A group of snowmobilers, motorcyclists and ATV riders filed suit against the U.S. Forest Service two weeks ago, claiming a travel plan that prohibits motorized use in the Badger-Two Medicine (BTM) area adjacent to Glacier National Park infringes on the Blackfeet tribe's right to use the land—even though the tribe supports the plan.
The plaintiffs, including seven individuals and three motorized use organizations, argue that the plan violates Blackfeet tribal members' rights by denying them access to land guaranteed to them under an 1895 treaty, and violates all of their rights by enacting a recreation ban "that can only be enforced against non-Blackfeet Tribal members on the basis of race."
In March, the Lewis and Clark National Forest released its travel plan for the 129,520-acre area. Forest Supervisor Leslie "Spike" Thompson closed 182 of its 189 miles of trails to all motorized vehicles, citing the cultural and spiritual significance of the area to the Blackfeet tribe.
The tribe owned the land until 1896, when it sold 800,000 acres of its reservation to the U.S. government for $1.5 million—land that today makes up part of Glacier National Park and the BTM. But the treaty preserved the tribe's rights to use the land for purposes such as timber extraction, hunting and fishing.
With that history in mind, the Forest Service worked with the tribal government to incorporate its interests into the travel plan. It wasn't only the tribe, though, that sought non-motorized use. The proposed plan drew 35,500 public comments, and Thompson says the consensus was clear.
"The majority, by far, supported pretty much non-motorized use across the Rocky Mountain Ranger District," he says.
Depending on how the U.S. District Court in Great Falls decides, Blackfeet Tribal Business Council Chairman Willie Sharp says it could set a precedent within the state.
"When we get [a ruling]," he says, "it's going to affect every other Montana tribe and their cultural access."