A judge has ordered Bitterroot National Forest officials to allow public comment on whether two Wilderness Study Areas should be re-opened to bicycle use.
At least a half-dozen groups, including the Bitterroot Backcountry Cyclists, have sued for increased access to the Blue Joint and Sapphire Wilderness Study Areas.
The Blue Joint WSA is south of Darby in the Bitterroot mountain range on the Idaho border. The Sapphire WSA is southeast of Hamilton.
“That’s where we went to get our solitude and escape from society," says Bitterroot Backcountry Cyclists President Lance Pysher.
Pysher's group believes the Forest Service erred in its decision to close about 110 miles of bike trails a couple of years ago. U.S. District Judge Dana Christensen agreed.
“He agreed with us, at least on one point, that the commenting period was inadequate, and they needed to give us a better chance to comment on our passion for these trails.”
Pysher describes the decision as a mixed bag, saying his group hoped the judge would also rule that the analysis that led to the travel ban was flawed.
“But we’ll take what we can for now and we will keep advocating that mountain biking and wilderness can co-exist,” he says.
The Forest Service could appeal Judge Christiansen’s decision. If that happens, Pysher says it could be a couple of years before a potential comment period.
Judge Christiansen simultaneously rejected snowmobilers' effort to open those protected areas for their use.
His order late last week largely upheld the U.S. Forest Service's plan to preserve the two southwest Montana wilderness study areas' primitive conditions.
Several conservation groups and wilderness advocates defended the Forest Service's travel plan for the Bitterroot. Earthjustice attorney Josh Purtle says the plaintiffs "threw the kitchen sink" into the challenge, but it didn't work.