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Southwest Montana playground

A mountain biker makes his way on Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest land near East Fork Reservoir west of Anaconda Sunday. Snow-covered peaks in the Anaconda Range are pictured in the background.

According to Greek mythology, Sisyphus was forced to push an immense boulder up a hill and, upon reaching the top, watch it roll down. He was doomed to repeat this task every day for eternity.

The U.S. Forest Service chose a similar path of fruitless labor when it comes to managing vehicles in our national forests. It passed a rule to protect forests, but for 10 years has done little but spin its wheels.

Before 2005, motorized vehicles could freely travel across entire forest landscapes. Between 1999 to 2008, all-terrain vehicle use in our forests increased by 183 percent. Widespread off-road vehicle use damaged natural resources, conflicted with quiet uses and led the Forest Service to pass the 2005 Travel Management Rule. It restricts motorized use to routes identified in travel plans. Real change, however, has been slow.

At times, the Forest Service didn’t act at all. At least four national forests—the Apache-Sitgreaves, Malheur, Okanogan-Wenatchee and Wallowa-Whitman—do not even have travel plans. Other forests proposed and discarded plans. In 2012, the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest proposed summer travel plans for several ranger districts, but later abandoned the proposals.

More than 10 years since finalizing the Travel Management Rule, it is time for the Forest Service to directly enforce vehicle use and restore balance for our forests.

Unfettered motorized travel harms natural forest ecology. Quiet landscapes provide connected habitats for species like grizzly bears, Canadian lynx, and wolverine. Connected habitats are essential to wildlife survival and allow for adaptation to climate change effects. Motorized use fragments habitat, disrupting wilderness and wildlife.

A growing demand for non-motorized recreation on our national forests depends on functioning natural ecosystems. Between 2006 and 2015, backpacking increased by 43 percent. In a striking example, long-distance hiking permits on the Pacific Crest Trail increased from 1,879 in 2013 to 2,655 in 2014, following the film adaptation of Cheryl Strayed’s popular memoir, "Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail."

The increased demand for quiet recreation in forests should be a signal to the agency of changing public demand. Add to that a greater understanding of how motorized use harms wildlife and the message is clear: the Forest Service needs to reconsider how it manages travel in national forests.

Where no travel plans exist, the default is not working. Take the Beaverhead-Deerlodge: it is nearly impossible to decipher where one can and cannot go with a motorized vehicle. Motorized routes that physically exist are absent from Forest Service maps. Routes authorized by the agency don’t reflect the actual landscape. Lack of clear boundaries handicaps enforcement, resulting in a free-for-all.

The law requires limits. As clear example of how the Forest Service struggles to apply limits, again take the Beaverhead-Deerlodge. The first time it proposed over-snow vehicle routes, the agency designated more than 60 percent of the forest for snowmobile use. Environmental groups challenged, and the District Court of Montana held that the agency failed to make route-specific snowmobile designations.

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In response to the court order, on round two, the agency analyzed the environmental impacts of three snowmobile trails totaling 13.5 miles. It ignored more than 1,900 miles of additional snowmobile trails.

On the heels of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals decision in June of 2015, which confirmed the agency’s duty to designate all snowmobile trails to minimize environmental impacts, it is extremely troubling that for the third time the Forest Service is proposing no change from its original proposal.

The Forest Service faces a formidable task of balancing uses, subject to the whims of changing administrations, a hostile Congress and limited resources. Change is painful and frustrating for the agency. But lack of agency action is equally frustrating for the public.

Managing motorized use doesn’t mean less access to enjoy our national forests by vehicle. Use of motor vehicles will remain a popular pursuit on public lands. But it cannot continue as historically allowed—across entire forests, without bounds.

If the agency continues its pattern of failed decisions on the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest, it will give us a sad example of Sisyphus in modern day futility. The Forest Service needs to embrace change, enforce its own rules and restore balance on our national forests.

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Marla Nelson is the rewilding attorney for WildEarth Guardians, which has an office in Missoula and is actively engaged on Forest Service projects in Montana, Idaho, Washington, Oregon, California, Colorado and New Mexico. Nelson presented at the Public Interest Environmental Law Conference for the past five years, and teaches an undergraduate course on environmental law and policy at Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Oregon.

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