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Helena group enters legal fray over forest travel plan

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Helena Hunters and Anglers Association has intervened in a lawsuit filed against the U.S. Forest Service challenging a 2016 travel plan regulating motorized route closures along the Continental Divide.

A U.S. Magistrate has approved a motion by a Helena-based group to intervene in a lawsuit filed against the U.S. Forest Service challenging a 2016 travel plan regulating motorized route closures along the Continental Divide.

The Capital Trail Vehicle Association and Citizens for Balanced Use filed a lawsuit in February, calling some of the route closures illegal. The U.S. Forest Service, the Helena National Forest and Lewis and Clark National Forest Supervisor Emily Platt were among the defendants.

Helena Hunters and Anglers Association has now intervened and joins the defendants, U.S. Magistrate Judge Kathleen L. DeSoto ruled May 31, noting the plaintiffs did not object.

“We want to be in the fight and argue our position,” said Matt Bishop, attorney with the Western Environmental Law Center who is representing Helena Hunters and Anglers.

He said the group wants to ensure the Forest Service aggressively defends the divide travel plan, which they thought was good overall.

“And if there are settlement discussions, we want a seat at the table,” Bishop said.

The Capital Trail Vehicle Association and Citizens for Balanced Use lawsuit filed Feb. 25 in U.S. District Court seeks relief from the closure of more than 100 miles of routes in the Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest by the Forest Service to motorized travel and dispersed camping.

Then-Forest Supervisor Bill Avey signed a record of decision March 1, 2016. The Forest Service began examining motorized use in the area in the early 2000s. In 2008 the agency asked for public comment and in 2011 began preparing an environmental impact statement that culminated in the 2016 decision.

However, the plaintiff’s petition states “The USFS ‘Divide Travel Plan’ has imposed significant restrictions on long-existing recreational access to the Helena National Forest, including reducing motor vehicle access by 45 percent of roads and routes.”

Helena Hunters and Anglers -- an all-volunteer organization that focuses on conserving and restoring fish and wildlife to all suitable habitats, and safeguarding all natural resources -- said in a news release that it wants to protect big game and habitat along the Divide.

Member Doug Powell said in a news release from Helena Hunters and Anglers that all types of recreation in the area have increased so much that wildlife are being displaced to private land, especially during hunting season.

“So, by restricting travel routes along the divide as the travel plan does, elk and other wildlife that live there won’t be displaced to areas where hunting opportunities are less,” he stated.

Forest resource values and issues of particular concern to Helena Hunters include wildlife seasonal habitat requirements, reduction of duplicative and dead-end travel routes, minimizing erosion and sedimentation that impact water quality and fisheries habitat, and maintaining quality hunting environments.

The Divide Travel Plan established 323 miles of motorized routes within the Divide planning area that range in use from yearlong to seasonal. Helena Hunters and Anglers Association has been actively involved in the Divide travel planning process.

Assistant editor Phil Drake can be reached at 406-231-9021.

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Assistant Editor/Reporter

Phil Drake is the assistant editor and reporter at the Independent Record.

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