VAIL — Snowmobiling may not be the first sport on people’s minds right now, but it is a hot topic of discussion in many areas in the West this summer.
The discussion centers around the U.S. Forest Service’s policy on winter travel management — specifically, where snowmobiles (or “over-snow vehicles”) can travel. Up until now, most national forests have had the policy of trails being open to both people and motorized vehicles unless they were designated closed. Now, following a decision by a judge in Idaho, the Forest Service will need to come up with a new policy that specifically designates where snowmobile use is permitted, restricted or prohibited, and it is seeking public comment on the proposal.
The public has until Monday to submit comments on the proposed changes and a final draft of the new rules are expected in September. Locally, the White River National Forest is one of the few in the entire country who already have such a plan.
A clear plan at White River
In 2005, all national forests were required to come up with a travel plan to regulate summer activities. However, agencies were not required to address “over-snow vehicles,” since they don’t have direct impact on the dirt and plants.
“Snow travel management was optional, so nobody did it, except us,” said Scott Fitzwilliams, forest supervisor of the White River National Forest. “We had already been moving in that direction before 2005, so we decided to make a winter plan.”
That detailed winter plan took seven years to finalize and involved comprehensive studies and talking with many stakeholders and backcountry user groups, but it went into effect three years ago.
Today, snowmobilers, snowshoers and skiers can all look at Forest Service winter maps and know exactly where they can go, where they cannot go and where they must stay on the trails.
“We’re in good shape, and from the beginning we said we were going to keep it dynamic and up-to-date,” Fitzwilliams said. “We’ve made some changes already as we’ve gone along.”
Sharing the backcountry
While the White River National Forest is ahead of the curve, the subject is heating up across other parts of the West. Of Colorado’s 10 national forests, only the White River has a detailed plan, and some backcountry groups are pointing to its plan as a way to model other management plans.
“The White River is actually one of the more progressive forests with what we think is a good plan,” said Mark Menlove, executive director of the Winter Wildlands Alliance. “There’s a vacuum in many of these other forests. Motors are prohibited in designated wilderness areas, but other than that, by-and-large it becomes a free-for-all.”
The Winter Wildlands Alliance, which is based in Idaho, along with other groups, say they aren’t pushing for a ban on snowmobiles altogether — just some rules so that human-powered backcountry users can also find the untracked snow and pristine landscapes they seek.
Ben Dodge, executive director of the 10th Mountain Huts Association, said that hut users also largely prefer non-motorized experiences. The huts span an area that covers both the White River National Forest and the neighboring San Isabel National Forest, and Dodge said the association can see differences between the two forests when it comes to snowmobile use.
“(The White River) has done a really good job of providing a balanced recreational experience. They’re still working through some of the issues, but for the huts, the backcountry experience is much more sustainable now,” Dodge said. “In other ranger districts, some haven’t updated their management plans for years and years, and there isn’t a route-by-route plan. We see a lot more conflict at those huts.”
Meanwhile, plans are also underway to make the user experience more friendly for snowmobilers, skiers and hikers alike. Scott Jones, vice president of the Colorado Snowmobile Association, said that the organization is partnering with the Forest Service to create map apps and help make the new and existing rules easier to follow.
“We’d like to see some better technology come into the winter travel process. Right now we’ve got these big maps that tell you where to go in the summer, and that doesn’t really work in the wintertime,” Jones said. “We’re trying to develop cell phone apps and work with land managers to implement those decisions. There are many areas open to snowmobiles that don’t see a lot of use because people don’t know it’s there.”
Assistant Managing Editor Melanie Wong can be reached at 970-748-2927 and firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @mwongvail.