An Idaho federal judge has ruled for the second time in as many years that the U.S. Forest Service violated federal law when it designated a 1,196-mile network of roads and trails for use by all-terrain vehicles and dirt bikes on the Sawtooth National Forest’s Minidoka Ranger District.
Specifically, Judge Edward J. Lodge held that the Forest Service, in designating this network and abandoning other routes without plans for reclamation, failed to comply with two executive orders compelling the agency to minimize impacts to resources, such as water quality.
In his Oct. 22 decision, Lodge concluded that the Forest Service had “acted arbitrarily and capriciously.” Plans for the original route system, which had allowed all-terrain vehicles and dirt bikes to traverse off designated roads and trails, had been changed. However, Lodge challenged the Forest Service’s assertion that its new route system satisfied the agency’s duty to affirmatively minimize impacts on the environment, specifically on water quality. The plaintiffs, The Wilderness Society and the Prairie Falcon Audubon group, have said water quality can be degraded when tires loosen the soil in and around waterways, and damage vegetation that holds the soil in place along stream banks.
Lodge had previously found in February 2012 that the Forest Service failed to sufficiently study the environmental impacts of routes that the Forest Service designated for motorized recreation use or had abandoned to the landscape, such as to already-degraded watersheds and to Yellowstone cutthroat trout populations.
To fix the problems identified in his two decisions and ensure protection of the Sawtooth National Forest’s water quality, Lodge ordered the Forest Service to complete a supplemental environmental assessment of the designated route system by no later than March 31, 2014.
“These two decisions should spark real, meaningful action by the Forest Service to protect and restore the Sawtooth’s watersheds,” said Bradley Brooks, Idaho deputy regional director for The Wilderness Society. “Too many of the forest’s waters are degraded. … Restoration efforts are needed to responsibly balance motorized recreation use with water quality protection.”