The Clearwater National Forest approved a recreation or Travel Management Plan in 2011. The plan was developed and approved in response to a 2005 directive of the Bush Administration, requiring each national forest to designate which roads, trails, and areas are open to public motorized access.

The 2005 directive represented a paradigm shift in the Forest Service. Prior to its adoption, the agency’s policy toward motorized access was that all national forest lands were open to motorized access, including “off-road” or “off-trail” use unless otherwise posted. It was approved in response to resource damage caused by the growing use of four-wheelers and other motorized recreational vehicles. Additionally, improvements in technology led to the production of faster and lighter vehicles that were capable of accessing difficult terrain.

The 2011 Clearwater Travel Plan designated 2,961 miles of roads for public motorized travel, 749 miles of trails for motorized travel, 988 miles of trails for mountain biking, and over 1.3 million acres for over-snow vehicle use. With the exception of the Fish Lake Trail in the proposed Great Burn Wilderness, all proposed wilderness areas on the Clearwater National Forest were closed to motorized and mechanized travel including the proposed Great Burn Wilderness, Mallard-Larkins Wilderness, and Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness Additions.

Goat Lake in the Proposed Great Burn Wilderness. Photo by Brad Smith.

The Idaho State Snowmobile Association (ISSA) and the Blue Ribbon Coalition (BRC) filed a lawsuit in 2015, challenging the restriction on motorized and mechanized access in proposed wilderness areas. ISSA and BRC withdrew their lawsuit when the Forest Service agreed to reconsider proposed wilderness boundaries and restrictions as part of a yet-to-be-completed revision of the overarching Forest Plan for the Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forest.

Friends of the Clearwater (FOC) also filed two separate lawsuits, alleging that the Forest Service’s Environmental Impact Statement failed to minimize effects of motorized access to fish, wildlife, water quality, and other natural resources. FOC also claimed that the Forest Service violated the Clearwater Forest Plan’s limitations on motorized access in elk management units.

The Fish Lake Trail in the proposed Great Burn Wilderness is at the heart of FOC’s legal complaints. A favorite of local motorized recreationists, the Fish Lake Trail has been open to ATVs and motorcycles for decades. Agreeing that the Forest Service violated its Forest Plan by designating the trail for motorized access, a federal judge temporarily closed the trail until the Forest Service amends or revises the overarching Forest Plan or permanently closes the trail.

Not surprisingly, the Forest Service proposes to relax the limitations on motorized access in elk management units on the Clearwater National Forest in order to permit motorized access to the Fish Lake Trail and several other trails to continue. The public comment period closed on October 2nd.

Any proposals to increased motorized access in the travel management area will negatively harm an array of wildlife, including wolverine. Ed Cannady photo.

While not perfect, the Idaho Conservation League supports the 2011 Clearwater Travel Management Plan. It emphasized wilderness uses in proposed wilderness areas while allowing motorized recreation in other locations. The 2011 Travel Plan also struck a balance between recreational use of the forest and the needs of wildlife.

While the Forest Service is likely going to reaffirm the 2011 Travel Plan in the short term, ICL is concerned that the Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forest intends to increase motorized access in the future despite potential impacts to wildlife and non motorized recreation. A draft Revised Forest Plan released in 2019 has no limits on motorized access in elk management units. The draft Revised Forest Plan also shows several non motorized trail corridors in the North Fork Ranger District being available for motorized use. Finally, it appears that the Forest Service will reduce the size of the proposed Great Burn Wilderness in order to legitimize illegal snowmobile use that occurs there.

ICL continues to believe that the 2011 Travel Management Plan represents the best balance of recreational uses of the Clearwater National Forest. Any proposals to increase motorized access will negatively harm elk, wolverine, grizzly bear, other wildlife and non motorized recreation.

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