Two conservation groups have filed a lawsuit against the federal government over a recreation management plan for the Scratchgravel Hills Special Recreation Management Area northwest of Helena, claiming that the creation of 35 miles of mountain bike trails was done without analyzing the impacts on other trail users.
The lawsuit was filed Monday in the U.S. District Court in Butte by the nonprofit groups Alliance for the Wild Rockies and the Native Ecosystems Council.
The defendants include US Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, Bureau of Land Management (BLM) Director Tracy Stone-Manning and BLM Director Sonya Germann.
The BLM declined to comment on Tuesday, noting that it does not discuss ongoing litigation.
The suit, seeking declaratory relief and an injunction, notes that the Scratchgravel plan makes decisions for approximately 5,500 acres of BLM-managed land about five miles from Helena.
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The BLM said the plan for the Special Recreation Management Area was signed on March 9 and includes provisions for specific non-motorized recreational activities; enhances recreational experiences and benefits; reduces user conflicts; identifies specific areas of trail use; improve signage and visitor information; and provides sustainable options for continued use of existing trails.
The plan states that 27 miles of existing travel routes would be available for non-mechanized use and 35 miles of new travel routes would be created that would be available for non-mechanized and mechanized use; mechanized use must remain on the trail network.
Plaintiffs note that many equestrians have purchased homes in the area due to the ease of trail access and that Scratchgravel is one of the “last remaining places near the town of Helena that allows equestrian use” several trail networks.
In a press release announcing the lawsuit, Alliance for the Wild Rockies member Joanna Easton said many mountain bikers ride with headphones and don’t see the riders.
She said riders who see her go at such high speed that they slam on their brakes and startle the horse.
“Horses are prey and their instinct when startled or startled is to run, turn, jump and rear up,” Easton said. “This not only endangers the horse and rider, but other trail users as well.”
The plaintiffs say many of their members are concerned about damage caused by some bikers and “the BLM gives tacit license for this by refusing to acknowledge the issues here.”
They note that the National Environmental Policy Act is a charter for environmental protection and requires agencies to carefully consider the environmental impacts of their actions.
According to the plaintiffs, the BLM claims to have properly addressed the new trail system with a route assessment “which reveals that the agency’s priority is to accommodate mountain bikers.”
They said the BLM relies on trail guidelines to guide equestrian trail design efforts, which are not suitable for designing trails for non-mountain bike users.
The BLM failed to design the trails for multiple use and failed to adequately plan the trails for equestrian trail users, the plaintiffs argued.
They also say the agency failed to rely on transparent, quality data to make important decisions about Scratchgravel and failed to adequately disclose and analyze environmental impacts.
Mike Garrity, executive director of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies, said the BLM must obey the law.
“This means the agency must, by law, consider the impacts of its proposed 35 miles of new high-speed mountain bike trails with jumps in the Scratchgravel Hills,” he said in the press release. “This is public land and we are taking the agency to court to force it to obey the law.”
The plaintiffs ask the court to order the defendants to comply with the National Environmental Policy Law and the Administrative Procedure Law, arguing that the defendants’ notice of decision violated these regulations.
The court is also asked to prohibit the BLM from allowing any proposed action to take place to ensure that it complies with federal law and avoids irreparable damage to the environment.
Plaintiffs also seek reasonable attorneys’ fees, costs and expenses.
Associate Editor Phil Drake can be reached at 406-231-9021.