Land use 

Fussing over forest plan

Add snowmobilers and cattle producers to the long list of those unhappy with the U.S. Forest Service's decision over access to southwestern Montana's 3.35-million acre Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest. In the latest round of legal wrangling, a coalition filed suit against the Forest Service, alleging the agency broke the law when it banned bicycles, ATVs and snowmobiles on 322,000 acres of newly recommended wilderness areas.

"So many groups are highly impacted by this," says Kerry White of the Gallatin County-based Citizens for Balanced Use (CBU) of the Forest Service's decision.

CBU is a pro-snowmobile advocacy group that joined 19 other plaintiffs filing suit in Missoula District Court Dec. 23. They aim to force the Forest Service to reverse portions of a March 2009 decision that stated, "The unmanaged expansion of motorized use has resulted in resource damage, wildlife impacts, and competition and conflict between user groups."

However, plaintiffs joining CBU, including the Beaverhead County Commission, Missoula's Chapter of the Montana Mining Association and the Southwestern Montana Stockgrowers Association, argue the Forest Service didn't adequately invite public participation before signing off on the plan. They say the changes now impact a range of users, including cattle producers with grazing permits, wood harvesters and recreational users.

"We have continued to try and work with the Forest Service through comments, meetings and our appeal to their decision, but we have been ignored," White says.

Beaverhead Deputy Forest Supervisor Chuck Mark says the plaintiffs are simply dissatisfied because they didn't get their way. Seven years and a significant amount of public comment, he says, went into forging the new plan.

"They participated in the process," Mark says. "They might not necessarily agree with the outcome, but they did participate."

A previous lawsuit suggests the Forest Service may have already struck a compromise. In September, the conservation groups Wildlands CPR, Montanans for Quiet Recreation and Friends of the Bitterroot filed suit arguing the plan should further limit—above what's spelled out in the 2009 decision—motorized and mechanized access.

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