Idaho snowmobilers sue Forest Service, say public land closure lacks scientific basis
Nicole Blanchard, Idaho Statesman
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A statewide snowmobiling organization filed suit against the U.S. Forest Service, Sawtooth National Forest and two Idaho employees of the agency on Wednesday, arguing that a section of the forest was closed to snowmobiling without cause.
The Idaho State Snowmobile Association alleged in the lawsuit that the Sawtooth National Forest violated forest management and environmental protection legislation by closing off a portion of the Fairfield Ranger District to over-snow vehicles like snowmobiles.
The lawsuit centers around a Forest Service decision issued in December 2018 that closed more than 85,000 acres of land to over-snow vehicles, according to the Idaho Statesman. The decision was prompted by an existing wildlife wintering range closure in 2017 which effectively cut off the public from nearly 200 acres. Passage through the winter range was by permit only for individuals who owned land north of Fleck Summit on the South Fork of the Boise River.
“…These landowners and their permitted guests had practically unimpeded access to the public lands that lie north of the closure area,” the snowmobile association’s lawsuit said.
A spokeswoman for the Forest Service on Thursday told the Statesman that the agency does not comment on pending litigation. The snowmobile association could not be reached for comment Thursday.
According to Forest Service documents, the agency weighed four possible plans: making no change to the 2017 closure, opening the entire area to over-snow vehicle recreation, shrinking the existing closure while adding additional closed acreage north, and banning snowmobiling entirely in the area north of Fleck Summit. Each plan weighed the impact to wildlife (the Forest Service says the area is home to several protected species, including lynx, wolverine and wolf), to recreators and to private landowners.
Fairfield District Ranger Mike Dettori, also named as a defendant in the suit, ultimately settled on a plan that would alter the wintering range to allow snowmobilers to pass north through the Couch Summit to Fleck Summit corridor to public land. However, some of the existing acreage that was once accessible only to permit-holders was closed to protect wildlife.
LAWSUIT CLAIMS FOREST SERVICE LACKS SCIENTIFIC EVIDENCE FOR DECISION
The snowmobile association, which includes members of 41 different snowmobiling clubs across the state, alleged in the lawsuit that Dettori’s decision hinged on inaccurate analyses over the potential impact on wildlife.
“The Decision prohibits snowmobile use on 85,266 acres of public land in the Fairfield Ranger District based on purported environmental concerns that find no basis in the record,” the lawsuit says. “Instead, the Decision admittedly ‘assumes’ that snowmobiling in these closed areas will have adverse environmental impacts without any solid scientific evidence.”
In the suit, the snowmobile association argues in favor of the plan that would’ve opened 211,440 acres to snowmobile recreation, slashing the wildlife winter range by half to just under 13,000 acres. The organization claims that its preferred plan was rejected because the environmental assessment incorrectly found it would “likely have adverse effects on mountain goats, wolverine, and lynx. That finding was not based on reliable or high-quality scientific evidence.”
The suit casts doubt on Forest Service assertions that wolverine and lynx live in the Fairfield Ranger District. The snowmobile association claims it objected to the Forest Service’s decision but was ultimately rejected by Sawtooth National Forest supervisor Jim DeMaagd, another defendant in the lawsuit.
Ultimately, the lawsuit alleges that both agencies and employees violated the Administrative Procedure Act, the National Environmental Policy Act and the National Forest Management Act. It calls the Forest Service decision “arbitrary, capricious, [and] an abuse of discretion.”
The snowmobile association has asked that the Forest Service decision be declared unlawful and set aside pending further analysis of environmental impacts.