dispute over motorized use in wilderness study area near Yellowstone

Attempts to reach a settlement failed in a long-running dispute over the use of snowmobiles, dirt bikes and other vehicles in a wilderness study area north of Yellowstone National Park, leaving a federal appeals court to resolve the conflict.

The issue centers on the U.S. Forest Service’s 2006 Travel Management Plan that would restrict the recreational use of motorized and mechanized vehicles within the Hyalite/Porcupine/Buffalo Horn Wilderness Study Area, also known as Gallatin Crest.

Congress created the 155,000-acre wilderness study area in 1977, ordering that its existing wilderness character as of that time be maintained for possible inclusion in the National Wilderness Preservation System.

Three conservation groups sued the Forest Service over the plan meant to manage travel and recreation within the study area. The groups — the Montana Wilderness Association, Greater Yellowstone Coalition and Wilderness Society — said the plan would allow too much motorized vehicle use in the wilderness study area, which is part of the 1.8 million acre Gallatin National Forest.

“It’s a very small part of the Gallatin forest and it’s an extremely special place,” said Patti Steinmuller, a Montana Wilderness Association member and Gallatin Gateway resident who hikes and cross-country skis in the study area. “There are plenty of other areas for snowmobile use.”

A group called Citizens for Balanced Use also sued, saying the Forest Service plan should expand motorized use beyond the 18,000 acres allotted and that the designated land was inadequate.

“It’s heavily timbered and not satisfactory for snowmobile use,” said Kerry White, a Citizens for Balanced Use board member.

A district judge ruled in favor of the conservation groups, and the Forest Service appealed to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. A 9th circuit panel of judges earlier this year ordered lawyers for the conservation groups, the Forest Service and Citizens for Balanced Use to hold talks with a court-appointed mediator in an attempt to resolve the dispute.

But the parties say the settlement talks broke down and the matter must be decided by the judicial panel. The court confirmed the mediation’s failure in a Nov. 8 order.

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