Inventoried roadless areas in western Montana include large swaths of ground in the Sapphire Mountains, Bitterroot Mountains, around Petty Mountain west of Missoula, along the Reservation Divide above the Nine Mile and ringing the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex. Now they'll remain roadless following the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals' decision, announced Oct. 21, that it will uphold the "roadless rule" that dates back to the administration of President Bill Clinton.
The decision will likely end a decade of legal challenges to the sweeping conservation initiative, which protects 58 million acres—about a third of the country's national forest lands—from logging and road building.
"With hunting season just opening on Saturday, folks are going to be out enjoying these lands for the next five weeks," says Joel Webster of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. "I think it's a really positive thing that they can have some comfort in knowing that these backcountry lands are going to be safeguarded."
The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals also upheld the 2001 Roadless Area Conservation Rule in 2009, making it that much less likely that the U.S. Supreme Court will take up the issue.
The ruling is good news for hunters. In 2005, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks issued a report on the state's roadless areas, saying, "At some point, cumulative effects of cover reduction and/or increased roads and trails would make it unlikely that FWP could maintain a five-week general bull elk hunting season."
ATV and snowmobile organizations from around the West joined industry interests to challenge the rule, arguing in part that it violated the Multiple-Use Sustained-Yield Act. The court found that the rule allows for multiple uses, including motorized use. The same groups argued that the rule constitutes a de facto declaration of wilderness.
While conservationists celebrate the decision, they're wary of a bill introduced by Republican Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California that would overturn the roadless rule. It's co-sponsored by Montana's Rep. Denny Rehberg. Former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt has called it "the most radical, overreaching attempt to dismantle the architecture of our public lands laws that has been proposed in my lifetime."