GREAT FALLS, Montana, January 24, 2011 (ENS) – A federal judge in Great Falls has upheld a U.S. Forest Service travel plan that limits access by wheeled motor vehicles and bans snowmobiles in a wilderness portion of the Lewis and Clark National Forest in northern Montana.

U.S. District Judge Sam Haddon ruled Thursday that the federal agency’s Badger-Two Medicine Travel Plan along the Rocky Mountain Front is not flawed as motorized groups had argued in their lawsuit against the Forest Service.

Badger Creek as seen from the Blackfeet Indian Reservation (Photo by Tony Bynum Photography)

Judge Haddon dismissed the lawsuit that sought to reverse the Forest Service’s decision in 2009 involving 186 miles of trails in the 130,000-acre Badger-Two Medicine area.

The Wilderness Society and Montana Wilderness Association, entered the lawsuit to defend the Forest Service’s travel plan, arguing that it will protect the land from damage caused by motorized vehicle travel and protect sites that are historically, culturally and spiritually important to the Blackfeet Tribe.

Before the new travel plan took effect on October 1, 2010, the Badger-Two Medicine region had attracted many motorized vehicles, with damaging effects on soils, streams and members of the public who attempted to enjoy the area by hiking and horse packing, said Earthjustice lawyer Tim Preso, who represented the environmental groups.

“The off-road travel ban for the Badger-Two Medicine region represents one of the most environmentally protective travel management decisions issued by the Forest Service anywhere in the nation, and the spectacular wild lands of the Badger-Two Medicine country deserve no less,” said Preso. “The court’s ruling means that this irreplaceable landscape can continue to recover from years of damage from heavy ORV use.”

The Montana Trail Vehicle Riders Association, the Capital Trail Vehicle Riders Association and Montanans for Multiple Use, Clifford and Julie Fortune, Theo P. and Dianna Crawford, Arley Jolliffe, DeWayne Blackman and Larry Brown were the plaintiffs in this case.

Among their arguments was the contention that the travel plan violated the establishment clause of the First Amendment, which states “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.”

As part of its explanation for imposing the ban, the Forest Service said motorized recreation would interfere with traditional Native American religious practices such as vision quests.

“The result [of the travel plan] is not, as claimed by the plaintiffs, a cathedral for the Blackfeet religion,” Judge Haddon wrote. “Rather, any individual, regardless of religion, may access Badger-Two Medicine by motorized (albeit limited) and non-motorized means.”

“The decision is devoid of any informed and reasonable perception that it endorses religion,” the judge wrote.

The Blackfeet Indian Reservation is made up of 1.5 million acres in the northwestern part of Montana, including most of Glacier County. On the north it borders the Canadian Province of Alberta. On the west it shares a border with Glacier National Park. The Badger-Two Medicine portion of the Lewis and Clark National Forest borders the reservation to the southwest.

Because of its significance for the Blackfeet Tribe, approximately 93,000 acres of the Badger-Two Medicine region have been listed in the National Register of Historic Places as a Traditional Cultural District, said Preso, and two recent ethnographic studies indicate that the remainder may be eligible as well.

Earthjustice’s work on the Badger-Two Medicine case is part of a larger campaign to protect the Crown of the Continent Ecosystem, which encompasses Glacier National Park and surrounding lands.

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2011. All rights reserved.