Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Judge: Forest Service violated regulations

Conservationists cheer, despite minimal impact

Express Staff Writer

Even though it will prompt no immediate changes, conservationists say they are celebrating a Friday ruling that the U.S. Forest Service violated national and agency regulations when planning for off-road motorized use in the Salmon-Challis National Forest.

"I'm happy with the outcome," said Brad Brooks, deputy regional director for The Wilderness Society conservation group, one of the case's two plaintiffs. "The decision is a good one, and there's a reason that we won the lawsuit."

The ruling, which was issued by U.S. Magistrate Judge Ronald Bush, stated that the Forest Service violated both the National Environmental Policy Act and the service's 2005 Travel Management Rule when designating motorized routes in the Salmon-Challis in summer 2009.

NEPA requires the Forest Service to consider the effects that motorized use would have on all routes. According to the decision, the agency failed to recognize the impacts of "micro-routes," or routes shorter than a half-mile.

Bush ruled that the Forest Service failed to show that it had sought ways to keep the impact of public use to a minimum, as required by its own 2005 rule.

Bush said he only had the authority to order the service to reconsider its current plan. As a result, the current motorized trails remain open to off-road vehicles.

Brooks admitted that the judge's ruling has few immediate practical implications.

"All the judge's decision says is that the service failed to comply," he said.

Before ruling further on a remedy, Bush gave the Forest Service, The Wilderness Society and the Idaho Conservation League time to work on an agreement for developing a plan for the 1,380 miles of motorized routes in the area, which ranges through a large portion of central Idaho.

"We don't know what the end result will be," Brooks said, adding that his organization had not yet contacted the service.

Brooks said he hopes to develop a plan that balances off-road vehicle use and wilderness protection.

"There are thousands of miles of motorized routes—there's plenty of space for everybody," he said. "We're just trying to make sure that those who want to enjoy the natural sights and sounds of the Salmon-Challis have a place to go."

Kent Fullenbach, spokesman for the Salmon-Challis National Forest, declined to comment on the ruling and its potential impacts.

Katherine Wutz:

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