9th Circuit Upholds Protections for Wild Lands on the Bitterroot National Forest

Ruling affirms the Forest Service’s ability to protect Wilderness-quality lands

On Tuesday, Oct 27, 2020, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld protections for wilderness-quality lands within Montana’s Bitterroot National Forest. The court affirmed a 2018 Montana district court ruling which upheld the U.S. Forest Service’s 2016 Bitterroot National Forest Travel Plan against a legal challenge brought by motorized and mechanized users.

The Bitterroot National Forest is located in west-central Montana and eastern Idaho, in the Bitterroot and Sapphire Mountains, and accounts for 1.6 million acres across those states. In 2016, the Forest Service completed a Travel Management Plan designating roads, trails, and areas for motorized use, including snowmobile use. The Bitterroot Travel Plan protects Recommended Wilderness Areas and Wilderness Study Areas on the Bitterroot National Forest by not designating these areas for motorized recreation while still leaving one third of the forest open for snowmobiling. After a coalition of Montana snowmobile clubs sued the Forest Service to attempt to remove these protections, we joined with EarthJustice, Friends of the Bitterroot, Hellgate Hunters and Anglers, Missoula Back Country Horsemen, Montana Wilderness Association, Selway-Pintler Wilderness Back Country Horsemen, and WildEarth Guardians to defend the travel plan.

The Montana District Court upheld the travel plan in 2018 but the snowmobile groups appealed that decision to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. Today’s 9th Circuit ruling ensures that wild lands on the Bitterroot National Forest will remain protected for future generations, providing refuge for wildlife and opportunities for human-powered winter adventure.

“Today’s ruling ensures that wild lands on the Bitterroot National Forest will remain protected in all seasons, providing refuge for wildlife and opportunities for human-powered winter adventure,” said Hilary Eisen, policy director with Winter Wildlands Alliance. “The plan strikes a fair balance between providing opportunities for snowmobiling and preserving quiet places for skiers, snowshoers, and others who seek opportunities for solitude and prefer to enjoy the backcountry at a slower pace. We’re pleased that the Court has upheld this balance.”

Additional Responses

“The wilderness-quality lands the Travel Plan protects are important to people from all walks of life in the Bitterroot valley including hunters, fishermen, horsepackers, hikers, and skiers,” said Tim Preso, Earthjustice attorney. “The court’s decision ensures that these special places will continue to support elk and other wildlife and provide Montanans with outstanding opportunities for solitude and quiet recreation for years to come.”

“Friends of the Bitterroot is extremely pleased with this victory in court protecting mountain goats, wolverine, lynx and grizzly bears from the clear and present threats posed by motorized and mechanized recreation in Wilderness Study and Recommended Wilderness Areas on the Bitterroot National Forest,” said Larry Campbell, FOB Conservation Director. “FOB has persevered for over two decades to finally see iconic and rare wildlife given the protection they need for survival. There’s still plenty of places for people to play.”

“Today’s victory is a win for wild places and a clear rebuke of the challenge from motorized activists and those opposed to protecting wildlife habitat,” said Adam Rissien with WildEarth Guardians. “The Forest Service can now firmly reject political meddling from Sen. Daines who pressured the agency to ignore safeguards enacted in Montana’s 1977 Wilderness Study Act.”

“This plan was eight years in the making and informed by hundreds of Montanans who asked the Forest Service to protect habitat for wildlife; to ensure the headwaters of the Bitterroot River and Rock Creek remain clean and cold and its wild trout populations healthy; and to practice true multiple use in the Bitterroot National Forest,” said Erin Clark, western Montana field director with Montana Wilderness Association. “The plan leaves one third of the Forest open to snowmobiling and over 2,000 miles of road and trail open to mountain biking while adhering to the spirit and law of the Montana Wilderness Study Act.”

“The Backcountry Horsemen are delighted that these special areas will continue to be enjoyed for their quiet beauty and primitive travel by foot or horse,” said Dan Harper, vice president of the Backcountry Horsemen of Missoula Chapter.

“This ruling is a long-awaited victory for Montana’s wildlife and our conservation community,” said Walker Conyngham, president of Missoula-based Hellgate Hunters & Anglers. “Sportsmen and women recognize that the species we rely upon deserve healthy, undisturbed habitat in order to thrive. We look to this ruling as a clear precedent for preserving valuable wildlife sanctuaries like our wilderness study areas.”