The battle over backcountry access is back on.
This time, the Winter Wildlands Alliance, a nonprofit organization dedicated to human-powered snow sports, has taken the lead, filing a petition with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Forest Service related to the way snowmobiles are regulated on National Forest lands. Their argument? That over-snow vehicles (aka snowmobiles) should fall under the same oversight rules that govern off-road use in the summer.
In other words, they feel it is time to close the so-called “snowmobile loophole.”
“This is really about saying, ‘Listen, snowmobiles are off-road vehicles.’ Let’s get rid of this clause that deals with them differently and just manage them like all other off-road vehicles,” says Mark Menlove, executive director of the Winter Wildlands Alliance. “We’re going to be proactive and design areas where snowmobile use is appropriate, but there will be areas of the winter forest that are closed to motorized use just as they are in the summer.”
Some 90 other recreation and conservation groups have signed onto the petition, which seeks to amend the Forest Service’s 2005 Travel Management Rule. That rule, according to Menlove, was instituted in an effort to better manage ATV and motorcycle use in the National Forests, but left out specific guidelines for winter management.
“There is still a clause in there that allows the responsible official at the local level to propose changes to the winter-use rule, at which point all the procedural elements of the travel management plan come into play, but it is completely up to their discretion,” he says.
Sean Stevens with Oregon Wild, one of the groups that signed on in support of the petition, says that carving out an exemption for over-snow travel really doesn’t make sense when you consider the impact that snowmobiles can have in the backcountry.
“Our general take is that motorized use, whether in the summer or the winter, tends to be noisier, more dangerous, and more damaging to our wildlands than more traditional outdoor recreation pursuits,” he says. “A planning process to figure out where it is and is not appropriate for snowmobiles to go on the National Forest will help both snowmobilers and traditional outdoor enthusiasts by reducing conflict between users and protecting important and sensitive places.”
USERS ARE WARY
Not surprisingly, talk like that has snowmobilers worried and has generated some stiff opposition to the petition, especially in the West where snowmobiling is a popular and profitable activity.
“The Winter Wildlands group and all the other people that are involved with this petition are just anti-snowmobile,” says Robbie Holman, president of the Montana Snowmobile Association. “The only reason they’re doing this is so that, if it prevails, they can start in on limiting numbers, perhaps like they did in Yellowstone. Eventually the goal is to have no motorized recreation on national lands.”
As it stands, Holman explains, about 98 percent of the public forests in Montana are closed to snowmobiles. In the Flathead National Forest near his home, for instance, snowmobilers have access for only 131 days of the year and only then on about 2 percent of the land.
“The thing is, there are differences between summertime and wintertime. Certainly with four-wheelers and motorcycles, designated routes make sense, since they’re touching the ground and disturbing the dirt. But where we ride, we’re probably 4 to 5 feet above the ground, so there’s no environmental reason to keep us on designated routes like they do in the summer; it’s just two different things,” says Holman.
Gregg Mumm, executive director of the Pocatello, Idaho-based BlueRibbon Coalition, is concerned about unnecessary new regulations, pointing to the long history of successful snowmobile use all over the West.
“Snowmobiles have been successfully managed for years in cooperation with state clubs and associations,“ he says. “If there was ever a pattern of sound management practices that work it would be the management of snowmobiles. This is yet another salvo in the effort to move motor recreation from public lands; same agenda different venue.”
In addition, he says, issues like this are rarely as simple as they seem.
“Interest groups have been after snowmobiles since the beginning of the management process, and unfortunately experience teaches us that the Winter Wildlands Alliance and their supporters will advance the interests of their well-monied constituencies at the expense of jobs and rural communities that will suffer if they receive the closures they’re seeking.”
REALITY OF REGULATION
But is that true? Is this really about eliminating snowmobiles entirely and turning public lands over to the hikers and skiers?
The Winter Wildlands Alliance naturally says “no,” arguing the real focus here is on leveling the playing field for all users.
“In no way are we suggesting that snowmobiles should be eliminated or that they don’t have a place on Forest Service land,” says Menlove. “It’s a popular form of winter recreation and it has a place, it’s just not something that needs to be every place. The idea that this is an effort to eliminate snowmobiles everywhere is just absurd.”
As it stands, he says, there are a few forest units that have elected to develop their own winter travel plans, though less than half a dozen have complete plans in place. “Even the most restrictive ones still leave most of the forest open to snowmobilers,” he says.
But BlueRibbon’s Mumm has a point. Snowmobiling is a significant economic driver in many parts of the rural West — think sled sales, tour operations, maintenance, etc. — and further regulation would likely take a bite out of that income stream.
This isn’t a small constituency we’re talking about, either. According to the International Snowmobile Manufacturers Association, there are about 1.65 million registered snowmobiles in the U.S., accounting for some $22 billion in economic activity annually. Add in Canada and you’re looking at another 765,000 snowmobiles and another $6 billion U.S. In addition, more than 90,000 full-time North American jobs are generated by the snowmobile industry.
And these are active users. The average snowmobiler rides more than 1,400 miles per year and spends some $4,000 annually on snowmobile-related recreation.
For now, however, this is all still just talk. The Winter Wildlands Alliance’s petition has been making the rounds in Washington since August and the organization is still waiting to hear if the USDA and the Forest Service intend to move forward with their proposals. Even if the agencies do decide to act, there is still at least a year-long process of public hearings, debates and approvals ahead before any new regulations would take effect.
Still, the effort’s backers are optimistic.
“We think it’s a good time for this,” Menlove says. “Since all of these forests and their various users and stakeholders have just gone though the travel planning process for summer use, that should be a real advantage when it comes to getting the winter plans together more expediently. We think it makes perfect sense to move on this sooner rather than later.”