Montana: Lawsuit challenges forest access policies

By Jim Mann
The Daily Inter Lake


Flathead National Forest, Montana - The Swan View Coalition has put the Flathead National Forest on notice that it intends to pursue a second lawsuit pertaining to motorized access and grizzly bear habitat.

Keith Hammer, the chairman of the group, is taking aim at the legality of a deteriorating bridge that provides snowmobile access to the Lost Johnny Basin in the Hungry Horse Ranger District. The forest was served with a 60-day notice of intent to sue last week.

Hammer said Wednesday the lawsuit would challenge tentative plans to rebuild the bridge. While the bridge is considered closed to cars and trucks, Hammer alleges it serves as a pipeline for snowmobiles to reach the Lost Johnny Basin, just west of Hungry Horse Reservoir, well after low-elevation snow has diminished.

The effect, he says, is that motorized vehicles are entering an area where travel is restricted during the non-denning months for grizzly bears. That violates forest plan provisions aimed at providing grizzly bear habitat security, Hammer said.

"The bottom line is it's grizzly bear habitat," Hammer said. "We've documented for two years now that there's (motorized) use in there up until June. They're supposed to be closed down in April."

In the notice of intent, Hammer's attorney says he'll sue if the forest continues to allow snowmobile use in the basin during non-denning months, or if the Forest Service does not take action to remove the deteriorating bridge.

Hammer questions the legality of the bridge because the Hungry Horse Ranger District cannot provide any documentation showing that it has ever been authorized by the Forest Service.

"We don't have good documentation, so I'm not sure where that argument is going to go," said Allen Rowley, public information officer for the Flathead forest.

While Hammer wants the bridge removed, the site has been surveyed for rebuilding the bridge, and forest officials might want to do that.

"We're interested in rebuilding the bridge," Rowley said. "We think it has merit. But we haven't gone so far to say yes, that's what we're going to do."

Rowley said the best records on the bridge show that it was inspected as part of a logging contract in 1974.

He said it has been used by snowmobilers to access the basin ever since then.

The Flathead forest is currently developing a forest plan amendment that would specify areas for snowmobiling and other types of winter recreation. All the alternative approaches for that amendment include the Lost Johnny basin as an established snowmobiling area. The area was approved for snowmobiling in a settlement agreement that resulted from a lawsuit filed by the Montana Wilderness Association.

Hammer said his lawsuit, if pursued, would not limit snowmobiling in the basin during winter months because snowmobilers can feasibly cross Lost Johnny Creek on snow bridges.

Hammer put the Flathead forest on notice last month that he intends to sue over road management provisions in a post-fire plan for national forest lands that were burned over by the 2001 Moose fire. Among claims in that lawsuit, Hammer contends the forest must remove culverts on a road that is closed to cars and trucks, but also serves as a popular snowmobiling route in the winter.

He contends that culvert removal is a necessary measure to protect water quality below closed roads.

Forest officials say pulling the culverts will hinder snowmobiling use of the route which was approved in the settlement with the Montana Wilderness Association and is proposed in the pending winter recreation forest plan amendment.

In addition to the two lawsuits expected from Hammer, forest officials are anticipating a lawsuit from Montanans for Multiple Use and a coalition of counties, organizations and individuals. That lawsuit aims to reverse the trend of increasing limitations on motorized access on the Flathead forest.

"We're here in the middle," Rowley said. "We understand and share the community's frustration with motorized access. We would like to come up with a different solution. But we've been put in this situation, partially because of past litigation, and the pattern is continuing."

It was litigation from the Swan View Coalition, followed by decisions from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, that led to the forest's current policies for managing roads in areas used by grizzly bears.

"We think there is a better solution to this morass than litigation," Rowley said.

A formal process of revising the forest plan will be carried out over the next few years, Rowley said, and that will hopefully provide an alternative avenue for addressing road management issues.


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