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.