A federal district court recently upheld a Forest Service decision to create a snowmobile trail near the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. The new trail would improve the safety of snowmobilers in the Superior National Forest, but the sound of snowmobiles using the new trail would carry over into a nearby wilderness area. The plaintiffs asserted that the noise from the snowmobiles would have a detrimental impact on the wilderness character of the nearby area.
The Court held that, “[w]hile the Wilderness Act’s protections plainly encompass activity that occurs outside a wilderness area—if that activity impacts the wilderness’s character—the Act does not bar agency activity simply because that activity has some effect on adjoining wilderness.” Focusing on the nature of the Forest Service’s action, the Court noted that the trail would be on the Superior National Forest and, by statute, national forests are to be managed for multiple purposes, including “outdoor recreation.” The Court also noted that the Wilderness Act itself states that it should not “be deemed to be in interference with the purpose for which national forests are established. . . .”
The Court further stated that “[t]he final and most dispositive factor is the extent to which the essential, natural characteristics of the wilderness area are changed by the agency activity,” and noted that the area at issue already was subject to snowmobile sounds because it was adjacent to private land and near a highway. In finding that the increase in sound would not constitute a Wilderness Act violation, the Court concluded that ”the sound level will, at most, change from that of rustling leaves or a whisper to moderate rainfall or a wooded residential neighborhood.” In addition, while the plaintiffs asserted that the noise level would be higher on weekends, the Court noted that the opportunity for solitude in the wilderness area existed “twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week” and thus it was appropriate to analyze the sound impact across the entirety of the week.