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Conservationists’ Win Sets Stage to Restore Health of the Sawtooth National Forest

Federal Court Again Rules that U.S. Forest Service’s Designation of 1,196-mile ATV and Dirt Bike Route Network Unlawfully Harms Wildlife and Water Quality 

Boise, Idaho—(ENEWSPF)—October 24, 2013.  An Idaho federal judge has ruled for the second time in as many years that the U.S. Forest Service violated federal law when it designated a 1,196-mile network of roads and trails for use by all-terrain vehicles and dirt bikes on the Sawtooth National Forest’s Minidoka Ranger District. Specifically, Judge Edward J. Lodge held that the Forest Service, in designating this network and abandoning other routes without plans for reclamation, failed to comply with two Executive Orders compelling the agency to minimize impacts to resources, such as water quality.

In his October 22, 2013 decision, Judge Lodge concluded that the Forest Service had “acted arbitrarily and capriciously.” Though an improvement over the prior route system, which had allowed all-terrain vehicles and dirt bikes to traverse off designated roads and trails, Judge Lodge challenged the agency’s assertion that its new route system satisfied the agency’s duty to affirmatively minimize impacts on the environment, specifically on water quality. (Water quality is degraded when tires loosen the soil in and around waterways, and damage vegetation that holds the soil in place along stream banks.)

Judge Lodge had previously found, on February 21, 2012, that the Forest Service failed to take a hard look at the environmental impacts of routes that the Forest Service designated for motorized recreation use or had abandoned to the landscape, such as to already-degraded watersheds and to Yellowstone cutthroat trout populations.

To fix the problems identified in his two decisions and ensure protection of the Sawtooth National Forest’s water quality, Judge Lodge ordered the Forest Service complete a supplemental Environmental Assessment of the designated route system by no later than March 31, 2014.

“These two decisions should spark real, meaningful action by the Forest Service to protect and restore the Sawtooth’s watersheds,” said Bradley Brooks, Idaho Deputy Regional Director for The Wilderness Society. “Too many of the forest’s waters are degraded, which harms the prized Yellowstone cutthroat trout and other imperiled aquatic life. Restoration efforts are needed to responsibly balance motorized recreation use with water quality protection.”

“Idahoans love the Sawtooth for its wildlife and great recreational opportunities,” added Julie Randell, Conservation Chairperson for Prairie Falcon Audubon. “We look forward to working with the Forest Service and other forest users to protect this special place and ensure that it can be enjoyed by all.”

Erik Schlenker-Goodrich, the conservation groups’ lead attorney with the Western Environmental Law Center, concluded, “We hope the Forest Service sees this decision for what it is: an opportunity to benefit the Sawooth for all.”

BACKGROUND

The Sawtooth National Forest’s Minidoka Ranger District is located in the heart of Idaho. Providing a home for myriad terrestrial and aquatic wildlife, such as Yellowstone cutthroat trout, the Forest Service for years allowed ATVs and dirt bikes to drive “cross country” off of the agency’s official roads and trails and into the forest itself, with few if any limitations. The result was catastrophic: hundreds of miles of user-created routes were carved into the landscape, contributing to severely degraded watershed conditions on the Minidoka.

In 2008, the Forest Service prohibited “cross-country” travel on the Minidoka and required ATVs and dirt bikes to stay on a designated 1,196-mile network of roads and trails. While an improvement, the Forest Service’s 2008 decision did not take into consideration that 49% of the Minidoka’s watersheds would still be “functioning at unacceptable risk,” that 13% of the watersheds would still be “functioning at risk,” and that the agency did not even have any data regarding 30% of the watersheds.

The Wilderness Society and Prairie Falcon Chapter of the Audubon Society tried to work with the Forest Service to responsibly balance motorized recreation use with the need to protect and, indeed, restore the Minidoka’s degraded wildlife and water quality. These concerns were, unfortunately, dismissed by the agency. Therefore, in 2008, The Wilderness Society and Prairie Falcon Chapter took action with the Western Environmental Law Center to protect the Minidoka’s wildlife and water quality by filing the lawsuit that lead to the two decisions.

Judge Lodge’s February 21, 2012 decision can be obtained here: http://www.westernlaw.org/sites/default/files/Sawtooth_Decision_2.21.2012.pdf

Judge Lodge’s October 22, 2013 decision can be obtained here: http://www.westernlaw.org/sites/default/files/Sawtooth_CWA_EOdecision_10.22.2013.pdf

Source: Western Environmental Law Center

 

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