In a memorandum filed on October 27, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the 2018 decision by U.S. District Court Judge Dana Christianson upholding the Bitterroot National Forest Travel Plan against a challenge from the Bitterroot Ridge Runners Snowmobile Club and other motorized and mechanized users. The six recreation groups argued in their lawsuit that the prohibition against the use of motorized mechanized vehicles in two Wilderness Study Areas (WSAs) and two Recommended Wilderness Areas (RWAs) was arbitrary and capricious under the Administrative Procedures Act and in violation of various organic statutes.
“The district court granted summary judgment in favor of the Forest Service except for a narrow remand concerning restrictions on bicycles in the WSAs. We affirm,” wrote the Appellate Court.
The Court made a strong statement about the “deferential” status it gives the Forest Service, in light of the Service’s expertise and discretion under the law. “We are particularly deferential when agency determinations involve a ‘high level of expertise’,” the Court wrote.
The recreationists claimed in their suit that the decision was irrational because there was insufficient evidence in the record that wilderness character in the WSAs and the RWAs has declined or is likely to decline. They point to limited data about past vehicle use and dispute the estimates of past use produced by economist Keith Stockman. They also point to three field studies that suggest wilderness character in the WSAs has not diminished. Finally, they argue that, even if vehicle use has increased, the Service incorrectly concluded that these uses have “impacts on the social and biotic environment.”
The Court of Appeals, on the contrary, found “the agency rationally concluded that vehicle uses in WSAs and RWAs ‘impacted the social and biotic environment’. The agency’s decision was reasonable and based on objective evidence.” The Court notes that the Final Environmental Impact Statement included almost 80 pages of analysis of the impacts of motorized, mechanized, and non-motorized recreation, and over 160 pages of analysis of their impacts on wildlife and stated, “Where the Service lacked data, ‘it [did] the best it [could] with the data it [had]’, exactly as this court has instructed.” The court also found the Forest Service justified in finding Stockman’s models of historical vehicle uses more reliable than the three field studies.
The appellants claimed as well that the agency reached its decision because of its employees’ “personal” desires or because of “pernicious political preferences.”
“We need not dwell on these contentions,” wrote the Court, “because Appellants have adduced no evidence to support them. Even if they had, evidence of personal or political preferences would likely not invalidate the action at issue here, given the objective evidence in the record.”
The appellants also argued that the Forest Service’s decision to close 110 miles of trails in the WSAs to bicycles required a Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS) because the Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) proposed prohibiting bicycle use only in the RWAs. The Court responded that, “under our precedent, no SEIS is required if the change is a ‘minor variation of one of the alternatives discussed in the DEIS’ and is ‘qualitatively within the spectrum of alternatives’.” The Court noted that the change was a minor variation of the proposal in the DEIS because it reduced the mileage available for bicycle use in the forest by only 9%. They found it to be “qualitatively within the spectrum of alternatives” because the bicycle use restrictions in the WSAs were qualitatively the same as those proposed earlier in the RWAs, so comments about the latter apprised the agency of relevant environmental effects in both areas.
“In sum, we conclude that the agency articulated a ‘rational connection between the facts found and the choice made,” wrote the Court.
Several environmental organizations joined the lawsuit on the side of the Forest Service in defending the Bitterroot National Forest Travel Plan. Earthjustice argued the case 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.”