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A New Quiet on The Western Front

Photo: The unroaded areas above Clara Lake were once quiet escapes for snowshoers and skiers. Now, powerful modern snowmobiles have changed the game for both wildlife and muscle-powered recreationalists.


In early April big news went down in Idaho regarding snowmobile use on Forest Service lands. That news is described in the story below and is precedent setting. First, however, a little background.

Snowmobile use in most Western National Forests has received neither close scrutiny nor formal management. It has not been reviewed under the lens of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) or a similar body of rules to determine its environmental impacts on forest resources. Also, very few forests have identified appropriate use and places to snowmobile within their Travel Management Rule, which is a more recent process that requires individual Forests to identify and designate roads, trails, and areas that are open to motor vehicle use.

Instead of tackling a problem that promises to be difficult and contentious, most National Forests -- including the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest -- have chosen to ignore the Travel Management Rule when it comes to over-snow vehicles (OSVs) like snowmobiles. Since recreational snow machines first started arriving on forest roads in the 1960s, the rules governing them have boiled down to this: Snowmobiles must stay out of Wilderness Areas and other zones designated as non-motorized areas, but have otherwise been allowed to travel anywhere they are capable of reaching.

For many decades punting on wintertime management of motorized vehicles wasn't as contentious as it has become in recent years. Due to limited horsepower, snowmobiles were once confined to snowed-over roads and fairly flat open areas. Over the past 20 years, however, the power and traction of modern machines has improved dramatically. Snowmobiles can now wander far from road systems, and they can ascend and descend very steep slopes.

The spread of snowmobiles from the narrow corridors of roads to the wide canvas of the landscape has evolved gradually year-by-year and has steadily infringed on non-motorized recreation and driven those users away from many places where they once skied or snowshoed. Because the creep was gradual, however, motorized wintertime recreation seemed to escape scrutiny about how it was impacting wildlife, water resources, and fragile alpine vegetation. There was no studied look at whether machines moving at high speeds and emitting high-decibels affected wildlife, whether oil outputted from engines impacted water purity or vegetation health, or whether snow compaction from heavy machines was changing life below and above the snow.

Over the past several years at least two local groups (the Wenatchee Mountains Coalition and El Sendero) have lobbied for the management of snowmobile use in the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest and have been asking local Forest managers to designate more lands as non-motorized wintertime areas. These lands should be near our population centers and they should be near plowed roads so people traveling under their own muscle power can reach them. Here is a short article discussing the issue. And here's a more detailed look at the issue. 

The good news about the court decision described below is that it requires all National Forests to follow long-standing Executive Orders to develop a Travel Management plan defining the boundaries of snowmobile use on their lands.

Unfortunately there are strong corporate interests that will want to align with the Forest Service to appeal the decision. Which brings us to the bad news: We can probably expect the delay of more legal haggling before the issue is settled once and for all.

Photo: Only a very small number of local Forest Service roads are closed to motorized recreation. This decision should create the impetus to create more opportunities for quiet, non-motorized wintertime recreation .

Judge sides with backcountry skiers in use lawsuit
Associated Press                                                              

BOISE, Idaho—A federal judge in Idaho says the U.S. Forest Service broke the law when it didn't craft rules to govern snowmobile travel, handing powder-loving backcountry skiers and snowshoe enthusiasts a victory that could extend to national forests nationwide.

U.S. District Magistrate Judge Ronald Bush ruled Friday that the Forest Service must go back to work on its 2005 Travel Management Rule and draw up regulations designating areas of use and non-use by all off-road vehicles, including snowmobiles, on national forest lands. 

The Idaho-based Winter Wildlands Alliance had argued the agency's decision to allow individual forests to exempt snowmobiles from the rules was illegal and has created conflicts between snowmobiles and backcountry skiers.

The judge agreed with the skier's group, ordering the Forest Service to write a new rule consistent with his decision within 180 days. The decision will lead to changes in national forests in Idaho, but could also prompt national forests across the West and other states to revisit its off-road policies.

"The court finds the OSV (over-snow vehicles) exemption is contrary to law," Bush wrote. "The Court finds that the 2005 Travel Management Rule is arbitrary and capricious to the extent that it does not require designations for the use of OSVs upon the national forest lands."

Mark Menlove, executive director with the Winter Wildlands Alliance, said the decision was a monumental victory for backcountry skiers and other winter recreationists seeking a peaceful experience in the woods.

The group's goal is not to shut down snowmobiles in national forests, but to force the agency to designate specific boundaries that carve out distinct areas for those who want to explore on powered sleds and those preferring skis, snowshoes and hiking boots.

"Many of our members use snowmobiles more and more to get to certain places, so we're not in any way asking the forest service to ban them," Menlove told The Associated Press on Monday. "But we are asking for some balance there, where our constituents can go and find peace and powder snow in the backcountry."

The U.S. Attorney's office in Idaho, which represented the Forest Service in the case, said the review process has not yet started to determine if an appeal is appropriate. Government lawyers also declined to comment on the decision.

But the ruling was disappointing to Idaho's snowmobiling community and the groups that joined the lawsuit to defend the existing rule. Sandra Mitchell, public lands director for the Idaho State Snowmobiling Association, said she was prepared to take part in the process of drafting a new rule and defending the recreational opportunities and the rural economies that benefit from the snowmobiling industry each winter.

"Obviously we want to ride in a responsible way, and be in places where we don't have negative impacts," Mitchell said. "But we also want to ensure that opportunities exist not just now but for future generations. Snowmobiling brings thousands of people to Idaho to recreate, and that's a huge driver for economies in the winter for rural Idaho."