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Off Road Plan Disputed on Montana National Forest

May 12, 2015
Greg Dyson (503) 730-9242
In This Release
Public Lands, Wildlife  
Two conservation groups are disputing a plan for off road vehicles and watershed management on the Bitterroot National Forest. The Darby Lumber Lands Watershed Improvement and Travel Management Project is proposed to reduce road-related sediment entering streams, designate existing roads as part of a sustainable system for ORVs and promote wildlife habitat. The groups argue the proposal falls far short of these objectives in a formal objection filed May 8, 2015.

“Americans are fortunate to have acquired these special lands in Montana,” said Greg Dyson, Public Lands Director for WildEarth Guardians. “The Forest Service needs to clearly show the public that water and wildlife will get the highest priority in this seriously abused landscape.”

The project area is in the Sapphire Mountains in Ravalli County, Montana, approximately seven miles east of Darby, MT. Originally owned the Burlington Northern Railroad, the lands passed from Plum Creek to Darby Lumber and then into private hands. Federal funding for the acquisition came from the Land and Water Conservation Fund and a cooperative agreement by the Trust for Public Land concluded the process in2013.

“It is ironic that these lands, purchased with Land and Water Conservation funds would now be subject to additional land and water damage by ORVs and road building,” said Said Jim Miller, President, Friends of the Bitterroot.

The 45-square-mileproject area contains an estimated 275 miles of roads and 15 miles of single-track ORV trail. Many of the roads were used by logging operations and are now obsolete. The roads were built without water resources in mind and are negatively impacting local watersheds by chronically elevating sediment levels.

Originally the Bitterroot Restoration Committee, a collaborative citizen group, whose aim was to restore the ecological integrity of the area through road closures, developed the project. But when the Forest Service released a proposal for public comment, it included a motorized ORV loop system that further compromises natural resources the project was intended to protect.

“These lands have been mistreated for decades,” said Miller. “We expect the Forest Service to show us that water and wildlife will be protected with their plan, not suffer further.”

When designating off-road vehicle trails and areas, federal agencies are required to minimize damage to forest resources, disruption of wildlife, and user conflicts. In order to satisfy two executive orders from President Nixon and the 2005 Travel Management Rule, the groups argue, the Forest Service must actually explain how it aimed to minimize environmental damage in designating routes. They assert,the Forest Service cannot make conclusory statements about compliance with other laws to satisfy the minimization mandate.

The Forest Service must locate designated trails and areas in order to minimize the following criteria:(1) damage to soil, watershed, vegetation, and other public lands resources;(2) harassment of wildlife or significant disruption of wildlife habitat; and(3) conflicts between off-road vehicle use and other existing or proposed recreational uses.

Specifically, WildEarth Guardians and FOB requested that the Forest Service ensure that the Darby Lumber Lands Project:

(1) Comply with the Travel Management Rule, including a proper application of minimization criteria to route designation;

(2) Comply with the Endangered Species Act to protect listed species, including by engaging in consultation with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service;

(3) Meet the Inland Native Fish Strategy standards and comply with the Forest Plan;

(4) Comply with the CWA and state water quality standards;

(5) Assess the impacts of all roads and trails, whether open, closed, decommissioned or user-created, and whether legal or illegal;

(6) Propose meaningful mitigation measures;

(7) Compile and utilize needed baseline data on all roads and trails; and

(8) Properly analyze the significant environmental effects of the project by preparing an EIS.


Other Contact
Jim Miller millerfob@earthlink.net (406) 381-0644