Portions of a national forest travel plan that effectively shut down nearly 1,000 miles of roads in Idaho violated environmental law, according to a federal judge.
The ruling pertains to roads that the U.S. Forest Service has deemed “unauthorized” for motorized travel in the Payette National Forest.
The agency imposed new regulations in 2008 due to concerns about the effect motorized travel had on wildlife and water quality.
The government of Valley County filed a lawsuit against the agency in 2011, arguing the road closures hurt tourism and hindered travel in the area.
National forests comprise about 75 percent of the county’s land area. The federally-owned property doesn’t generate tax revenue, so the county argued it is economically dependent on visitors.
The county claimed that the Forest Service reversed its traditional policy of leaving roads open unless they are specifically designated as closed.
Under the new policy, roads are considered closed unless the agency classifies them as open, the complaint said.
The lawsuit claimed that the Forest Service had violated the National Environmental Policy Act by adopting the plan without fully studying the effects of unauthorized roads.
Chief Judge Lynn Winmill has agreed with some of the country’s arguments.
While some of the studies conducted by the Forest Service were adequate, others did not take the required “hard look” at environmental consequences, the judge said.
The agency’s method of evaluating some roads was never explained in NEPA documents and was only uncovered during litigation, he said.
This “proxy methodology” doesn’t directly study the impact of unauthorized roads and isn’t sufficiently explained by the agency, the judge said.
The agency based its conclusions on “open acres” used for cross-country travel without saying how they “translate to the impacts of use of unauthorized roads,” Winmill said.
Although the judge found the Forest Service’s regulations violated NEPA in some areas of the national forest, the ruling’s impacts on travel have yet to be decided.
Winmill has asked the attorneys in the case to submit further court briefings on the matter and possibly reach an “agreement on remedies.”
“The Court’s options are quite limited; in contrast, the parties can use their creativity to craft a solution far better than anything the Court could impose,” the judge said.