USFS announces new over-snow vehicle regulations

USFS announces new over-snow vehicle regulations

Conservation Northwest / Feb 27, 2015 / National Forests

Snowmobiler on a designated trail. Photo: USFS
By Chase Gunnell, Communications Manager

A decade after the U.S. Forest Service first began mandating that its national forests create motorized travel management plans for Off-Road Vehicles (ORVs) and dirt bikes, sensible regulations were recently announced for over-snow vehicles such as snowmobiles during the winter months.

Under the new plan, announced in the federal register in January 2015, snowmobiles and other over-snow vehicles eventually will be allowed to ride only on roads, trails and other areas specifically designated for their use. Some national forests and grasslands with snow depths that allow for winter motorized recreation already have regulations that meet the new plan. For others, additional regulations will be required, as well as creating and distributing maps that show where snow machines are and aren’t allowed.

The new regulations are aimed at better balancing the use of public lands between motorized users, such as snowmobilers, and non-motorized users such as backcountry skiers, as well as limiting negative impacts on rare wildlife species including wolverines and Canada lynx.

Conservation Northwest welcomes the new rule and the greater degree of protection it gives Pacific Northwest wildlife, as well as the great certainty and direction it provides winter recreationists. 

For more on our perspectives regarding motorized recreation, we recommend this Scat! blog post from June 2014. 

In Washington state, unregulated motorized recreation in the winter and early spring months can negatively impact wolverine denning habitat and behavior. A disturbance such as noisy snowmobile activity nearby can cause wolverines to move their dens, a waste of precious winter calories and a possible source of reduced reproductive activity.

Increased motorized access can also impact threatened Canada lynx. Lynx have evolved to have a hunting advantage in deep snow with their specially adapted paws. While other predator species hibernate or move to lower elevations, lynx stick to the snowy highcountry and continue feeding on their favorite prey: snowshoe hares. However, compacted and groomed snowmobile routes into the winter backcountry provide literal avenues for competition from other species such as coyotes; they can drive lynx out of an area or impact local populations of their already scare winter prey.

The group is not pursuing management changes in order to ban snowmobiles, he said. The same is true for Conservation Northwest.

Wolverines are still beginning to regain a foothold in the Cascade Mountains, and Canada lynx remain critically threatened. With new and less expensive motorized technology allowing more people access to the backcountry in winter than ever before, it’s important to set practical regulations that limit negative impacts on our iconic wildlife.

The new regulations were partially spurred by a lawsuit from Boise-based Winter Wildlands Alliance(WWA) and other backcountry ski and snowshoe enthusiasts. In 2013, a federal judge in Idaho ruled in favor of WWA and other groups, stating that the Forest Service broke the law by not crafting specific rules to govern snowmobiles and motorized over-snow travel under its 2005 Travel Rule that was applied to wheeled motorized travel, including all-terrain vehicles and dirt bikes.

“Despite its shortcomings, this new rule does require national forest units to designate routes and areas for snowmobile use and in doing so, we hope it provides a framework to find balance in the backcountry and to protect the winter landscapes we all enjoy,” said Mark Menlove, WWA executive director.

The group is not pursuing management changes in order to ban snowmobiles, he said. The same is true for Conservation Northwest.

While impacts on wildlife and illegal wilderness intrusions by snowmobilers are cause for serious concern, we don’t object to reasonable motorized recreation within sensible regulations guided by scientific reasoning and community input, as well as self-policing by the motorized community. 

Like backcountry skiing and snowshoeing, it’s just another way some people choose to experience the great outdoors. With public input and proper regulations, we can all share the winter backcountry; so snowmobilers can have compelling trails and designated snowfields to ride, backcountry skiers can have powder-filled touring routes, and wolverines and lynx can persevere in our region, quiet rulers of their wild winter domains.

For more on the new over-snow vehicle plan from the U.S. Forest Service, we recommend this article from High Country News / Adventure Journal.