Papers Filed to Dismiss Montana Wilderness Study Area Lawsuit
March 7, 2007
MISSOULA - More than a decade after its filing, a lawsuit seeking to restrict motorized vehicle access to Forest Service Wilderness Study Areas (WSAs) in Montana is on the verge of dismissal following the submission of a stipulation by the parties. The case, filed in 1996 by the Montana Wilderness Association, Friends of the Bitterroot and other environmentalist organizations, would be dismissed according to the stipulation, which requires that the Forest Service complete decisions regarding the WSAs in the context of broader planning efforts. The result is applauded by pro-access recreational interests who intervened in the case, including the Montana Trail Vehicle Riders Association, Montana Snowmobile Association, and BlueRibbon Coalition.
"Not an acre of land nor a foot of trail has been closed as a direct result of this suit, which was filed when Mike Dombeck was the Chief of the Forest Service" observed Paul Turcke, the Boise attorney who represented the recreational groups in the case. "There's no doubt in my mind that without our intervention motorized access to these WSAs would have been banned years ago," stated Adena Cook, who was Public Lands Director for the BlueRibbon Coalition when the suit was filed.
The case has run a long and tortuous path through the legal system. The case purported to challenge the Forest Service's "failure to act" on broad policies in the Montana Wilderness Study Act of 1977. The recreational groups challenged the court's jurisdiction to hear these claims, but those arguments, which were not joined at the time by the Federal Defendants, were rejected by both the U.S. District Court in Montana as well as the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. However, the U.S. Supreme Court ultimately reversed, in conjunction with a similar case arising in Utah. The case was therefore sent back to the Montana court, setting the stage for negotiation of the settlement agreement.
"Our work is far from done in these areas and elsewhere in Montana. Anti-access interests will be redoubling their efforts to eliminate mechanized access. This latest agreement reinforces the importance of our participation in these planning efforts," cautioned Brian Hawthorne, current Public Lands Director for the BlueRibbon Coalition.
The settlement agreement, which was filed on March 5, 2007, must still be reviewed and formally approved by the District Court.