BUTTE, Mont. (AP) — A federal judge has heard arguments in a lawsuit challenging a U.S. Forest Service plan to bar snowmobiles, motorcycles, mountain bikes and off-road vehicles from 322,000 acres in new recommended wilderness areas in southwestern Montana's Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest.
The Forest Service's 2009 plan recommended the new wilderness designations and that motorized and mechanized uses barred there until Congress decides whether they should become permanent wilderness areas.
Twenty-two plaintiffs led by Beaverhead County commissioners sued the Forest Service in 2010. They include snowmobile and off-road vehicle groups, ranchers and mining organizations.
U.S. District Judge Sam Haddon held oral arguments Friday in U.S. District Court in Butte, where both sides asked Haddon to make a ruling on the case without going to trial.
The judge did not make an immediate ruling.
Attorneys for the plaintiffs claimed the Forest Service decided to bar motorized and mechanized uses in those areas without consulting them and without conducting a proper environmental analysis.
The failure to seriously consider their input or properly analyze the effects of motorized and mechanized use in those areas is reason to set aside the Forest Service's decision, they argued.
Attorneys for the Forest Service said the decision was made after a transparent and responsive process that lasted seven years.
The agency considered the plaintiffs' comments, but had no duty to accept them, they said.
Moreover, the Forest Service conducted a proper environmental analysis, which found continued motorized use could compromise the wilderness value in those areas, they said.
Two environmental groups, the Greater Yellowstone Coalition and the Montana Wilderness Association, intervened in the lawsuit and are represented by Earthjustice.
Earthjustice attorneys said the plan only calls for 322,000 acres of wilderness designation out of 1.8 million roadless acres in the forest.
"Escalating numbers of dirt bikers, four-wheelers, and snowmobilers riding more powerful machines are eroding the landscape, disturbing wildlife, disrupting other recreation activities, and spreading the noise and pollution of motorized travel into once-pristine backcountry areas," Earthjustice said in a statement.
The Forest Service plan allows for summer motorized travel on 55 percent of the forest and winter travel on 60 percent.