By Laura Zuckerman
SALMON, Idaho (Reuters) - The U.S. Forest Service adopted a rule on Wednesday that requires managers of the nation’s nearly 200 forests and grasslands to formally designate where snowmobiles can be operated on the 193 million acres of public land the agency oversees.
The rule, which takes effect on Feb. 27, comes after years of legal fights between groups advocating for non-motorized winter sports like cross-country skiing on federal lands and organizations that promote snowmobiling.
At issue in a court battle led by the Idaho-based Winter Wildlands Alliance was whether the Forest Service could continue to let supervisors of national forests and grasslands use discretion to decide whether to officially designate areas that may be used by snowmobiles and other over-snow vehicles.
A U.S. judge in Idaho ruled in 2013 that federal land managers were required to determine where on the country’s vast forests snow machines could travel without harming or destroying natural resources like rivers or wildlife like imperiled Canada lynx that are dependent on undisturbed winter landscapes.
Nearly half of national forests, mostly in Western states like Idaho and Montana where winter snow levels can accommodate over-snow vehicles, already have policies about where such motorized transport can occur, Forest Service officials said.
The Winter Wildlands Alliance, which includes skiers whose sport sees them seek mountain slopes in terrain so remote and rugged it is all but inaccessible, hailed the new policy as a step toward assuring “balance in the backcountry.”
The alliance had complained in legal documents that snowmobilers and others traveling on powerful over-snow vehicles were emitting unwanted noise and fumes in otherwise pristine areas, wreaking havoc on wildlife and destroying trails.
Attorney Paul Turcke, who has represented the Idaho State Snowmobile Association in legal cases, said the new rule was mostly procedural and grandfathered in designations already in place in many forests across the Intermountain West.
He added that future disputes between those who support motorized winter recreation and those who oppose it would likely arise forest by forest as managers mark acreage open to snow machines.
Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell said the new rule emphasized local control.
“This policy maintains community input and local decision-making so that those with knowledge of local areas can decide how to best balance natural resource issues with legitimate recreational uses of national forest land,” he said in a statement.
(Reporting by Laura Zuckerman; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Peter Cooney)