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This photo is not of the actual incident but does depict a snowmobile-caused slide.

Rob Mullins sent us a link to this YouTube video and story published by King 5 News about an avalanche incident at Stampede Pass. It shows one snowmobiler burying another in an avalanche. Rob has been working with the Wenatchee Mountains Coalition over the past 18 months to: 1) get the Forest Service to create a management plan for snowmobilers using the Wenatchee National Forest and 2) create more wintertime non-motorized areas adjacent to plowed roads and/or adjacent to Wilderness Areas that are accessible to the average skier and snowshoer.

One of the safety issues that Rob has mentioned in his efforts is that pedestrians (skiers and snowshoers) ascend and descend hazardous terrain slowly, moving from pocket of safety to pocket of safety in a systematic way. In contrast snowmobiles must move quickly and aggressively to climb steep slopes or move through deep-snow conditions. Snowmobiles not only arrive in an area quickly, they climb potentially hazardous terrain so rapidly it may leave pedestrians on the same slopes exposed to dangers they hadn't anticipated and that they can't avoid.

Says Mullins, "Snowmobile riding and non-motorized use are incompatible on the same terrain.... This video illustrates that a non-motorized user on avalanche terrain must simply leave the area due to the threat from snowmobile riding. It is not always possible for a pedestrian to get out of the way of the avalanche hazard created by snowmobile riding in the same area."

Mullins is both a snowmobiler and a skier himself and realizes that the modes of travel and what participants of each sport derive from their respective activities are very different. Mixing all winter recreationalists together in the same place rarely leads to contentment on anyone's part. Snowmobilers can be annoyed by the slow speed and pedestrian hazard presented by skiers and snowshoers using the same areas. And non-motorized users are irritated by the noise, speed, and the gasoline aroma of snowmobiles. So establishing corridors that both users can travel but also creating special-use pods where each user can enjoy their own space makes sense.

See YouTube Video by clicking here.

Currently, there are surprisingly few non-motorized zones that are adjacent to plowed roads where the average cross-country skier, snowshoer, or backcountry skier can be sure he/she can have the experience they came for. The Wenatchee Mountains Coalition would like the Forest Service to dedicate more places in winter for non-motorized recreation. The total number of recreationalist in Washington State who snowshoe, cross-country ski, backcountry ski, toboggan, winter camp, climb, or photograph is equal to or greater than the 32,200 registered snowmobilers in the state (statistic from International Snowmobile Manufacturers Association), yet snowmobiles have the run of the forest. There should be greater parity in accommodating these different groups with different needs.

Beyond the safety and experiential issues, the Wenatchee Mountains Coalition is pressing the Forest Service to manage snowmobiles in winter. Virtually every other motorized vehicle is managed on public land and Executive Order 11644 from the 1970s dictate that the Forest Service establish a management plan for snowmobiles.

Oddly, snowmobiles have escaped any limitations that a management plan might place on them. Other than wilderness areas and a tiny number of non-motorized areas, snowmobiles are free to go anywhere they want in the wintertime forest. And now that they are powerful enough to motor up 35- to 40-degree slopes, they have the capability to go almost everywhere.

The ever-widening spread of snowmobile use across our public lands would look much different if the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) processes used to evaluate everything else done on national forests were actually applied to snowmobiles. Why have snowmobiles have escaped such scrutiny? The public is not privy to the rationale -- it could be the way snowmobile-use evolved (the machines once lacked the power to venture far from road systems), it could be lobbying, it could be some combination of both.

If you agree that there's reason to better manage snowmobile use on our national forests and/or you think there's a wintertime need for more nearby places like Tronsen Meadows where non-motorized recreationalists can pursue their activities on their own terms, read more here. Also weigh-in by sending an email to the Forest Service with your thoughts and asking that your note be added to the public record about managing snowmobile use in the Wenatchee National Forest.

 

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Note: We welcome comments on both sides of this issue, but keep it civil. We will edit or omit comments resorting to name calling, disrespectful language, or abusive language.