The Kootenai National Forest is accepting public comments on its proposed Ten Lakes Travel Management Project, which would guide motorized recreation rules in and around the Ten Lakes Wilderness Study Area.
Comments are due May 13, with a draft environmental impact statement for the plan expected later that month. The forest hopes to release a final environmental impact statement in August.
The project area consists of the Ten Lakes Wilderness Study Area and some of the common entrance points surrounding it. The plan addresses motorized use, which includes snowmobiles, dirt bikes and four-wheelers, as well as mechanized uses such as mountain bikes.
Under the forest’s proposed plan, two winter seasons will govern motorized use within the 64,177-acre area.
Season One, from Dec. 1 through March 31, would allow snow vehicle travel on 36,700 acres of forest land, along with 51.6 miles of designated over-snow motorized routes. About 46 percent of that land falls within the wilderness study area.
Season Two would extend from April 1 through May 31, during which time over-snow travel would be reduced to 43.2 miles of over-snow routes, with no off-trail travel allowed. During this period, no motorized travel would be permitted in the Ten Lakes Wilderness Study Area.
Outside of the winter months, no motorized use would be allowed in the study area, but mechanized use would be permitted on 20.3 miles of trail, or 24 percent of the overall travel-management area. Of those trails, 8.7 miles are in the wilderness study area.
Non-mechanized uses such as hiking and horseback riding would still be allowed on all trails.
Brian Donner, the district ranger for the Kootenai’s Rexford and Fortine districts, said the forest received about 200 comments during the management plan’s scoping period, most of which provided information on historical motorized and mechanized use in the area.
While the forest initially proposed to only conduct an environmental assessment, Donner said the forest is now embarking on the more intensive process of creating an environmental impact statement.
“We determined that some of the comments received were valid in asking for an EIS,” Donner said. “We agreed there was a significant level of controversy and public interest to this particular project that an EIS was warranted.”
He noted that comments received in the earlier scoping period will still be considered as the forest crafts its draft environmental impact statement, but people with additional information are encouraged to submit it during the current comment period.
Many comments focused on mountain biking, which, while a popular non-motorized activity, was not a factor when the wilderness study area was first designated.
“The way we are going about calculating what could be available for mechanized use is open to interpretation, too,” Donner said. “We would allow some of that activity, in relation to how motorcycles were being used, but there was a lot of disagreement about that approach.”
Under the Montana Wilderness Study Act, passed by Congress in 1977, the Forest Service was tasked with maintaining the area’s wilderness character as it existed at the time. The designation also requires the agency to inventory and study Ten Lakes roadless areas for potential inclusion in the National Wilderness Preservation System.
The travel management plan is required as part of a 2007 settlement agreement reached between the forest and the Montana Wilderness Association. The environmental group had sued the forest, alleging its management of the area was inconsistent with its use when it was designated.
After the forest publishes the final environmental impact statement in August, an objection period will open, with a final record of decision expected this fall.
Written comments should be mailed to: Project Leader Amanda Villwock, Eureka Ranger Station, 949 U.S. 93 N, Eureka, MT 59917.
Comments may also be emailed to: firstname.lastname@example.org or faxed to (406) 296-7188.
For more information, contact Villwock at (406) 296-7145 or by email at email@example.com. Maps and other scoping materials can be found online at www.fs.usda.gov/project/?project=46784.
Reporter Sam Wilson can be reached at 758-4407 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.