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The Forest Service released its long-awaited decision on snowmobile use in the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest Tuesday, and as predicted, the final decision did not make changes to the agency’s original 2009 plan on where snowmobilers can and cannot travel.

A legal debate over snowmobile use in remote parts of northwest Montana and Idaho grew more complicated during the weekend when a group of environmentalists asked to join the lawsuit.

The Ten Lakes Snowmobile Club, Citizens for Balanced Use and five other groups sued the U.S. Forest Service in November, accusing it of improperly excluding snowmobile use from recommended wilderness areas and improperly recommending new waterways for the national Wild and Scenic River Act designation. On Monday, The Wilderness Society, Headwaters Montana, Idaho Conservation League, Montana Wilderness Association, Panhandle Nordic Ski and Snowshoe Club and Winter Wildlands Alliance formally asked to intervene in the case.

And last Thursday, Forest Service attorneys wrote that they “deny the allegations and deny that Plaintiffs are entitled to the requested relief or any relief whatsoever.” They also stated the snowmobile groups lacked standing to sue on some claims, failed to go through all the required administrative appeals before filing and failed to state a claim the Forest Service could remedy. However, they did not present arguments backing up those claims.

Tim Presso, lead attorney for the conservation groups, wrote that the interveners directly opposed the snowmobile groups’ argument that several recommended wilderness areas of the Kootenai and Idaho-Panhandle national forests should be opened for motorized use. But they also lacked confidence in the Forest Service’s defense.

“(T)he Forest Service cannot be relied upon to adequately represent proposed interveners’ interests in this case,” Presso wrote. The Wilderness Society and Idaho Conservation League had to fight the Forest Service in a previous case involving the Idaho Snowmobile Association and Blue Ribbon Coalition when the federal agency agreed to set aside bans on motorized use in a recommended wilderness area while it completed an environmental analysis.

Both the Kootenai and Idaho-Panhandle forests issued new forest plans last January, replacing versions dating back to 1987. They also issued draft travel management plans, which closed access to some recommended wilderness areas where snowmobiles had been allowed to ride in the past.

The Kootenai’s '87 plan designated 104,500 acres of recommended wilderness, including the Scotchman Peaks, additions to the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness and lands in and around the Ten Lakes Wilderness Study Area. Its 2015 revision expanded that by 12,800 acres to include the Roderick Mountain Recommended Wilderness Area.

The Idaho-Panhandle ’87 plan recommended 146,700 acres, including the Mallard-Larkins, Scotchman Peaks (Idaho portion), Selkirk Range and additions to the Salmon-Priest Wilderness. Its 2015 revision made boundary expansions to those four areas of an additional 14,700 acres.

The conservation groups said they had asked the Forest Service for considerably larger amounts of roadless acreage to receive wilderness recommendation, but were unsuccessful. They have also consistently argued to keep those roadless areas non-motorized to preserve their wilderness character until Congress makes a formal decision designating or releasing them.

“Despite the fact that the challenged plans allow over-snow vehicle use on the vast majority of both forests – 86 percent of the Kootenai Forest and 70 percent of the Idaho-Panhandle National Forests – plaintiffs contend that motorized access must extend even farther into the handful of areas that the Forests Service recommended for wilderness designation,” Presso wrote. “Allowing any motorized use, including over-snow vehicle use such as snowmobiles, in recommended wilderness areas degrades their wilderness values, infringes on the peaceful, quiet enjoyment of non-motorized recreationists, and impedes efforts by wilderness and public-land advocacy groups and their members to preserve the wilderness character of these lands.”

The snowmobile organizations’ attorney, Paul Turcke, counters that the Forest Service has used arbitrary or inconsistent analysis in deciding what places should get wilderness or Wild and Scenic River designations. In the process, the agency has locked out people who’ve been riding their snowmobiles there since before 1977, when a congressional act designated Ten Lakes and nearby places as wilderness study areas.

The case is assigned to U.S. Chief District Judge Dana L. Christensen, who has not ruled on the interveners’ request or set dates for further proceedings.

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Natural Resources & Environment Reporter

Natural Resources Reporter for The Missoulian.