Four conservation groups - Nordic United, the Bridgerland Audubon Society, the Winter Wildlands Alliance and the Bear River Watershed Council - filed a complaint in U.S. District Court last week charging that the Forest Service flouted environmental laws last summer by reopening the Franklin Basin/Tony Grove area in Logan Canyon to snowmobile use after closing the section to motorized recreation as part of its 2003 Forest Plan.
"The suit itself is not against the motorized community, but the Forest Service process," Sally Ferguson, grass-roots program director for the Boise, Idaho-based Winter Wildlands Alliance, said Monday. "The big concern is that we as skiers are being shut off public lands, and being shut off public lands by the Forest Service following a legitimate process."
At the heart of the dispute is this: The Franklin Basin/Tony Grove area is highly valued by both motorized and nonmotorized recreationalists.
Skiers and other nonmotorized users say it is one of the few pristine areas of the forest that also is easily accessible during the winter.
The problem with the Forest Service plan revision, Ferguson says, is that the agency followed the National Environment and Policy Act process - which included a lengthy public comment period - before closing the area to motorized use in 2003. The suit charges that the same process should have been used when work on the revision began.
"The public has been sidestepped," said Ferguson.
A call to a Forest Service attorney was not immediately returned Monday afternoon, but the agency does not usually comment on pending or ongoing litigation.
However, snowmobile advocates claim that environmentalists have misread the original forest plan - which they say set aside resolution of the Franklin Basin dispute until a later date - and that the Forest Service attempted to mediate a solution with the various stakeholders through a series of joint meetings.
"The plan provided latitude to adjust the [motorized and nonmotorized] boundaries," said Brian Hawthorne, public lands director for the Blue Ribbon Coalition, a national off-highway-vehicle organization based in Pocatello. "We thought a reasonable compromise was crafted, so we're disappointed to see the suit.
"We're going to have to learn how to share that area."
But conservationists say the suit is about more than a boundary dispute.
"It should have been proposed as an amendment to the Forest Plan," said Stu Reynolds, spokesman for Logan-based Nordic United. "The boundaries weren't just adjusted; a new alternative was put forth by the Forest Service. And they failed to allow the public to comment and appeal on the alternative."