Huge court victory for Wilderness in Montana roadless areas

Montana Wilderness Study areas finally protected from vehicles until Congress acts-

The Montana Wilderness Study Act passed in 1977.  It required that the Forest Service protect the “wilderness quality” of a number of roadless areas in Western Montana until Congress decided to make a final decision as to whether the areas should be designed as formal Wilderness.

Wilderness proponents long felt the Forest Service did not do an adequate job enforcing the law, primarily because they allowed off-road vehicles to continue to enter the roadless areas and, most importantly, to greatly expand their presence there. They deepened and eroded trails and created new illegal routes.  Also, the dirt riders asserted claims of “historic use” as though a generation of what many thought was illegal use was prescriptive historic use.

Wilderness proponents have had increasing success the last few years getting the Forest Service to reverse direction after the Service lost a number of lawsuits on the issue. Now the Service is generally on the side of the pro-wilderness people.

July 22 a federal judge in Montana, U.S. District Judge Sam Haddon, ruled in favor of  the Forest Service plan to stop motorized vehicles from using over 300,000 acres of recommended Wilderness on the Beaverhead/DeerLodge National Forest. The plan had been challenged by the Beaverhead County Commissioners and 21 other plaintiffs. On the pro-wilderness winning side was the Greater Yellowstone Coalition  and Montana Wilderness Association.

The judge rejected all the plaintiffs claims, but the primary one was probably rejecting their claims that they had been somehow injured the by Forest Service’s decision.

As result of the win, the new plan removing the vehicles has what looks like a clear path.  Congress could always act, but presently Congress does as little as perhaps any time in its history.




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  1. Nancy Avatar

    This is very close to home and it’s interesting how people who live around this area (in their little neighborhoods, parttime or fulltime) get bent out of shape, bitch and whine, when ATV’s, dirt bikes and snowmobiles (toys) shatter their silence, cruising up and down their roads, yet those same people can’t relate to how unsettling it might be to wildlife in wilderness areas.

    We’ve become an obnoxious species (because of all the toys) enabling us to “zip” around, rather than make the effort to walk in and enjoy, what’s left of wilderness areas.

  2. Mike Avatar

    Great news.

  3. rork Avatar

    I don’t like cheap access, but I really hate folks actually using motors for fun. I don’t see why I should permit it on public land. Find some private land to tear up.

    1. Robert R Avatar
      Robert R

      The problem I have is if the laws/regulations on the books are not enforced we don’t need new ones.
      We have had trail and off road regulations for years but they have never been enforced.

      1. SAP Avatar

        Two problems with that kind of thinking, Robert: 1) It’s illogical to argue that, if we aren’t stopping some/most/all of those who break a particular law, we should just throw out the law. Rape still happens — want to just say that rape is legal because we’re not doing a good enough job enforcing laws against it?

        2) I don’t know about your part of the B-D National Forest, but there are a lot of hardworking folks out there doing what they can to protect the Forest from resource abuse. They’re underfunded and understaffed, so they won’t catch everyone. But let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater.

      2. Ralph Maughan Avatar
        Ralph Maughan

        Robert R.

        It depends on the locations and the resources, as you say below. I see the regulations enforced to a degree. There is also social pressure when an illegal user is encountered on a trail. Horse parties will let bike riders and motorbikes know about it if the trail is closed to them, and there are many other variations of negative reactions to whichever use is not legally allowed.

        Now on remote, not often used or patrolled trails, the matter is different.

  4. Robert R Avatar
    Robert R

    Sap I didn’t say throw out the laws to enforce road and trail restriction. Yes there never has been a good job of enforcing (land rape) going off two track roads, trails etc.
    If stiff fines were given or penalties were set high enough it might be more of a deterrent to keep some honest.
    I do realize that there is a limited law enforcement to police public land, however game wardens are out there more than Forrest Service,BLM or DNRC.
    Part of the enforcement problem is all agencies target high use areas.

    1. Immer Treue Avatar
      Immer Treue

      Ah, a place for drones!

      1. JB Avatar

        Immer: +1

  5. Richie G. Avatar
    Richie G.

    Drones interesting idea Immer a little late on this one but I agree !!!!!

  6. Richie G. Avatar
    Richie G.

    I am glad the court got one correct maybe we are heading in the right direction , I hope !

  7. Richie G. Avatar
    Richie G.

    Again I forgot to say thanks Ralph


Dr. Ralph Maughan is professor emeritus of political science at Idaho State University. He was a Western Watersheds Project Board Member off and on for many years, and was also its President for several years. For a long time he produced Ralph Maughan’s Wolf Report. He was a founder of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition. He and Jackie Johnson Maughan wrote three editions of “Hiking Idaho.” He also wrote “Beyond the Tetons” and “Backpacking Wyoming’s Teton and Washakie Wilderness.” He created and is the administrator of The Wildlife News.

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Ralph Maughan