Feds issue new policy for snowmobiles in national forests

AP News
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Posted: Jan 28, 2015 5:32 PM

BOISE, Idaho (AP) — The U.S. Forest Service has issued a new policy requiring forest managers to limit where snowmobiles can go by specifically designating what areas are open, a move that could reduce the competition between skiers and machines.

The new rules take effect Feb. 27 and apply to all national forests in the U.S.

The federal agency on Wednesday published the final federal register notice for the new rules.

The change follows a 2013 federal court ruling in Boise that found the Forest Service incorrectly exempted snowmobiles from a 2005 Forest Service plan restricting wheeled cross-country travel to designated routes.

An Idaho-based backcountry skier group, Winter Wildlands Alliance, filed the lawsuit amid concerns that new and more powerful snowmobiles were chewing up remote and pristine powder previously reachable only by skiers.

"You can't have both uses in the same area and allow for each user to get the experience they're looking for" said Mark Menlove, the group's executive director. He said that besides carving up slopes, the machines are loud and emit exhaust.

The new policy requires forests to publish over-snow vehicle maps using existing designations or maps to be worked out through a public process.

Chad Sluder, president of the Sawtooth Snowmobile Club based in the central Idaho town of Bellevue, said his club of 75 members would take an active part in that process.

"We don't want to lose any more ground, and if it comes to that we will fight it to the end," Sluder said. "It's the ongoing battle between the skiers and snowmobilers. They don't want us there and we have every right to be there."

The Forest Service estimates that nearly 4 million people use snowmobiles on national forest land. Advances in technology have made modern snowmobiles more powerful and lighter than previous generations. Modern tracks can propel the machines more efficiently through powder in steep terrain.

With those advances, skiers and snowmobilers often compete for fresh powder in the backcountry.

"When we have a big storm everyone wants to get out and get that first track, whether they're skiing or on a machine," said Alan Rooney, a snowmobile guide and manager at Smiley Creek Lodge in the vacation area of Ketchum. "With the bigger sleds you don't need to have the skill level that you used to need."

Skiers and snowmobilers give similar responses about what draws them to the same areas in winter.

"Just the pristine riding," Sluder said. "You get some really good powder, awesome scenery. It's just a real enjoyable sport."

Julie Thomas, spokeswoman for Idaho's Sawtooth National Forest, said there have been conflicts between skiers and snowmobilers over the years, but the groups have generally been able to work out agreements to avoid problems.

"The national forest system lands are for the public to use and enjoy," she said. "Our population is growing and we have a lot of people out there, but there's room for everybody."