2005 travel planning rule at issue in formal petition filed with Forest Service chief Tom Tidwell
By Summit Voice
SUMMIT COUNTY — A far-reaching coalition of environmental groups representing more than 1 million people has petitioned the U.S. Forest Service to close what they say is a regulatory loophole that exempts snowmobile use from certain planning requirements.
At issue is a 2005 national travel management rule establishing the framework for how the agency manages off-road vehicles like dirt bikes and ATVs. The rule calls for national forests to designate trails and roads for motorized use, but it doesn’t cover over-the-snow travel.
“This is a matter of fairness and consistency,” said Mark Menlove, executive director of Winter Wildlands Alliance, the organization leading the petition effort. “We acknowledge that snowmobiles are a popular winter use and that they have their place on national forest lands. But the current anything-goes approach to winter management allows one user group to dominate the winter landscape at the expense of all others and it puts fragile winter ecosystems at risk. We’re simply asking that snowmobiles be managed under the same guidelines used for off-road vehicles during all other seasons,” Menlove said.
Some forests do have specific rules to guide snowmobile use. Last winter, for example, the White River National Forest closed specific trails in the Vail Pass area during low-snow conditions because of concerns about resource damage. Some forest plans designate specific winter routes and snowmobile play areas, but the environmental groups say overall national guidance is needed.
The Forest Service is required to respond to the petition, but there is no specific timeline for a response, according to Rocky Smith, of Colorado Wild. If the agency decides to move ahead with any changes, the process would subject to a full environmental review with opportunity for public comment.
Smith said that, in some areas, for example around Rabbit Ears Pass, snowmobile use has simply overwhelmed non-motorized users. He said a national rule is needed to help forest planners take an objective look at winter over-the-snow use, including impacts to wildlife — especially lynx.
The snowmobile community will no doubt paint the petition as yet another step toward choking off access for motorized users. Snowmobilers claim that areas open for their use have grown smaller over the years. They were particularly vocal in opposing parts of a recent wilderness proposal that would have closed several more snowmobile areas.
Until the 2005 rule took effect, all off-road vehicles — including snowmobiles — were managed under a uniform set of standards on national forest lands. The 2005 rule repealed the previous off-road vehicle regulations. Over-snow vehicles were exempted from the new rule, but no replacement regulations for managing snowmobiles and other over-snow vehicles use were issued.
In response to concerns from snowmobilers that applying the travel management framework to over-snow vehicle use would eliminate off-trail snowmobiling, the petition points out the 2005 rule includes a tool for allowing off-trail or cross-country snowmobile use in appropriate areas by directing each national forest unit to designate “roads, trails and areas” for motor vehicle use. The rule defines “area” as a “discrete, specifically delineated space that is smaller, and in most cases much smaller, than a Ranger District.”
The petition also asks that motorized and non-motorized areas be clearly defined on special maps for each forest, using existing and easily recognizable physical boundaries such as ridges, creeks, fences, roads, to facilitate compliance and enforcement.
In asking that snowmobiles be brought into the Travel Management framework, the petitioning groups commended the Forest Service on successfully implementing the Travel Management Rule to better control wheeled off-road vehicle use.
“The 2005 rule isn’t perfect,” said Menlove, “but it has proven to be an effective tool for managing motorized use. There is no logical reason why this framework shouldn’t be applied year-round and used to designate appropriate areas for snowmobile use while protecting other areas for peace, quiet and natural resource values.”