of a predetermined commitment to close the Bitterroot RWAs. See AR 43781 and 43496 compared with AR 02992-93, 00565, 02825. These paragraphs simply repeat the overall direction of the Forest Service in managing RWAs. The Court fails to identify how a few paragraphs of generalized framework for RWA management and sentences cited in emails from Forest Service personnel prove that predetermination occurred. The record is replete with evidence that the Forest Service conducted a thorough NEPA analysis involving multiple public comment periods and the consideration of alternatives such as a limited quota permit system in RWAs. AR 00187-90, 00209. Thus, while Region 1 guidance is consistent with the final Bitterroot Travel Plan, the Forest Service took a “hard look” at the environmental impacts of alternative motorized and mechanical transport use and determined that closure of the RWAs in the Bitterroot was most appropriate to maintain forest integrity.”,27

  6. I might add that this case was the opportunity to take issue with the science behind the Forest Service NEPA effects analysis. The court backed the Forest Service position:

    “Here, the Court finds that the Forest Service supported its conclusion to close RWAs in the Bitterroot to motorized and bicycle use with sufficient, reliable scientific factors. The Forest Service found that motorized and mechanized use 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.” AR 00564-65; 00566, 00209-11. The Forest Service further recognized that there are direct and indirect consequences of allowing such uses to occur, and noted in the FEIS that while “some types of motorized and mechanical transport use do not appear to have lasting effects on the landscape, there may be impacts on the social and biotic environment that do not show as physical “scars” on the land.” AR 00565.”

    This is a little confusing because it seems to mix the question of NEPA sufficiency (which would include short-term impacts) with the requirement to “retain wilderness qualities” (for the longer term). I don’t think the court was asked to answer the question of whether it was arbitrary to prohibit mountain bike use to achieve the latter purpose. This is the kind of question that typically would get a lot of deference to the agency decision (similar to the approach the court took to the question of preserving the character of WSAs in a separate section of the opinion).

    • There was a Ten Lakes court decision prior to this took on the policy more directly and the court allowed the use of the guidance.

      I still can’t read that court decision without crying. Talk about judicial deference to the executive branch. There was absolutely no data of any sort. There was no historic data. There was no current data on trail uses. The Forest Service admitted that they didn’t even we were riding trails that were proposed to be closed. The was figured they too hard, or too something.

      Their analysis was a Forest Service Economist that wrote a report that he states he assumes that given the increased popularity or mountain biking and increases in population there is increased mountain bike use in the Bitterroot. If that makes for sufficient science we live in a fact free world.

      When I upload the Region 1 guidance, I will also upload the Stockman reports for the Blue Joint and Sapphire WSAs. They mountain bike analysis is copy and pasted in both without change.

  7. Op Ed on the Flathead revision collaboration and wilderness:
    (Art Sedlack, Glacier NP Ranger: “Sedlack received worldwide recognition and praise from outdoors groups for shooting a snowmobile in the course of citing snow machine owners improperly operating within the park. He said he shot the snowmobile to shut off the engine because he could not find its ignition key. He was suspended for nine days.”)


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