Snowmobile access decisions on U.S. Forest Service land would remain at the local level, under a new travel rule the agency published on Wednesday.

That’s a relief for snowmobile clubs that worried their ability to use some areas might be moved to regional or national levels. But the conservation group whose lawsuit forced the Forest Service rewrite said the new rule didn’t fix any of the old problems.

“We’ve been eagerly awaiting a response from the Forest Service that would provide a foundation for fairness and consistency across all four seasons,” said Winter Wildlands Alliance executive director Mark Menlove, whose Boise-based group sued the agency over its 2005 travel management plan for snowmobiles. “Unfortunately, this proposed rule falls short of that. By allowing individual national forest units to choose either an ‘open unless designated closed’ approach or the opposite ‘closed unless designated open’ approach, as is the case with all other ORVs (off-road vehicles) in all other seasons, this draft is inconsistent and confusing.”

Wednesday’s publication opens a 45-day comment period on the new rule. American Council of Snowmobile Associations president Duane Sutton said the new rule preserved what was good about the former decision-making process.

“At first glance, it appears literally nothing has changed,” Sutton said from his office in Aberdeen, South Dakota. “Each individual forest supervisor has the ability to do exactly what they’ve been able to do in the past. We’re optimistic very little is going to change as far as winter travel on U.S. forests.”

***

Western Wildlands won a 2013 federal court decision declaring the Forest Service had improperly exempted snowmobiles from management under its 2005 travel management rule. While snowmobile advocates claimed the over-snow travel had no lasting impact on forest areas, others countered there were serious effects on wildlife, noise and air quality.

According to Forest Service statistics, year-round off-road vehicle use increased about 154 percent between 1982 and 2009. Much of that came from the increasing popularity of snowmobiles, whose lighter frames and more powerful engines made them capable of penetrating deeper into remote mountain terrain than before.

The issue has been a flashpoint in Montana and Idaho, where groups have sparred over the rules governing the Great Burn area along the two states’ border. Other groups have built compromises on use areas, such as the proposals in Sen. Jon Tester’s pending Forest Jobs and Recreation Act.

Menlove said in an email his group members weren’t trying to ban snowmobile use. Instead, they wanted to change the balance between motorized and nonmotorized access.

“The problem is that many places historically used by skiers and snowshoers have been overrun because of an anything-goes approach to winter management,” Menlove wrote. “This draft perpetuates the status quo rather than creating opportunities at the local level to find solutions that accommodate the values of all stakeholders.”

Sutton also noted the matter required local participation.

“It’s critical for state snowmobile associations and local snowmobile clubs to create a working relationship with their forest supervisor,” Sutton said. “They need to understand how critical it is to allow access to the forest for connecting trails.”

Comments may be submitted electronically by following the instructions at regulations.gov. Written comments may be submitted by mail to the U.S. Forest Service, Attn: Joseph Adamson, Recreation, Heritage, and Volunteer Resources Staff, 1400 Independence Avenue SW., Stop 1125, Washington, DC 20250-1125.

Reporter Rob Chaney can be reached at 523-5382 or at rchaney@missoulian.com.

(1) comment

Smilely
Smilely

The article says "snowmobile advocates claimed the over-snow travel had no lasting impact on forest areas". Have you snowmobile advocates ever heard of social impacts? as in negatively impacting other forest-user's experience " such as the constant nagging noise (only to mention one disturbing factor) that negatively impacts every positive reason for going into the wilds in the first place? Social impacts are far out-pacing resource impacts on our public lands.

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