FAMB has been hard at work advocating for mountain biking in Northwest Montana. One of the items we've been following closely has been the Flathead National Forest Plan Revision process. As we've indicated to you in our previous blog post, there is lots of be excited about in the proposed forest plan revision. However, FAMB has just submitted an objection to the Plan Revision's handling of recommended wilderness areas. The text of FAMB's objection appears in its entirety below:
Statement of issues and/or parts of the plan revision to which the objection applies:
Section MA1b-Suit(06) improperly states that “Mechanized transport … [is] not suitable in recommended wilderness areas.” This section is in violation of Forest Planning Rules.
Concise statement explaining the objection and suggestion how the proposed plan should be improved:
In referencing the management of recommended wilderness (RW), the FSH 1909.12, gives discretion to Forest Service managers to determine how to manage recommended wilderness areas in their land use plans. However, despite that discretion, the Rule does not permit a categorical, forest wide approach with respect to existing uses. Furthermore, the Rule lays out an obvious, if not defined, hierarchy or path of progression when it discusses the development of the plan components for RW.
Chapter 74.1 reads as follows:
When developing plan components for recommended wilderness areas, the Responsible Official has discretion to implement a range of management options. All plan components applicable to a recommended area must protect and maintain the social and ecological characteristics that provide the basis for wilderness recommendation. In addition, the plan may include one or more plan components for a recommended wilderness area that:
1. Enhance the ecological and social characteristics that provide the basis for wilderness designations;
2. Continue existing uses, only if such uses do not prevent the protection and maintenance of the social and ecological characteristics that provide the basis for wilderness designation;
3. Alter existing uses, subject to valid existing rights; or
4. Eliminate existing uses, except those uses subject to valid existing rights.
The Responsible Official should strive to maintain consistency with the provisions of 16 USC 1133(d) and the content of FSM 1923.03(3) when developing plan components for the management of recommended wilderness areas.
The Section MA1b-Suit of the 2017 Flathead National Forest Plan violates this Rule with regard to mechanical transport for several reasons.
First, the Rule dictates a discretionary approach to recommended wilderness areas on a case by case basis. The Rule discusses options related to a recommended wilderness area, not all recommended wilderness areas within the Plan’s purview. Contrary to this Rule, the Flathead Forest Plan categorically excludes mechanized transport in recommended wilderness areas, which goes above and beyond the case by case approach required by the planning rule. The Rule clearly contemplates the consideration and management of individual recommended wilderness areas, and by taking a forest wide approach to management, the Plan abdicates the responsibility of the Responsible Official to manage and exercise discretion over each recommended wilderness area.
Second, the path of plan components as set forth in Chapter 74.1 begins with the intent to first seek to manage the wilderness character (#1) and then to seek a continuation of uses (#2) with careful and active management to prevent degradation of the character by those continued uses. It then moves on to (#3) altering existing uses as a mitigation step where, logically, if the continuation of uses is not working an adaptive approach is taken to correct it. Finally, the last step (#4) is to eliminate uses if mitigation efforts fail.
The Rule effectively creates a hierarchy, and while the manager ultimately has discretion, the hierarchy established by the Planning Rule cannot simply be ignored. The Forest Plan effectively bypasses the adaptive management steps (#1-3) altogether and adopts the most restrictive option (#4) of elimination of uses that are considered non-conforming to wilderness. This approach has negative impacts on public access to established uses often coexisting with the identified wilderness character on those landscapes.
We contend that existing levels of bicycle use, and associated impacts that would otherwise violate the Wilderness Act should be permitted to occur in RW’s so long as that use does not prevent the protection and maintenance of the social and ecological characteristics that provide the basis for wilderness designation in the first place. Furthermore, we contend that existing levels of bicycle use do not prevent that basis for Wilderness designation, since that use has existed in the area for many years, and the fact that the area is designated as RW indicates that that mechanized use has not prevented wilderness characteristics from existing thus far. In other words, bicycle use hasn’t impaired the area, and there is no indication that existing levels of bicycle use will begin harming the area in the future.
Therefore, we urge the USFS to more thoroughly follow the steps laid out in the FSH and manage RW to allow the maximum range of existing public-use opportunities as a first step while managing the existing concurrent wilderness character. The key word here is “manage”. In managing the character with the existing uses, the experiences of the individual user should not be manipulated or controlled simply due to the recommended wilderness identification unless clear evidence demonstrates that the character is being permanently diminished and prior or concurrent mitigation efforts are proving unsuccessful. Through active and adaptive management, limitations and/or zoning of some uses may become necessary if conditions or resource concerns begin to deteriorate and mitigation efforts are not successful. Under such circumstances, a public planning process under NEPA should assess the need for change and determine a balanced plan solution that minimizes resource impacts and minimizes loss of diverse public access opportunities. Subtle and non-restrictive management techniques and mitigation efforts which reduce impact on the wilderness character should be employed before user restrictions which ration or control use are employed. Only after all other options are exhausted, and it is well demonstrated and documented that wilderness character will be irreparably damaged by continued non-conforming use, should the elimination of certain uses be administered. In such instances, user restrictions or eliminations, when necessary, should be administered trail by trail in a way which addresses the specific problems versus a broad brush approach of wholesale eviction and elimination.
The duty of Forest Service land managers is first and foremost to manage the resources. Adaptively managing resources must be the first step in the process of any action. Land managers must not manage RW as de-facto Wilderness by eliminating uses in an arbitrary and capricious manner. Only Congress has reserved the authority to make final decisions on Wilderness designation, therefore recommended wilderness should be managed consistent with the multi-use mandate that exists for general forest service lands until such time that the Congress acts to change the landscapes to a more restrictive and permanent designation. And it that framework of adaptive management that is precisely what is laid out in Chapter 74.1, which was brushed aside in the Plan’s forest wide exclusion of bikes from recommended wilderness areas.
Finally, the very use of the term “mechanized transport” is vague and poorly supported. While the use stems from the Wilderness Act, the original intent behind the term is highly debatable, and the Forest Service’s application of the term has been inconsistent. In managing the use of non-motorized bicycles on the forest, the Forest Service should simply refer to them as what they are: bicycles. The continued use of “mechanized” simply confuses the issue since there are numerous forms of transport that are, to some degree or another, mechanized, and that do not appear to be contemplated by the Forest Service’s use of the term.
For these reasons, any categorical exclusion of non-motorized bicycles from recommended wilderness, including that set forth in Section MA1b-Suit, should be deleted from the plan. The use of bicycles in recommended wilderness must only be addressed on a case by case basis, and should follow the management hierarchy described in FSH 1909.12, Chapter 74.1.
The reasons for this objection are:
The Forest Plan categorically excludes mechanized transport in recommended wilderness, which is contrary to the directives contained within the Forest Planning Rule.
Delete all categorical exclusions of mechanical transport in recommended wilderness, as that terms pertains to non-motorized bicycles, from the Forest Plan. Considerations of bicycle use in recommended wilderness should be undertaken on a case by case basis, and should follow the management hierarchy set forth in FSH 1909.12, Chapter 74.1.
Statement demonstrating the link between objection and prior formal comments:
Flathead Area Mountain Bikers submitted comments supporting Forest Plan alternative B, and specifically supporting the continued allowance of non-conforming uses in recommended wilderness areas. The Comments also noted that continued allowance of mountain bike use was supported by Chapter 74.1 of the Land Management Planning Handbook.
Flathead Area Mountain Bikers, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, is working to promote mountain biking and improve trail access in the Flathead Valley.