Idaho – Sawtooth National Forest


Lawsuits on Idaho’s Sawtooth National Forest prove there will never enough closures to satisfy Idaho’s anti-recreation extremists

bwc-trail-2_799x599The Sawtooth National Forest finalized their travel plans on the Minidoka and parts of the Ketchum and Fairfield Ranger Districts in February of 2008. This was a perfect area to work with OHV users, sportsmen, non-motorized recreation groups and local governments to address and reduce impacts of recreation on natural resources. That opportunity was squandered. OHV advocates were initially outraged at the closure of many popular campsites, motorcycle and ATV trails. Indeed, the Minidoka RD made significant closures across the entire district.  

Working with BRC, local OHV groups filed an administrative appeal of the plan, and so did the Wilderness Society. All of the appeals were denied.

In spite of their disappointment, Idaho OHV users decided they would work with the Forest Service, the county and sportsmen groups to try to make improvements to the plan. Things were moving along when the Wilderness Society “slammed” the Forest Service with a federal lawsuit demanding massive additional closures. Sadly, the anti-access litigation machine is nowhere near the red line in Idaho.

Courtroom Doors Slammed Shut

BRC along with the Magic Valley Trail Machine Association and the Idaho Recreation Council moved quickly to intervene. But The Wilderness Society and other plaintiffs successfully opposed our involvement using a rule unique to the 9th Circuit called the “federal defendant rule.”  

In a nutshell, the longstanding rule prohibited “non federal” stakeholders from participating in lawsuits challenging decisions made by a federal agency such as the U.S. Forest Service. This meant that the people most affected by the court’s decision were relegated to watching this case (and others) from the sidelines-hoping that the Forest Service would present a successful defense.

OHV Community Sets Key Precedent

The District of Idaho ruling departed from typical practice, by completely and totally denying our intervention, even for purposes of fashioning a remedy.  While frustrating, this provided a procedural “clean shot” at an appeal targeting the Ninth Circuit intervention rule. BRC and our Idaho OHV partners decided to appeal.

The appeal was initially argued on March 9, 2010, to a three-judge Ninth Circuit panel by Paul Turcke, the Boise, Idaho, attorney who has been lead counsel for our legal program since its inception in 1996. Opposing Turcke were lawyers with the foundation-funded Western Environmental Law Center.  Rather than issuing a decision, the panel asked for further briefing on the question of whether the Court should convene en banc to consider abandoning the “federal defendant rule.” An en banc proceeding is unusual and is ordered only when necessary to establish or maintain uniformity of prior court decisions or when the proceeding involves a question of great importance.  On September 30, 2010, the Court issued an order saying the court voted to hear the appeal en banc.

The case was heard by the Chief Judge and ten other judges from the Ninth Circuit on December 13, 2010.  Turcke again appeared and ceded several minutes time to Paul Gale, who represented the Motorcycle Industry Council (MIC) and Specialty Vehicle Institute of America (SVIA), who obtained “friend of the court” status in support of the recreation groups.

Reflecting the national significance of the issue, numerous parties (in addition to MIC-SVIA) submitted “friend of the court” briefs in support of BRC’s position including the Kootenai, Coquille, Kalispell, Shoshone-Bannock and other Indian tribes; Coos, Grant, Harney and Wallowa Counties, Oregon; the State of Alaska; Idaho Governor Otter and Office of Species Conservation; Western Urban Water Coalition; Southern Nevada Water Authority; American Petroleum Institute, Chamber of Commerce of the U.S.A. and National Manufacturers Association; American Forest Resource Council; Public Lands Council and the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association; and Safari Club International.


Only a month later on January 14, 2011, the Ninth Circuit announced the decision to abandon its so-called “federal defendant” rule. Turcke noted the decision “…will positively affect the rights of all nonfederal interests who rightfully seek a meaningful role in public lands litigation affecting them. These positive effects extend, ironically, to the preservation groups who opposed our intervention here and provided the foundation and fuel for this appeal.”

Additionally, while the district court denied the recreation groups’ motion to stay proceedings pending their appeal, in reality the court did just that.  Meaning that the denial of intervention, in addition to providing the historic occasion to eliminate the “federal defendant rule” allowed the challenged travel plans to remain in effect for over three years.

Back to District Court in Idaho and a Disappointing Outcome

We were allowed into the case, but unfortunately the district court eventually ruled in favor of some of The Wilderness Society’s claims in the original case.

The court found flaws with the environmental analysis on “new” routes (existing legal routes that were added to the official system) but also the analysis on the closure of hundreds of miles of routes. The court found the agency had not sufficiently outlined “mitigation measures” on routes that were closed by the travel plan. The court also found insufficient analysis on impacts to the cutthroat trout and California bighorn sheep.

We don’t know at this time what the future will hold as the court asked the Sawtooth NF to respond with additional information regarding how they intend to proceed.

Naturally, BRC will continue to be involved in this important plan. We hope that the Sawtooth will avoid additional closures while supplying sufficient analysis to satisfy the court. We also know that no amount of analysis will satisfy the radical anti-recreation crowd so we will remain vigilant.

You can help by contributing directly to our Sawtooth Legal Defense fund.


A video recording of the en banc argument is available at

E&E News Article
LITIGATION: Court to weigh private interests’ intervention in NEPA disputes

High Country News Article


District Court

9th Circuit Court

Lawsuits threaten IMMEDIATE CLOSURE of OHV trails!
Please help us defend trails against aggressive environmentalist attack.