Forest Service rule on snow vehicles may help restore balance in the backcountry

Snowmobilers passing a herd of bison in Yellowstone National Park. 

Jim Peaco (NPS), flickr.

The U.S. Forest Service recently released a new rule on over-snow motorized vehicle use (snowmobiles) that takes a good step toward balancing motorized recreation with conservation, but it contains loopholes that may leave some wildlands unprotected.

For decades, the Forest Service has disregarded its legal responsibility to manage snowmobiles sustainably. In 2013, a federal court ruled that the Forest Service was violating an executive order on off-road vehicle management and ordered the agency to fix this violation.

The recent rule is intended to address this federal court ruling. We are pleased that the Forest Service is finally moving forward to plan for snowmobiles, addressing such issues as conflicts with skiers and snowshoers and effects on wildlife.

Loopholes still concerning

Although the rule is a step in the right direction, it contains some troubling loopholes may leave large segments of our forests unprotected from noise and pollution of snowmobiles.

For instance, the rule allows the Forest Service to create huge unrestricted open areas for snowmobiles—in some cases up to hundreds of thousands of acres. Within these areas, snowmobiles would be able to drive wherever they want.

80 million acres of national forests are already open to snowmobiles in western states, while only about 35 million acres are off-limits to motorized vehicles—most of which is existing wilderness.

National Forest Acres Open and Closed to Snowmobiles. After Winter WIldlands Alliance, 2006. Winter Recration on Western National Forest Lands (PDF).

The rule also allows the Forest Service to grandfather in old winter recreation plans. Much has changed over the past 10-20 years since many of these old plans were developed. Recreation trends have shifted; on-the-ground conditions have changed; and new science related to human disturbance on wolverine, lynx and other winter wildlife has been released. Many of these old plans do not take these factors into account.

Looking ahead at winter recreation planning

The rule establishes a new framework for the Forest Service to conduct winter recreation planning in forests around the country. Thoughtful winter recreation management plans will help reduce environmental damage to our shared wildlands while balancing the conflicting interests of different types of winter recreationists.

“While the rule offers no guarantees, it enables individual national forests to develop sustainable winter recreation plans that minimize environmental damage to our shared wildlands,” says Vera Smith, National Planning and Policy Director for The Wilderness Society.

Americans should have places to enjoy the outdoors that are free from the noise pollution of snowmobiles. The new rule makes progress in this direction.