Phil Taylor, E&E reporter
E&E PM: Friday, June 13, 2014

The Forest Service today offered an early glimpse of a new rule it will release next week to regulate snowmobiles in national forests.

The proposal will amend the agency’s 2005 Travel Management Rule and would require the designation of agency roads, trails and areas where over-snow vehicles (OSV), mainly snowmobiles, are allowed. Currently, local forest officials can decide whether snowmobiles are covered in travel management plans.

The rule, set to be published in next Wednesday’s Federal Register, will be open to 45 days of public comment and will be finalized by Sept. 9, pursuant to a federal court order, the agency said.

“Over-the-snow access and recreation is an appropriate use of public lands, and we strive to offer a variety of opportunities for that,” said Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell in a statement. “We believe it is essential that the public be engaged in decisions regarding travel management on the forests and grasslands, and we encourage the public to review the proposal and provide comments to help improve the final rule.”

The rule is required after a federal court ruled last year that the Forest Service had illegally exempted oversnow vehicles from its 2005 rule, violating an executive order by President Nixon (Greenwire, April 3, 2013).

Across the West, management of snowmobiles and OSVs in federal parks and forests has been a tricky balancing act.

Snowshoers and backcountry skiers have long maintained that they have disproportionately fewer opportunities to enjoy quiet and solitude in the forests in the absence of stronger snowmobile regulations. But snowmobile advocates say the agency already exercises its jurisdiction to curb snowmobile use.

The proposal seeks to provide “consistent guidance” for how forests and grasslands regulate OSVs, the agency said.

While details on the proposal were scant, a summary states that local Forest Service officials will maintain discretion over where OSVs may be used. The agency would publish new oversnow vehicle maps, separate from its off-highway vehicle (OHV) maps.

In addition, oversnow vehicle route decisions do not need to be made at the same time as OHV route decisions, and there is no deadline for OSV plans, the summary said.

Importantly, the rule will not affect the existing travel management plans that have been issued on roughly 90 percent of forests.

Forests that don’t receive enough snow to offer oversnow vehicle recreation — about 30 percent — will not have to complete new oversnow vehicle plans.

The agency did not offer an estimate of what it would cost to implement the new rule.

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