March 08, 2002 11:00 pm

By Jayson Jacoby

For The Observer

Two environmental groups are suing the U.S. Forest Service in an attempt to ban motorized vehicles on a route in Hells Canyon that the plaintiffs call a trail, and the Forest Service says is a road.

Hells Canyon Preservation Council and The Wilderness Society filed the suit Wednesday.

The groups claim vehicles traveling the six-mile route to the historic Kirkwood Ranch are spreading noxious weed seeds and causing other damage on and adjacent to the path.

The route climbs from the ranch on the Idaho shore of the Snake River up Sumac Gulch to a point near Cow Creek Saddle, several miles west of Lucile, Idaho.

The plaintiffs, who filed the suit in U.S. District court at Portland, also allege the Forest Service broke federal law by failing to notify the public of its intention to rebuild sections of the road that washed out during a 1998 cloudburst.

Its amazing to me that the Forest Service accuses us of being overly litigious, but then they pull something like this, said Ric Bailey, executive director of the Hells Canyon Preservation Council.

They cant just go in there doing backhoe work and ripping up soil without public notification of the project.

But Forest Service officials say such notification wasnt required by law because the agency was maintaining rather than rebuilding the road.

We did what we consider minor maintenance on an existing road, we did not reconstruct, said John Denne, public affairs officer for the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest, which manages the Hells Canyon National Recreation Area.

One of the plaintiffs main concerns is that ATV riders sometimes venture off the route itself, said Craig Gehrke of The Wilderness Societys Idaho office.

Off-trail travel on motorized vehicles is prohibited in the area, he said.

Those vehicles tires spread weed seeds, Bailey said.

Weed spread in that area is in epidemic proportions, he said.

Gehrke said he would prefer the Forest Service close the route to motorized vehicles.

But he said he is willing to discuss with the agency the possibility of leaving it open, as long as the Forest Service can prevent vehicles from traveling off the beaten path.

I dont know if they can ever devise a way to do that, Gehrke said.

Both Gehrke and Bailey said they learned the Forest Service had repaired the Kirkwood route only after the work was finished.

Gehrke said Forest Service officials told him the agency had to fix the trail so workers could bring in a new flush toilet for the Kirkwood Ranch.

But he said the documents outlining the toilet installation didnt mention the trail work.

I knew nothing about it, Gehrke said. I was just furious.

Earl Baumgarten, who works at the Forest Services Riggins, Idaho, office, said that after the 1998 rainstorm damaged the road, he proposed to repair the route so pickup trucks could continue to use it to get to the ranch.

Baumgarten said his proposal was included in a written list of proposed Forest Service actions distributed to the Hells Canyon Preservation Council and other interested parties.

The plaintiffs also allege in the lawsuit that by allowing motorized vehicles on the route the Forest Service is harming the frontier character of the Kirkwood Ranch area.

Denne said that Forest Service employees researching the areas history found that a pack trail was in use there at least as early as 1902.

Bud Wilson, a former owner of the Kirkwood Ranch, built a road along the route about 1946, Baumgarten said.

The Forest Service acquired the historic sheep ranch about 1973.