Phil Taylor, E&E reporter
Greenwire: Tuesday, June 10, 2014

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — A top Department of Agriculture official yesterday said a new Forest Service rule regulating snowmobile access will likely be released within the next few weeks.

Undersecretary for Natural Resources and Environment Robert Bonnie told Greenwire that “we’re not long away” from seeking public comment on the draft rule for oversnow vehicles.

The White House Office of Management and Budget finished reviewing the draft rule on May 16.

The rule is required after a federal court ruled last year that the Forest Service had illegally exempted oversnow vehicles from its 2005 travel management rule, violating an executive order by President Nixon (Greenwire, April 3, 2013). Off-highway vehicle groups have appealed that decision to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

While the agency has not released any details of the rule, it’s being watched closely by off-highway vehicle groups as well as those who advocate for quiet recreation.

It’s unclear whether the rule will affect any of the travel management plans that have been completed on 90 percent of national forest system units. Bonnie said amendments are possible on a case-by-case base, though he was not sure.

Quiet recreation advocates have said they hope the rule will apply the same process and guidelines the Forest Service uses to restrict wheeled vehicles under its 2005 travel management rule.

The George W. Bush administration rule requires forests to publish maps specifying what trails are open to which vehicles and when.

Snowmobile use in national forests from 1982 to 2000 more than doubled, from 6 million users to 13.5 million users, the Forest Service said in a court filing in Idaho. Off-highway vehicle use doubled during that time frame, too, rising to 41.9 million users in 2000, the agency said.

But in its 2005 rule, the Forest Service allowed exemptions for snowmobiles, saying that their impacts are “different and less severe” than those of wheeled vehicles like dirt bikes or all-terrain vehicles (ATVs) and that they may be allowed to travel off-route. “Unlike other motor vehicles traveling cross-country, over-snow vehicles traveling cross-country generally do not create a permanent trail or have a direct impact on soil and ground vegetation,” the agency said.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Ronald Bush in Boise in March 2013 ruled otherwise [attached], in a victory for cross-county skiers and snowshoers.

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