On March 13, U.S. District Court Judge Winmill ruled that the Forest Service violated its Clearwater National Forest Plan as well as the U.S Forest Service’s Travel Management Rule for the area in allowing motorized vehicles into the Fish Lake part of the proposed Great Burn Wilderness. The Forest Service recommended Congress designate the locale as wilderness in 1987. Friends of the Clearwater (FOC) challenged the Clearwater National Forest Travel Plan for Recommended Wilderness in 2021 to protect Fish Lake, the Fish Lake Trail, and other areas of the Forest from motorized use harmful to bull trout, grizzly bear, elk, and other species. Friends of the Clearwater is represented by John Mellgren of the Western Environmental Law Center and David Bahr of Bahr Law Offices, both in Eugene, Oregon.
The decision builds on a 2015 court decision that found the Clearwater National Forest’s Travel Plan governing motorized use failed to comply with federal law. In that case, the court ruled the Forest Service had violated the Clearwater Forest Plan’s requirement to protect elk habitat in specific areas by authorizing motorized use and had violated the Travel Management Rule requiring minimization of impact from motor vehicles.
“Rather than abide by the court’s ruling and its own Forest Plan, the Forest Service continued harming wildlife and again violated the plan when, in 2017, the agency decided to allow motorized use on the trail to Fish Lake, in a recommended wilderness area,” said Gary Macfarlane, FOC’s ecosystem defense director. “The Forest Service has had over seven years to correct the unlawful deficiencies with the Travel Plan and did nothing. This decision confirms the earlier ruling that allowing motorized trail use in these areas is unlawful.”
Macfarlane continued, “The decision recognizes that the Forest Service utterly failed to follow the Travel Management Rule and the Forest Plan. This suggests motorized use on the entire Clearwater National Forest has no legal basis.”
Judge Winmill also ruled the Forest Service failed to adequately protect the best summer elk habitat, based on the latest science. Areas that contain the most important elk habitat, for which the Forest Plan has established the highest standard of protection include not only the Fish Lake Trail, but in other large roadless areas. These include Weitas Creek (Cayuse and Fourth of July Creeks) and Fish Creek.
“After a similar court order seven years ago, the Clearwater National Forest dragged its feet on responsibly managing motorized recreation in this crown jewel of Idaho’s wild places,” said John Mellgren, general counsel at the Western Environmental Law Center. “This new court order makes it abundantly clear forest managers cannot ignore federal law and must involve the public in deciding where and when to allow motorized recreation on federal public lands.”
Macfarlane concluded. “We expect the Forest Service to follow the law and protect the wildlands and wildlife habitat in the Clearwater Basin.”