Lost Johnny Creek Snowmobile Bride closed on March 15.
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Contact: Keith Hammer at 406-755-1379
Swan View Coalition.
Kalispell, MT - A controversial bridge installed over Lost Johnny Creek in the northern Swan Mountains last December must be closed by March 15 to motorized use and removed as soon as possible, according to a lawsuit settlement filed in United States District Court in Missoula on Tuesday. The lawsuit was filed against the Forest Service in January by Swan View Coalition, a local conservation group.
The lawsuit claimed the bridge would harm female grizzly bears and their cubs as they emerge from their dens in early Spring by facilitating both snowmobile and wheeled vehicle access to what is supposed to be wildlife habitat secured by closure to motorized use beginning March 15 of each year. The lawsuit also claimed there was absolutely no public planning process conducted prior to installing the bridge, in violation of the National Environmental Policy Act.
"The Forest Service knows it has no business promoting snowmobiling after March 15, it knows it has no business providing a bridge leading to a network of unauthorized ATV trails, and it knows it must do its planning in public," said Swan View Coalition Chair Keith Hammer. "The Forest Service intentionally took a shortcut it knew would land them in federal court in a lame attempt to shift the blame for motorized closures to the conservation community."
The lawsuit relied upon grizzly bear research conducted in the Lost Johnny area and elsewhere showing that female bears with cubs are especially vulnerable to motorized disturbance during the weeks they remain lethargic and near their dens, which can occur as early as March and as late as June. The Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee and National Forests like the Flathead have established standards requiring that grizzly bear security areas be free from motorized use during the non-denning period of March 15 - November 15.
The Forest Service last October removed a collapsing log ATV bridge from the same location. It had been cobbled together from materials left over when the original road bridge was removed decades ago in order to close the last couple miles of the Lost Johnny Road accessing an old logging unit. Hungry Horse District Ranger Jimmy DeHerrera told the Hungry Horse News that a National Environmental Policy Act planning process would be necessary for considering a new bridge, but then in November issued the Special Use Permit for a bridge to the Flathead Snowmobile Association with no such public process.
In what little in-house planning the Forest Service did do, Hammer contends, the Forest Service itself found that the new bridge could not be wide enough for wheeled vehicles in order to not provide motorized access to an unauthorized ATV trail network. Nevertheless, the Special Use Permit allowed for the installation of an 8-foot wide steel bridge that could remain in place until July, which would provide ready access for full-size pickups, not just ATVs.
Indeed, the Forest Service is now acknowledging in the travel planning process being conducted for its West Side Reservoir Post-Fire Project that the bridge does provide access to an "ATV route" which must be closed to provide adequate wildlife security in the Lost Johnny basin. A spokesperson for the Flathead Snowmobile Association told the Daily Inter Lake in December that a removable bridge was used because they didn't want to provide ATV access to the basin during times when it should be closed to provide wildlife security.
"If the goal is to truly provide wildlife security," Hammer said, "then why is the snowmobile club not willing to abide by the March 15 close of the snowmobile season and why did it agree to install a large bridge that would obviously promote ATV use as well? People need to pay more than just lip service to the needs of mother grizzly bears and calving elk during the critical spring season."
"The South Fork Grizzly Bear Study found that the northern Swan Mountain grizzly bear population is decreasing at over two percent per year, enough to halve the population in thirty years," Hammer said. "Lost Johnny is no place to be further threatening grizzly bears with snowmobiles and ATVs."
"The Flathead simply shut the public out of the process on this bridge decision," Hammer concluded. "Rather than involve all interested people in the process, the Flathead intentionally took the shortcut straight to federal court. That's not fair to us, to the Flathead Snowmobile Association, or to anyone."
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Swan View Coalition discovered an unauthorized and collapsing snowmobile bridge at the end of the Lost Johnny Road in June 2002 after watching snowmobiles tear up a snow-free shrub field near Strawberry Lake and wondering how they were getting up there and across the creeks so late in the year. The Flathead National Forest claimed the narrow log bridge was authorized and made from materials left from the previous road bridge removal, but could provide no proof of the authorization when pressed by Swan View Coalition.
When the Flathead did not remove the collapsing bridge in 2002, Missoula attorney Jack Tuholske filed a 60-day notice of intent to file suit on behalf of Swan View Coalition if the bridge was not removed and snowmobiling was not prohibited during the grizzly bear non-denning period. The Flathead responded it would remove the unauthorized bridge but told local newspapers it was looking into installing a new one in the same location and acknowledged that would require a National Environmental Policy Act planning process.
Hammer wrote the Flathead Forest Supervisor in October 2003 asking what type of planning process would be followed in considering a replacement bridge. The Flathead did not respond to Hammer until pressed to do so in December. It then acknowledged it had issued a Special Use Permit for a new temporary bridge on November 6, 2002 and that it would be installed within a week or so. Although Forest Service specialists required the "width of the bridge would need to be wide enough for snowmobile but not for wheeled motorized access," the permit allows for an 8' wide bridge anyway.
Also in December 2003, the Flathead released its Winter Motorized Recreation Amendment 24 Final Environmental Impact Statement. It proposes to allow snowmobiling to continue as late as May 31 in 52,000 acres of grizzly bear habitat, with the latest and the largest area being the greater 32,000 acre Lost Johnny area in the northern Swan Mountains. The Flathead is waiting to finish consultation with Fish and Wildlife Service before issuing a decision on Amendment 24.
Swan View Coalition
3165 Foothill Road
Kalispell, MT 59901
"People Helping People Help the Earth."