Judge rules against attempt to dismiss PNT lawsuit

by WILL LANGHORNE
The Western News | September 8, 2020 7:00 AM

A U.S. District Court judge has ruled against an attempt made by U.S. Forest Service officials to dismiss a lawsuit claiming that the agency has mismanaged the Pacific Northwest Trail.

The Yaak Valley Forest Council, which filed the lawsuit on Aug. 23, 2019, alleged that the Forest Service fell out of compliance by failing to prepare a management plan for the trail.

In the complaint, the council argued that the National Trails System Act required the Forest Service create a plan within two years of the trail’s designation. The group claimed that since Congress designated the approximately 1,200-mile trail in 2009, the Forest Service has only filed a four-page draft outline of their management plan.

Judge Donald Molloy, who made the ruling on July 30, dismissed one of the Yaak Valley Forest Council’s claims, the charge that the Forest Service failed to renew the charter for the trail’s advisory committee. Molloy ruled that the claim was moot as the charter was renewed on March 10, 2020.

In their original complaint, the council said they initiated the lawsuit because the trail bisects fragile grizzly bear habitats in the region. Among the four — out of six — designated grizzly recovery ecosystems in the lower 48 that the trail cuts through, the footpath traverses 76 miles of the Cabinet Yaak Recovery Zone. The council claimed in court documents that the delicate Yaak habitat is home to only 25 to 30 grizzlies. Officials have since estimated the grizzly population at between 50 to 60 animals.

Molloy wrote in his July ruling that the location of the trail relative to the habitat as well as the Forest Service’s promotion of the trail and the predicted increase in use of the trail supported the need for a comprehensive management plan. Without one, Molloy said there was a reasonable probability that the council's concrete interest in grizzly bear conservation would be threatened.

Aaron Peterson, executive director of the council, said in a Sept. 4 interview that, ultimately, he wants to see the trail rerouted south and out of the Yaak towards Libby and Troy. Peterson argued that the route would be a more ethical and responsible choice for thru hiking.

Matt Holloway, the board secretary of the council, hiked the proposed reroute in June. According to a post on the council’s website, the alternate trail takes hikers over seven peaks, past waterfalls, along striking fishing holes and through superior birdwatching habitats as well as a ghost town. Most importantly for the council, the new section reduces the possibility of bear interactions.

While the council argues that moving the trail further south would be an economic boon to Libby and Troy, Lincoln County Commissioner Jerry Bennett has questioned this point. During a Sept. 4 interview, Bennett said that hikers generally stop every 60 miles or so to resupply.

“That means if they stop in Libby, they probably won’t stop in Troy,” Bennett said.

The half-a-mile viewshed on either side of the trail also could limit Forest Service logging in an area that amounts to thousands of acres, according to Bennett.

Officials with the Forest Service were not immediately available for comment.

With Molloy’s court order, the case remains in litigation between attorneys with the Department of Justice, who are representing the Forest Service, and the council. Peterson said the council plans to continue advocating for the protection of the Yaak’s grizzlies until the case is settled.