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Idaho State Snowmobile Association v. United States Forest Service

United States District Court, D. Idaho

February 26, 2015

IDAHO STATE SNOWMOBILE ASSOCIATION; and THE BLUERIBBON COALITION, Plaintiffs,
v.
UNITED STATES FOREST SERVICE; U.S. FOREST SERVICE, Northern Region; CLEARWATER NATIONAL FOREST; FAYE KRUGER; Regional Forester, Northern Region; RICK BRAZELL, Forest Supervisor, Clearwater National Forest, Defendants. and, GREAT BURN STUDY GROUP, IDAHO CONSERVATION LEAGUE, and THE WILDERNESS SOCIETY, Defendant-Intervenors.

MEMORANDUM DECISION AND ORDER

B. LYNN WINMILL, Chief District Judge.

INTRODUCTION

The Court has before it a motion to approve a consent decree filed by the parties and an objection thereto filed by the intervenors. The motion is fully briefed and at issue. For the reasons explained below, the Court will conditionally approve the consent decree.

LITIGATION BACKGROUND

Plaintiffs Idaho State Snowmobile Association and The BlueRibbon Coalition represent motorized recreationists. They have sued the Forest Service, challenging the 2011 Clearwater National Forest Travel Plan. To support the Travel Plan, three environmental groups - the Great Burn Study Group, the Idaho Conservation League, and the Wilderness Society - have intervened in the case.

The Clearwater National Forest contains 950, 311 acres. It is governed by the 1987 Clearwater Forest Plan that identifies 198, 200 acres of recommended wilderness areas (RWAs). Under the 1987 Forest Plan, the Forest Service is to "manage each [RWA] to protect its wilderness character." Over the years, users of motorized vehicles created routes through repeated public travel within the RWAs.

In 2005, the Forest Service promulgated a Travel Management Rule that generally prohibited motor vehicle use on roads not explicitly designated for their use. See 36 C.F.R. § 261.13. Accordingly, the Clearwater National Forest began in that same year to draft a detailed plan - a Travel Plan - to govern motor vehicle use. They received over 4, 000 public comments, and released a draft EIS in 2009. In 2011 - six years after the process started - the Forest Service released the ROD and FEIS that now constitute the Travel Plan before the Court.

The Travel Plan largely prohibits motorized vehicles in the RWAs (except for one small exception). The Forest Service justified this ruling by concluding that the "increase in capability and popularity" of motorized vehicles will put "increased pressure" on RWAs "unless those uses are restricted." See AR 3343 at p. 38. Furthermore, the "continuing or expanding use of vehicles will do nothing but reduce the chances of these areas being designated as Wilderness. Accordingly, I am deciding to restrict all motorized use... in [RWAs] with the exception of summer use on the Fish Lake Trail." Id.

The plaintiffs, whose members used motorized vehicles in the RWAs under the prior management plan, brought this lawsuit seeking to overturn the 2011 Travel Plan. One of their main challenges is that the Forest Service, in adopting the 2011 Travel Plan, applied a guidance document created by the Forest Service's Northern Region to manage RWAs. Plaintiffs allege that this guidance document was never adopted pursuant to NEPA and NFMA, and yet played a crucial role in the Forest Service's decision to restrict motorized travel in the 2011 Travel Plan.

In March of 2014, the Court granted plaintiffs' request to conduct discovery into the creation and effect of the Northern Region's guidance document. In the months that followed, the parties - that is, the plaintiffs and the defendant Forest Service - negotiated, and eventually entered into a consent decree that they now present to the Court for approval. The defendant-intervenors object to the consent decree and ask the Court to deny approval, or to approve a modified version of the decree.

The consent decree would vacate and remand to the Forest Service that portion of the Travel Plan pertaining to motorized and over-snow access for RWAs. While the Forest Service reconsiders its ruling, those uses in the RWAs would be governed by the 1987 Forest Plan that contained no express prohibitions.

The Forest Service explained why it entered into the consent decree in the Declaration of Regional Forester Faye Krueger. She explains that the guidance document issued by the Northern Region - designed to offer suggestions for the consistent treatment of RWAs - was "never intended to establish new policy or binding direction." See Krueger Declaration (Dkt. No. 48-3) at ¶ 5. The guidance document, however, did not produce the results the Forest Service sought, at least in Krueger's analysis: "It has recently come to my attention, however, that there is some confusion regarding the guidance document with some Forests misinterpreting the guidance as providing management direction for RWAs." Id. at ¶ 6. The Forest Service is not conceding that it made an error, but Krueger ultimately concluded that "[r]emand would allow the Forest Service to make a decision regarding the RWAs based on a record which clearly reflects the applicable management direction." Id. at ¶ 7. The Forest Service represents that it would "make its best efforts to issue a new decision" in about 60 days.

The defendant-intervenors object to the consent decree provision that vacates the current Travel Plan and restores the management policy in the 1987 Forest Plan. They argue that the 1987 Forest Plan allows the very motorized use that the Forest Service found destructive in the 2011 Travel Plan ROD. They also argue that if the Forest Service decides to make changes to the 2011 Travel Plan, the public notice and comment period, along with other NEPA procedural requirements, will cause delays for years, during which time motorized use will continue unabated. They ask the Court to keep the 2011 Travel Plan in effect during ...


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