9th Circuit upholds protections for wild lands in Bitterroot National Forest

Sapphire Wilderness Study Area, Bitterroot National Forest, Montana. Photo by Friends of the Bitterroot.

The following press release was issued today by Friends of the Bitterroot, Hellgate Hunters and Anglers, Missoula Back Country Horsemen, Selway-Pintler Wilderness Back Country Horsemen, WildEarth Guardians, Winter Wildlands Alliance, Montana Wilderness Association, and Earthjustice.

Seattle, WA – Today the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld protections for wilderness-quality lands within the Bitterroot National Forest in Montana against a rising tide of motorized and mechanized backcountry use. The court affirmed a 2018 Montana district court ruling which upheld the U.S. Forest Service’s 2016 Bitterroot National Forest Travel Plan against a legal challenge brought by motorized and mechanized users.

Earthjustice argued the case in defense of the 2016 Forest Plan on behalf of a broad coalition of Montanans including 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.

“The wilderness-quality lands the Travel Plan protects are important to people from all walks of life in the Bitterroot valley including hunters, fishermen, horsepackers, hikers, and skiers,” said Tim Preso, Earthjustice attorney. “The court’s decision ensures that these special places will continue to support elk and other wildlife and provide Montanans with outstanding opportunities for solitude and quiet recreation for years to come.”

“Friends of the Bitterroot is extremely pleased with this victory in court protecting mountain goats, wolverine, lynx and grizzly bears from the clear and present threats posed by motorized and mechanized recreation in Wilderness Study and Recommended Wilderness Areas on the Bitterroot National Forest,” said Larry Campbell, FOB Conservation Director. “FOB has persevered for over two decades to finally see iconic and rare wildlife given the protection they need for survival. There’s still plenty of places for people to play.”

“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,” said Adam Rissien with WildEarth Guardians. “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.”

“This plan was eight years in the making and informed by hundreds of Montanans who asked the Forest Service to protect habitat for wildlife; to ensure the headwaters of the Bitterroot River and Rock Creek remain clean and cold and its wild trout populations healthy; and to practice true multiple use in the Bitterroot National Forest,” said Erin Clark, western Montana field director with Montana Wilderness Association. “The plan leaves one third of the Forest open to snowmobiling and over 2,000 miles of road and trail open to mountain biking while adhering to the spirit and law of the Montana Wilderness Study Act.”

“Today’s ruling ensures that wild lands on the Bitterroot National Forest will remain protected in all seasons, providing refuge for wildlife and opportunities for human-powered winter adventure,” said Hilary Eisen, policy director with Winter Wildlands Alliance. “The plan strikes a fair balance between providing opportunities for snowmobiling and preserving quiet places for skiers, snowshoers, and others who seek opportunities for solitude and prefer to enjoy the backcountry at a slower pace. We’re pleased that the Court has upheld this balance.”

“The Backcountry Horsemen are delighted that these special areas will continue to be enjoyed for their quiet beauty and primitive travel by foot or horse,” said Dan Harper, vice president of the Backcountry Horsemen of Missoula Chapter.

“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.

4 thoughts on “9th Circuit upholds protections for wild lands in Bitterroot National Forest”

  1. Well. That’s one opinion, from one judge.

    These WSA’s are still lands in limbo. Until these areas are resolved through congressional action, they will remain controversial as defacto wilderness. These areas are becoming increasingly more difficult to access. Chainsaws are required to keep the trails open. The miles of deadfall now on the ground is confounding for the shrinking number of volunteers who have interest in helping out. If these areas ultimately become designated Wilderness the trails would effectively be permanently closed.

    No bills are currently pending or proposed.

    I think a bill that releases or converts to a conservation designation for the Sapphires and Blue Joint WSA’s still makes the most sense. Perhaps there will be a compromise style of bill, similar to what we may soon see from the Gallatin Forest Partnership. (I’m not a fan of the GFP but I’m in the minority)

    • Well, it’s actually one opinion from three judges at the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals…which is just one step away from the U.S. Supreme Court, which I’m sure you realize. Plus, the opinion from the three judges at the 9th affirmed the opinion from a federal judge in Montana, so honestly this is opinion of four judges.

      Also, it’s flat out false to claim “No bills are currently pending or proposed” if you are talking about these Wilderness Study Areas in question.

      The Northern Rockies Ecosystem Protection Act, which is currently introduced in both the U.S. House and U.S. Senate and has about 60 congressional co-sponsors would, in fact, designate these Wilderness Study Areas as Wilderness.

  2. OK it’s three judges, which I didn’t know. (I’m not brimming with overwhelming smarts). The judges haven’t resolved the issue. They just added another regulatory handcuff.

    • They haven’t resolved the wilderness issue, but they have resolved the travel plan issue (which is about what will happen there until the wilderness issue is resolved).


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