Timber giant and snowmobile groups sue over roadless plan

Published March 1, 2001

Several snowmobile groups and a giant timber company sued the federal government in early January, seeking to overturn the controversial roadless forest initiative signed by then-President Bill Clinton the week before.

The initiative bans new roads and almost all logging in nearly 60 million acres of roadless national forest in the United States. That total includes about 6 million acres in Montana and 700,000 acres on the Gallatin National Forest.

The suit was filed on January 8 in federal court in Boise, Idaho, naming Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman, Forest Service Chief Mike Dombeck, and their agencies as defendants.

The plaintiffs include the Kootenai Tribe of Idaho, three snowmobile groups, the Little Cattle Company Limited Partnership, and timber giant Boise Cascade.

“The coalition feels the Forest Service bypassed the forest planning process, ignored forest plans, and intends a top-down mandate,” said Mike Moser, public information officer of the Boise-based forest products company, according to Associated Press.

The suit charges the vast majority of Forest Service employees who have commented publicly contend the initiative is inconsistent with regulations on national forest lands, AP reported.

“The rulemaking went around Congress to create de facto wilderness,” Moser said.

The roadless initiative is “asking the American people to swallow a big horse pill without any water,” said Don Amador, a spokesman for the BlueRibbon Coalition, an off-road vehicle group that is one of the plaintiffs.

Environmentalists are taking the medicine gladly, however, and are praising Clinton for taking the step, which had been in the works for over a year.

“This is one of the most important lands conservation legacies of the last100 years,” said Rob Ament, of American Wildlands, based in Bozeman.

Last year, both Idaho and the coalition unsuccessfully fought the roadless initiative in court. U.S. District Court Judge Edward Lodge ruled then the Forest Service had not wound its way through the federal process of draft and final environmental studies to the point the plan was “ripe” and could be sued, AP reported.

Idaho Attorney General Al Lance said Monday the state would file suit on January 9 in federal court, AP reported.

Citing previous legal challenges that failed, Tim Stevens, of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition environmental group in Bozeman, said “they’re free to try” again with the new lawsuit. “I just think the Forest Service did a very good job of covering their legal bases on this one.”

Forest Service officials in Missoula and Washington, DC could not be reached for comment when the suit was announced in a press release.

Though the initiative has little immediate impact on their recreation, snowmobilers and all-terrain-vehicle riders don’t like it because of implications it holds for the future, Amador said.

Many of the “roadless” areas included in the initiative contain roads and trails used by people who take motorized trips into the back country. When the initiative is fine-tuned in the future and implemented on the ground, those routes could be closed officially or shut down through a lack of maintenance, Amador said.

“In the long run, it is going to affect (motorized) off-road users,” he said, because it directs the Forest Service to minimize roads in those areas.

Paul Turcke, a lawyer for the groups that filed the suit, said in a press release that “contrary to the plan’s title and media spin, these areas contain numerous roads and trails” that many people use.

The initiative includes roughly one-third of the nation’s national forest lands and has drawn intense criticism from lawmakers in Western states and from leaders of extractive industries.

Clinton called it “preserving frontiers for our children.”

The nation’s forests already contain tens of thousands of miles of roads, some of which are deteriorating and polluting streams, and the Forest Service doesn’t have the money to maintain the ones it already has, Dombeck has said. Most of the roadless areas are isolated, but some contain valuable stands of timber.

Scott McMillion is a staff writer for the Bozeman Chronicle. This article was first published in its January 9 edition and is used here with permission.