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The crumbling remains of trees burned in the 1910 wildfire that gave the Great Burn its name now support a rare subalpine tundra environment. 

A revised travel plan for Idaho’s portion of the Great Burn recommended wilderness area allows bikes and motorcycles on a popular trail in summertime, but bans snowmobiles there in winter.

Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forest Supervisor Cheryl Probert released a record of decision on the area’s travel plan on Tuesday. The ruling resolves a court case started in 2012 by the Idaho State Snowmobile Association and Blue Ribbon Coalition challenging the Forest Service’s decision to disallow snowmobiles in the mountainous region along the Montana-Idaho border.

Probert’s ruling focuses on the Fish Lake Trail, a popular route to one of the biggest lakes inside the Great Burn on the Idaho side.

“In making my decision to eliminate most motorized travel within (recommended wilderness areas), I have given the most weight to the Forest Plan goal of retaining wilderness character,” Probert wrote. “The Forest Service Manual states that any area recommended for wilderness or wilderness study designation is not available for any use or activity that may reduce the wilderness potential of the area.”

Forest Service planning officer Zoanne Anderson said on Tuesday that keeping the summertime mechanized use was a compromise that reflected the history of the trail. It was originally built as a bulldozer route, but the 1987 forest plan redesignated it as a recommended wilderness that prohibits motorized use. Nevertheless, Probert decided to credit the volunteer work done by all-terrain vehicle riders to improve the trail and campsite parking area by grandfathering in the summer use.

On the other hand, snowmobile use tended to stray from the trail into other areas.

“The trail itself, without access to adjoining lands and without a notable winter destination, provides little in the way of a snowmobile opportunity,” Probert wrote. “If left open in winter, it more likely than not would facilitate motorized intrusions into adjacent restricted lands.”

Probert added she aligned the decision with long-standing policy from the Lolo National Forest across the border, “which show that the adjacent portion of the Great Burn roadless area has been restricted for many years to over-snow vehicles.”

The ruling frustrated some snowmobile advocates, who have been asking for more access into the Great Burn.

“At the end of the day, I think everybody didn’t have a good conception of the almost zero environmental impact of snowmobiles in the area we’re able to access,” said Stan Spenser of the Missoula-based Backcountry Sled Patriots group. “Only two groups really pushed back on winter access by snowmobiles, and it was on ideology thinking rather than practical thinking. They just didn’t want motorized, period. But there’s no conflict. We’re up there by ourselves, so what’s the argument for closing it to us?”

Wilderness advocates said it clarified a longstanding federal rule that had grown confusing by the cross-border jurisdiction of two national forests.

“The Lolo (National Forest) has said all along that it manages for non-motorized use on the Montana side,” said Sharon Sweeney, a board member of the Great Burn Study Group. “But the Clearwater, in its old forest plan, allowed some over-snow use. That always created a little heartburn. Now the new forest supervisor is looking at the forest plan and saying this is recommended wilderness, and it should be managed as a recommended wilderness area for the long term until Congress says yes or no.”

Montana Wilderness Association Director Zack Porter added that the decision affirms the special nature of the place, which covers much of the 1910 forest fire scar and includes dozens of large and small lakes hidden in deep basins.

“The inventoried roadless area is about 280,000 acres,” Porter said. “It’s one of the largest unprotected wild landscapes we have left. This is taking steps to strengthen that wilderness character.”

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Natural Resources & Environment Reporter

Natural Resources Reporter for The Missoulian.