In a decision that will reverberate through the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, U.S. District Judge John Tunheim ruled Friday that a proposed snowmobile route near the Canadian border will not violate the federal Wilderness Act.

The ruling climaxes an intense legal battle that has been waged for nearly a decade, pitting snowmobile enthusiasts and local community organizations against environmental groups who claim the route would spoil the pristine quiet of one of the state’s and nation’s most cherished and undeveloped areas.

The proposed route to be built by the U.S. Forest Service would come within about 400 feet of the edge of the BWCA.

While acknowledging his decision was “a close one,” Tunheim determined that the increase in sound from snowmobiles is “not significant enough to constitute a Wilderness Act violation.” He said the snowmobile noise from the route that would connect McFarland Lake to the popular ice-fishing attraction of South Fowl Lake was no louder than a “moderate rainfall” and would affect only a small portion of the wilderness.

“Indeed,” he wrote, “in any area that has been surrounded by snowmobile and other motorized traffic since the time it was designated as wilderness … there are few winter visitors and the expectation of solitude is slim.”

Tunheim’s decision drew dismay from environmentalists who first filed their suit to block the route in 2006.

“We are deeply disappointed in the judge’s ruling and we believe this new snowmobile trail will definitely impact the wilderness,” said Kevin Proescholdt of Minneapolis, conservation director for Wilderness Watch, a national organization. “Our fear is this will be another cut in the death of a thousand cuts to the Boundary Waters.”

Supporters of the Forest Service proposal said it was about time that the trail be built.

“I am very pleased with the judge’s decision,” said Nancy McReady of Ely, Minn., and president of Conservationists with Common Sense. “It just shows the common sense of the judge’s decision that there are motor noises already there that you hear in the Boundary Waters. … It would be nice to have this trail started as soon as they can.”

A divided community

Nancy Larson, district ranger for the Gunflint Ranger District of the Superior National Forest, acknowledged that the community has been split.

She said there were “lots of local interests” who wanted to see the trail constructed, “and we have had a cadre of people who have concerns about it.”

Larson said she was “glad to have a decision of the court” and her staff would begin to review the project and develop an action plan to implement it.

“In light of the time that has passed, I recognize there is going to be a lot of interest in constructing it as soon as possible,” she said. “I am guessing the action plan will identify opportunities for volunteers to contribute to trail construction.”

However, how quickly that occurs could depend on whether the environmental groups appeal the case to the Eighth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Those groups include the Sierra Club Northstar Chapter, Northeastern Minnesotans for Wilderness, Wilderness Watch and the Izaak Walton League.

Kristen Marttila, the groups’ attorney, said the organizations will have to discuss what to do next.

They have 30 days to file a notice of appeal, and if they do, she said that would include a motion to delay construction of the trail pending a decision by the Eighth Circuit.

Marttila was involved in the original suit filed in 2006.

“This case predates my marriage and my child,” she said. “I’ve been working on this case for a long time.”

Snowmobiles are almost entirely banned in the Boundary Waters, although there are several exceptions written into the original act.

But restrictions on motorized vehicles have been a source of fierce dispute for decades.

The fight over the snowmobile route dates to the winter of 2002-03 when forest rangers discovered people were using an illegal trail through the BWCA to get from McFarland Lake to South Fowl Lake, where ice fishing is better.

That led to confrontations between rangers and snowmobilers, even after a fence was built to block use of the illegal trail.

Eventually, the previous Gunflint district ranger proposed the route that became the target of the lawsuit.

‘Minimal at most’

The fight over the trail was stalled in court while the Forest Service, under pressure from the environmental groups, was forced to conduct a complex noise analysis.

Tunheim wrote that the Royal Lake and the Royal River area where the impact of the proposed route would be “the greatest” is virtually unvisited during the winter. “Indeed, the record shows that Royal Lake is difficult to reach at the time of year when snowmobiles will be in use. … Therefore, the practical effect on wilderness visitors during the entire winter is minimal at most.”

He said that regardless of whether visitors are present, “the increase [in snowmobile use] by as much as three hours per day for three days out of the week is not sufficient to establish that the Forest Service’s decision was arbitrary and capricious.”

In their suit, the environmentalists argued that the Forest Service picked a route combining two alternatives without the required analysis.

But Tunheim ruled it was harmless error. “The amount of analysis that was done and breadth of information on which the public had the opportunity to comment make it likely that the error had no practical effect,” he wrote.