HELENA, Mont. -- Motorcycle and bicycle use within the Gallatin National Forest will be restricted this summer after a federal judge ruled the U.S. Forest Service had failed to adequately maintain the area's wilderness character, the federal agency said.
The agency's interim summer use plan for the Gallatin Crest area leaves 40 miles of trails open to motorcycles and mountain bikes, down from the 70 miles that was in its original travel management plan. Trails open to only bicycles would be cut from 170 miles to 20 miles.
The changes are intended to come into line with a federal judge's September 2009 ruling that the Forest Service's 2006 Gallatin National Forest's Travel Management Plan Decision failed to keep the wilderness character of the area, also called the Hyalite-Porcupine-Buffalo Horn Wilderness Study Area.
"The Forest's intent with the interim management strategy for summer use is to comply with the court's order while providing some level of motorcycle and mountain bike use as allowed under the Wilderness Study Act," the Forest Service said in a statement issued Wednesday.
The Gallatin Crest covers a stretch of forest from Bozeman to Yellowstone National Park. It is part of the 1.8 million acre Gallatin National Forest, which spreads over six counties and several mountain ranges in south-central Montana.
Environmental groups sued the Forest Service in 2007, saying motorized and mechanized use on the Gallatin Crest had increased and expanded into areas never allowed under the 1977 Montana Wilderness Study Act. Allowing motorized vehicles and mountain bikes would scar the landscape, displace wildlife and introduce engine noise and pollution into pristine backcountry areas, the groups said.
One of those environmental groups, The Wilderness Society, called the interim summer plan "a good start" but said more was needed, specifically a reversal of the decision to allow motorized use in southern portions of the Gallatin Crest, which it said bisects important wildlife habitat.
Both the Forest Service and a public-access group called Citizens for Balanced Use have appealed the district court's decision that favors the environmental groups. The Forest Service said its 2006 travel management plan for the area is the most appropriate way to manage the area.
Citizens for Balanced Use, however, believes the Forest Service's original proposal did not go far enough in allowing motorized and mechanical use, and it sued for more access to the wilderness area.
Board member Kerry White said his group was not consulted when the interim summer plan was being developed, and only learned about it on Tuesday. The result is disappointing, he said.
"The decision puts horses, hikers, motorcycles and mountain bikes into a smaller area on fewer trails, which is setting up more than likely an increase in resource damage and user conflict," White said.