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Travel Plan Action Alert Sept 2023

Elk Deserve 100%

Speak up to oppose a harmful forest plan amendment on Clearwater wildlands

The Forest Service is proposing to scrap elk habitat standards on the Clearwater National Forest and designate several trails for motorized use. After two successful Friends of the Clearwater-led lawsuits upholding the existing standards, the Forest Service would rather just change the rules.

We need you to oppose this amendment and keep the Wild Clearwater wild!

The link to comment can be found at the bottom of this page. But the amendment is complex, so first let’s break down what is going on:


Fish Lake is a pristine mountain lake tucked into the Great Burn Recommended Wilderness, an enormous wild area on the Idaho/Montana border near Missoula, Montana. It was, until 2011, only accessible by primitive means – by foot and by horse.

In 2011, the US Forest Service changed that. The Clearwater National Forest approved a travel plan that authorized motorize access to Fish Lake, as well as other remote wildlands of the Clearwater National Forest. Travel plans are basically rulebooks on trails and roads in a national forest, and have to comply with forest plans which act as a constitution for the forest.

We took this travel plan to court. In that first court case, Friends of the Clearwater, the Sierra Club, and the Alliance for the Wild Rockies argued that this travel plan violated the 1987 Clearwater Forest Plan. Specifically, we argued that authorizing more motorized use of trails was at odds with elk habitat standards.

In the 1987 Forest Plan, there are some areas, including Fish Lake, that require 100% elk habitat effectiveness, acting as a kind of “prime elk zone”. That metric requires, among other things, prohibiting motorized use in the area. In 2015, the Judge ordered the Forest Service to revisit its decision to ignore these prime elk zones outlined in the forest plan.

Hemlocks on the shore of Fish Lake. Paul Busch photo.

There are prime elk zones throughout the Clearwater National Forest. The 2011 Travel Plan authorized motor use on trails in four large (100,000+ acre) roadless areas. These include:

  • Great Burn/Kelly Creek roadless area (Fish Lake)
  • Weitas-Bighorn Roadless Area (Cayuse and Fourth of July Creeks)
  • Fish-Hungery Roadless Area
  • The Mallard-Larkins Roadless Area (Elizabeth Lakes)

These are some of the largest undeveloped places in the US. Dropping elk standards could have effects far beyond elk. Fish and Hungery Creeks, for example, are tributaries of the Lochsa River which have the most important wild steelhead habitat in Idaho. These standards for elk act as an “umbrella protection” for many other rare species in the forest. Keeping these standards is really important.

In the following seven years, the agency did not correct the unlawful deficiencies in their travel plan and left these trails open to motorized use. In response, Friends of the Clearwater took them to court (again) to meet the obligations of the original court decision. The Forest Service had only done analysis on the Fish Lake trail, so it was the main focus of the case. 

The court found that the agency was still not in compliance with the 1987 Forest Plan. On top of the immediate closure of the Fish Lake Trail, Judge Winmill ordered the Forest Service to revisit its decision to ignore elk habitat standards on other trails in the travel plan. 

Impacts of motorized use are significant on trails. Recent ORV damage on the “trail” to Fish Lake. Paul Busch photo.
At Fish Lake, the campsites have mostly become vast, dusty parking lots, damaging recreation. Paul Busch photo.

An ORV at Fish Lake on July 8th, 2023. Motorized access increases erosion, sound pollution, and decreases habitat security for rare species. FOC photo.

The Forest Service finally closed the Fish Lake trail to motorized use in early 2023. It is still accessible to hikers, backpackers, and stock, which is a good thing.

Now, the Forest Service has released a proposal to amend the 1987 Forest Plan to drop the elk standards. This would open all the trails included in the original lawsuit, including Fish Lake, to motorized use. The agency is trying to change their own rules rather than abide by them.

The deadline to comment on this proposed amendment, called the “Nez Perce-Clearwater NF Travel Plan and OHV Rule Implementation DSEIS”, is October 2nd, 2023.

Wildlife and wilderness need unified public support to throw out this damaging amendment.

Your Comment

The deadline to comment is October 2nd, 2023. We have found that the agency does not take “cut and paste” comments seriously, so we strongly recommend using some of these points to write your own comment.

The main point: Tell the FS to keep the existing elk habitat standards (amendment alternative A/no-action alternative) of the forest plan and close all of the 2011 travel plan trails to motorized use.

  • Elk habitat

    • Quality elk habitat is tied to their level of security from human impacts, especially during hunting season. Motorized access drastically increases noise pollution and hunting pressure. There are millions of acres throughout Idaho with motorized access; damaging remote wildlands hurts hunting by reducing secure elk habitat. These protections also benefit other species like bull trout, lynx, fisher, wolverine, and grizzly bears.

  • Legal and ethical obligations

    • The Forest Service should follow their own regulations and adhere to federal law. Responding to repeated court decisions with this amendment is a slap in the face to accountability. In a time of unprecedented wildlife and biodiversity decline, the USFS should defend nature, not undermine it.

  • Grizzly bears

    • Threatened grizzly bears are in recovery in the west. These wildlands are excellent habitat and an important corridor for bears expanding their range beyond the Northern Continental Divide and Cabinet-Yaak ecosystems.

  • Bull Trout
    • A unique extremely threatened population of bull trout exists in Fish Lake. The US Fish and Wildlife Service has concluded that motorized use, bringing more people to the area, would harm this population and possibly lead to its extirpation.
  • Wildlands

    • Four wild areas would be affected: The Great Burn/Kelly Creek, Weitas-Bighorn, Fish and Hungery Creeks, and the Elizabeth Lakes area of the Mallard-Larkins. Wild areas of this size and habitat quality exist nowhere else in the lower 48. All of them should be open to hikers, backpackers, and horse riders without the impacts of motorized use. All these areas would be protected as Wilderness in the Northern Rockies Ecosystem Protection Act.

  • Recreation

    • Fish Lake rests below the Stateline Trail, a widely used backpacking trail, and part of the Idaho Centennial Trail. FOC members and staff have documented illegal motorized use.

Feeling informed? Time to comment.

Make Your Comment NowFollow this link to the USFS website

If the above button doesn’t work, try this: https://www.fs.usda.gov/project/?project=17992

If you would like to make your comment via traditional mail, send in your letter here:

Mail a comment (labelled “Nez Perce-Clearwater NF Travel Plan and OHV Rule Implementation Comment”) to the North Fork District Ranger:

Andrew Skowlund
North Fork District Ranger
12740 Highway 12
Orofino, Idaho 83544