By Curt Kennedy
Utah Snowmobile Association
Director Public Lands
I want to take this opportunity to fill you in on an issue that I see as potentially one of the most critical travel management issues impacting snowmobilers (particularly in the West) that has ever hit the radar screen.
Winter Travel Management Petition – In July, the Winter Wildlands Alliance (WWA) circulated a draft petition that will be presented to the USDA Forest Service. WWA made the distribution to a huge list of organizations in hope of getting significant support for forcing the Forest Service to amend the 2005 Travel Management Rule by removing the over-the-snow vehicle exemption and remedying the discretionary management of over-the-snow vehicles on National Forest system lands. So what does this 32-page document (before appendices) really mean to the snowmobiler?
First, a few comments about the 2005 Travel Management Rule are in order. In plain English, this rulemaking essentially provided that all National Forests would initiate new travel planning that would designate roads, trails and areas that are open to motor vehicle use and to identify such uses on a map. The rubber-tired community knows it best as a “designated route” process. Under the 2005 Rule the Forest Service came to the appropriate conclusion that cross-country use of snowmobiles presents a different set of management issues and environmental impacts than cross-country use of other types of motor vehicles and therefore exempted snowmobiles from the mandatory designation scheme provided for in the new rule.
This exemption, since its inception, has riled the non-motorized community (primarily cross-country and backcountry skiers) to a point of pure adrenaline-driven obsession to force winter travel planning onto the table and specifically seek a designated route process for snowmobiles. The lengthy WWA petition supports the need for such regulation of snowmobiles by focusing their perception on the following points: (1) violation of certain Executive Orders mandating control over OHVs, protection of resources, promotion of safety and minimization of user conflicts; (2) adverse impacts of snowmobiles on air and water quality; (3) soil and vegetation damage; (4) noise pollution; (5) wildlife disturbance and disruption/damage to habitat (citing examples of ungulates, indigenous fish, subnivian mammals, white-tailed ptarmigan, Canada lynx, wolverine, wolves, grizzly bears and threatened, endangered and rare species – Whew! Did I leave anything alive out?); (6) snowmobiles are a significant contributor to climate change; (7) snowmobiles are a public safety hazard; and (8) snowmobiles create tremendous conflicts with other winter recreationists. It is interesting to point out the petition then goes on to provide an emotional testimonial of selected recreationists in every state within the western snowbelt on how snowmobiles have totally ruined their winter backcountry experience.
Specific remedy sought by the WWA petition rests with four main requests. They want the over-the-snow vehicle exemption from the 2005 Travel Management Rule removed. WWA requests the Forest Service to issue clear directives and guidelines as to how National Forest system units should implement Winter Travel Management Planning. They want a timeline established for Winter Travel Management Plans and Maps (and are recommending five years from the date of the rule change). Finally, they want Winter Travel Management planning and implementation to be fully funded.
Of course, they have their own ideas on what Winter Travel Management Planning should look like. They think it should specifically incorporate: (a) criteria directed at all forests where documented over-the-snow vehicle use exists; (b) a minimum snow depth and seasonal closures for OSV use; (c) preserving quiet as a landscape characteristic for OSV travel management and the Forest Service should develop a national standard for OHV noise levels; (d) a requirement for public input from all types of winter users with a focus on protecting resources and fairness to all users; (e) a requirement for establishing a variety of high-quality, quiet recreation opportunities for non-motorized winter users in addition to providing motorized opportunities; (f) full use of the designation process that identifies roads, trails and areas for motor vehicle use recognizing the smallest area for the appropriate use that can be enforced by recognition of physical boundaries such as ridges, creeks, fences, roads, etc.; (g) specific monitoring and enforcement plans under which violation can trigger closures or adjustments to boundaries; (h) consistent standards for managing agency-recommended Wilderness (in other words do not allow any snowmobiling in recommended Wilderness, a practice which has occurred within some National Forests); (i) analysis of future trends and technological innovations in order to avoid new and greater impacts; and, finally, (j) climate science and snowpack forecasting as a tool for prescribing where OSV use is appropriate and where quiet recreation should be retained or restored.
The WWA petition cites 64 “references” deemed to be from scientific and/or expert sources that they dribble throughout the document as further support for their perspective. However, it is interesting to note that 51 of these 64 references are dated prior to the year 2000 (many are in the 70s and 80s) which obviously excludes the tremendous advancement that has been made within the snowmobile community related to everything from technology (lower emissions, less noise) to education.
The above is pretty much a verbatim summary from the actual draft petition. However, I feel compelled to make a few closing observations on this issue. I don’t think the snowmobiler should be concerned about justifying the legitimacy of snowmobiling on National Forest system lands, because we have made great improvements in the sleds and how we use them to satisfy a desired experience. Similarly, I do not take umbrage to skiers or other non-motorized users seeking an experience that is different than ours. Where things get cloudy is taking a position that our “values” are inferior to theirs and consequently our desired experience should not be allowed.
You can confront any card-carrying member of WWA and most of them would say “Gee, we are not expecting to eliminate snowmobile opportunities on public lands!” But, in reality, if you sort through the minutia of the petition, which has obviously been prepared by a team of lawyers who likely have never been on a snowmobile, they are going for the whole enchilada. They want to twist the facts as much as possible to set criteria in place that will make it impossible to allow for cross-country travel on public lands using a snowmobile. This places us in the all-too-familiar position of justifying our existence, particularly if we want any cross-country experience. It also establishes an elite playground for a small handful of people who are intolerant to sharing public lands. As organized snowmobiling prepares to debate what winter travel planning should look like, I urge you to stay on top of this issue and proactively get involved in every inch of the way. When the time comes to write letters and make phone calls, this may very well be the most important action you will ever take to preserve your winter way of life.
America’s Great Outdoors Initiative – In April of this year, President Obama established the America’s Great Outdoors initiative. The goal is to develop a 21st century conservation agenda that will build on innovative community-level efforts to protect America’s open spaces, conserve America’s natural and cultural resources and re-connect Americans to the great outdoors. The Secretaries of Agriculture and the Interior, the Administrator of the EPA and the Chair of the Council on Environmental Quality and their staffs are undertaking listening and learning sessions throughout the country for ultimate preparation of a report in November that, among other things, can identify an action plan. Ken Rossum and I attended the listening session held in Salt Lake City on Aug. 3. Admittedly, it was impressive to see Secretary Ken Salazar, Mayor Ralph Becker, Governor Gary Herbert, numerous County Commissioners and a host of other heavy-hitters engaging on the topic of America’s special places. The audience looked like a who’s-who in the environmental and conservation community, but there were also some good comments from multiple-use-minded people.
It will be interesting to see what comes out of this initiative as an action plan. On the one hand it is always important to address how we are going to preserve our natural resources. On the other hand, it is disheartening to see the lack of attention toward recreation and responsible development of our resources in tandem with that preservation effort. If enough people highlight recreation and responsible uses of public lands in the listening sessions throughout the country, I think this could be a good thing. If it is just a disguise to pickle more of our public lands then we got hood-winked again. Stay tuned.
New District Ranger – In May, Steve Ryberg, who was the District Ranger for the Evanston-Mountain View Ranger District retired. He had a long history of level-headed decision-making on this great section of Utah and Wyoming. Although we were sorry to see Steve leave the Forest Service, at the same time we were very excited to hear that Rick Schuler has been named as his replacement. I have had the pleasure over a good number of years to work with Rick on various issues and at important events. Without a doubt he is a tremendous credit to the agency and he brings to the table an open-mined perspective that is a win-win for the environment and public lands users. Congratulations, Rick, and USA wishes you the best of success in that important role.