Phil Taylor, E&E reporter
E&E: Tuesday, June 17, 2014

The Forest Service released a new rule today that would for the first time require agency personnel to dictate where snowmobiles may be used on national forests, a proposal designed to satisfy a federal court order while reducing conflicts among forest users.

But although the rule received measured praise from one motorized-recreation advocate, it was panned by environmentalists and quiet-recreation enthusiasts as too lax.

The proposal set to be published in tomorrow’s Federal Register comes more than a year after a court found the Forest Service had illegally exempted snowmobiles and other over-snow vehicles (OSVs) from its 2005 travel management rule (Greenwire, April 3, 2013).

The George W. Bush administration rule had sought to curb an explosive growth in motorized off-road recreation, which then-Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth identified as one of the four biggest threats to national forests.

But the rule recognized that snowmobiles have smaller landscape impacts and let local agency officials to decide whether to regulate them.

Today’s proposed rule would overturn that exemption.

However, it would continue to treat snowmobiles differently from wheeled all-terrain vehicles or motorbikes, known as off-highway vehicles (OHVs).

Specifically, the proposal would allow forest personnel to designate areas where OSVs are allowed unless prohibited. For example, in some powder-filled bowls in Western mountains, snowmobile riders could still travel wherever they please, which is known as cross-country travel.

In contrast, the existing travel management rule generally bars such improvised recreation for OHVs, saying they must stick to designated trails.

“OSVs do not make direct contact with soil, water and vegetation, whereas most other types of motor vehicles operate directly on the ground,” the proposed rule states. “Unlike other types of motor vehicles traveling cross-country, OSVs traveling cross-country generally do not create a permanent trail or have a direct impact on soil and ground vegetation.”

The rule says cross-country OSV travel may be allowed in “appropriate circumstances.”

But Mark Menlove, who leads the Winter Wildlands Alliance in Boise, Idaho, which filed the lawsuit challenging the 2005 rule, called the new proposal “a missed opportunity to bring consistency and fairness to winter management on national forest lands.”

“By allowing individual national forest units to choose either an ‘open unless designated closed’ approach or the opposite ‘closed unless designated open’ approach, as is the case with all other [OHVs] in all other seasons, this draft is inconsistent and confusing,” he said.

WildEarth Guardians said the new rule is a good first step at curbing air pollution, wildlife harassment and recreational conflicts caused by OSVs, but that it is insufficiently protective of wildlife.

“Snowmobile use in grizzly bear denning habitat or wolverine habitat, for example, can seriously impact those species,” said Sarah Peters, a WildEarth attorney. “Beautiful, but threatened, species like the Canada lynx are also negatively impacted by snowmobile use in the high country.”

But Paul Turcke, an attorney at Moore Smith Buxton & Turcke who represents the BlueRibbon Coalition, a national group that advocates for motorized trail access, credited the rule for recognizing snowmobiles are already closely regulated by the Forest Service.

“We remain of the opinion this controversy was much ado about nothing but are pleased that the proposed rule recognizes the fact that Forest Service units have long designated, and prohibited, OSV use through local decisions,” he said. “If this rule can encourage more active management of winter use or recreation in general, we welcome that development.”

The implications of the new rule, which is set to be finalized in early September, remain unclear.

As the Forest Service indicated last week, the new rule would not require a separate planning exercise where snowmobiles have already been allowed, restricted or prohibited under the travel rule or other authorities. OSV regulation also does not have to take place at the same time as OHV planning.

It’s also unclear whether the April 2013 decision by the U.S. District Court for the District of Idaho — which necessitated today’s rule — will stand. The ruling is being appealed by OHV groups in the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

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.

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