|05-23-2001, 11:48 PM||#1 (permalink)|
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Forest Service told to restore public lands
Forest Service told to restore public lands
By The Associated Press
MISSOULA (AP) – A federal judge on Tuesday ordered the U.S. Forest Service to
restore nearly 650,000 acres of public lands to the wild state in which they
existed 24 years ago and then maintain them in that state as Congress
U.S. District Court Judge Donald Molloy said the Forest Service “abused its
discretion” by allowing ever-increasing use and development of the 973,000
acres protected by the Montana Wilderness Study Act.
Molloy’s 19-page decision said the act clearly prohibited the Forest Service
from “taking any action in any Montana Wilderness Study Area that diminishes
the wilderness character of the area as it existed in 1977 or that diminishes
the area’s potential for inclusion in the National Wilderness Preservation
The suit by environmentalists, filed in 1996, contended the Forest Service
had built trails for new types of all-terrain vehicles, expanded snowmobile
grooming and issued permits for mining exploration.
The late Sen. Lee Metcalf of Montana, shortly before his death, pushed
through Congress a wilderness study act that originally protected nine areas
while their potential for inclusion in the National Wilderness Preservation
System was reviewed. Congress intended to make a decision on each of the
areas by 1984.
Two areas have since seen congressional action: release of Mount Henry to
logging and roading, and wilderness designation for most of the
Taylor-Hilgard as the Lee Metcalf Wilderness. The remaining seven areas
remain in limbo, despite repeated attempts at statewide wilderness bills and
the passage of one such bill in 1988, only to be vetoed by former President
Molloy’s ruling stipulates all seven areas must remain as they were in 1977.
Until Congress acts, there can be no degradation of the wilderness character
of the Big Snowies, Bluejoint, Middle Fork Judith, Sapphires, Ten Lakes, West
Pioneers or the Hyalite-Porcupine-Buffalo Horn areas.
Molloy also ruled there can be no loss of the motorized access or use enjoyed
in those areas in 1977, since that was also part of the areas’ character.
“Congress required that the Forest Service ensure continuing opportunities
for enjoyment of the study areas by use of motorized vehicles, as well as
continuing opportunities for enjoyment of the study areas’ wilderness
character,” Molloy said.
“Consequently, in making decisions about trail maintenance, improvement,
construction, motorized use and closings, the Forest Service must consider
the impact of its decisions on the nature, quality and scope of the
particular study area’s wilderness character as it existed in 1977,” he
said. “Conversely, in making decisions about trail closings, the Forest
Service must consider the impact on the nature, quality and scope of
motorized use as it existed in 1977. ”
Areas that have suffered damage over the years must now be restored, the
judge said. The lack of congressional action has not relieved the Forest
Service of its duty, he said.
Forest Service officials said they could not comment yet on how they will
abide by the judge’s orders.
Environmentalists, however, were upbeat.
“The citizens of Montana have acted to prevent Senator Metcalf’s legacy from
being lost,” said John Gatchell, conservation director of the Montana
The MWA joined with American Wildlands and Friends of the Bitterroot in
filing the suit five years ago.
“Congress said these areas must be protected,” Gatchell said. “Instead of
following that standard, the Forest Service converted pack and saddle trails
into ATV roads, and some of the finest backcountry hunting areas in the world
Gatchell said environmentalists continually tried to gain the Forest
Service’s cooperation voluntarily but had to resort to the court for help.
“Dozens and dozens of hiking trails were opened to ATV use without any public
process,” he said. “The Forest Service didn’t even look at the fact that
they were supposed to maintain the wilderness character of these places.”
He said the next step is for environmentalists to work with the Forest
Service on restoring areas damaged by past use and on preventing future
abuses, Gatchell said.
“We do recognize that the Forest Service is attempting to get a handle on the
motorized use, and we are willing to cooperate with them on that process,” he
“For the last three years, we have offered to provide volunteers to restore
some of these pack and saddle trails. Each time, they’ve said they were
waiting for direction from the court.
“Well, we have that direction now, and we’re ready to get to work. We want
to sit down with the Forest Service and find out how we can help,” Gatchell
Molloy’s order applies to these areas, with their respective acreage’s:
Blue Joint River of No Return, Bitterroot National Forest, 61,000 acres;
Hyalite-Porcupine-Buffalo Horn, Gallatin National Forest, 151,000; Middle
Fork Judith, Lewis and Clark National Forest, 81,000; Sapphire Mountains,
Bitterroot and Beaverhead-Deerlodge national forests, 94,000; Ten Lakes,
Kootenai National Forest, 34,000; West Pioneers, Beaverhead-Deerlodge
National Forest, 151,000; Big Snowies, Lewis and Clark National Forest,
Several groups joined the Forest Service in fighting the suit, including the
Blue Ribbon Coalition, the Montana Snowmobile Association, the Montana 4X4
Association and the High Country Trail Vehicle Riders Association.
Peter S. Di Primo
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|05-24-2001, 04:13 AM||#2 (permalink)|
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