Protect Great Burn, but not from snowmobiles
Guest column

Protect Great Burn, but not from snowmobiles

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A recent guest column by Dale Harris (Feb. 3) has prompted me to respond. The headline "Maintain wildness of MT-ID forest" (reference to the Great Burn area in the Clearwater National Forest) is absolutely aligned with my thinking. Couldn’t agree more.

However, if you read the column carefully you would have no doubt that the unspoken or veiled part of his comments conveyed a message: Maintain the wildness only for one specific category of user.

The “wildness” character can be maintained and still support various users that do not diminish the character of the area. Snowmobiling is a good example of what I’m referring to. Virtually zero impact on the land. Once the snow melts, all trace is removed.

There is no user conflict in the high alpine areas in the winter because the only way to get to the areas is via snowmobile. I have snowmobiled the Great Burn since 1988 and have only seen backcountry skiers twice. In both cases they accessed the area via snowmobile.

Let’s talk about wildlife impact from snowmobiling. Harris suggests goats and wolverines are vulnerable to motorized disturbance; no factual evidence is provided. Goats need to eat in the winter. Their principal winter diet is grasses and lichen. That limits their preference to winter in areas that have less than two feet of snow (the average length of a goat's leg is 22 inches). Snowmobiles can’t access the Great Burn unless there is about five feet of snow to cover rocks and deadfall. Snowmobiles just are not in goat winter habitat areas.

When the Great Burn was open for snowmobiling, I had observed wolverines, from a fairly long distance, in a couple of places. I do understand they need snow to make a home for raising their young. The thing is, they don’t do this out in open areas. They generally do this on steep cliff areas that are not accessible by man or machine. They can maneuver up or down on a rock face faster than any mountain goat. A snowmobile can’t get anywhere near a wolverine den. The Forest Service did a study of wolverine disturbance in the Payette National Forest and the short version of the findings were: Wolverines are more disturbed by a skier than a snowmobile.

The recently released draft environmental impact statement for the Clearwater National Forest plan revision compared goat mortality rates in the Bitterroot-Selway Wilderness (no motorized use allowed) with the Great Burn when it was open to snowmobiling and found the mortality rate was much higher in the non-motorized area. Past Montana studies have arrived at the same results. There is just no correlation between goat mortality rates and snowmobile activity.

I, and most of the snowmobile community, agree that Great Burn area should be protected — protected from any activity that would diminish the “wildness” character of the area. Not protected from uses that certain groups simply don’t like.

Stan Spencer of Missoula is president of Backcountry Sled Patriots.

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