BOZEMAN - A Gallatin National Forest official says he's at a loss for words to assess a federal judge's ruling requiring the U.S. Forest Service to restore and maintain nearly 650,000 acres of wilderness study area in their wild state of 24 years ago.

"We value the fact that the judge has made a decision, and this is out of court and the world can go on, so to speak," said Dave Garber. "(But) we think we've been managing very much in accord with the original decision …."

Environmental groups and motorized vehicle users also were unsure of the next step.

U.S. District Court Judge Donald Molloy on Tuesday ruled against the Forest Service in a lawsuit filed by the Montana Wilderness Association, American Wildlands and Friends of the Bitterroot in 1996. His order pertained to land identified in the Montana Wilderness Study Area Act.

"The courts always defer to the agency's expertise," said Rob Ament of American Wildlands. "But (the judge has) made it quite clear they've violated the law and now have to clean up their act … The question now is what the Forest Service will do to clean up their act."

The 1977 federal act mandated nine areas in Montana be set aside and studied for their wilderness values, he said. "The Forest Service was to maintain the character of them until Congress decided to either open them up to multiple use or designate them wilderness."

Regionally, the ruling impacts the 151,000-acre Hyalite Porcupine-Buffalo Horn area south of Bozeman.

"The Forest Service has not considered whether, how and to what extent its management decisions in the Hyalite Porcupine-Buffalo Horn Wilderness Study Area" have impacted the wilderness character of those areas as they were in 1977, Molloy wrote. "Thus the agency has unlawfully withheld or unreasonably delayed its maintenance of the area's 1977 wilderness character."

Allowing increased motorized vehicle use and improving trails to accommodate off-road vehicles are examples of the Forest Service's management mistakes, said Alex Phillips of the Montana Wilderness Association.

"This is a wonderful opportunity to restore what's been lost," Phillips said. "I hope the Forest Service looks at this as an opportunity to clarify their management plans."

It appears that motorized vehicle use should be returned to 1977 types and levels, but implementing that could prove difficult, she said.

"There are very few official monitoring reports of what was happening in 1977," Phillips said. "There are some photographs and people's memories."

Since the lawsuit was filed five years ago, the Forest Service has closed the Porcupine-Buffalo study area to motorized use on a year-by-year basis. Some hope Molloy's decision will permanently open it to motorized use as it was in 1977.

"In 1977, the law made no mention of ATVs and four-wheelers," said Kerry White of the Blue Ribbon Coalition, which advocates motorized recreation on public lands. "All motorized and off-road vehicles were allowed."

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