By Jule Banville
The U.S. Forest Service last week denied a request from recreation groups asking that snowmobiles on national forest lands be managed under the same guidelines applied to all other classes of off-road vehicles.
In August 2010, 90 organizations representing 1.3 million members filed a petition with the forest service and the Department of Agriculture formally requesting that the agency amend the 2005 Travel Management Rule, the framework used to designate routes, trails and areas on each national forest unit open to motorized use. Petitioners requested the removal of an exemption making management of over-snow vehicles optional while making designations for all other classes of off-road vehicles mandatory.
In denying the request, the forest service stated that the 2005 rule provides an "adequate mechanism for regulating over-snow vehicle use" and that national regulations for over-snow vehicle use are not required by law.
"Quiet recreation and responsible stewardship are getting the short end of the stick," said Mark Menlove, executive director of Winter Wildlands Alliance, the organization leading the petition effort. "Our petition provided the legal and ecological rationale for the agency to restore balance between motorized and non-motorized use in winter and to meet their obligation to protect public lands for future generations. We're disappointed that the agency continues to duck their responsibility."
Menlove added that the decision sends mixed signals. "The petition response openly acknowledges that snowmobiles can have adverse impacts on air and water quality, native vegetation, fish and wildlife populations and habitat, and on other recreationists, and yet the agency refuses to include snowmobiles in the framework that has proven successful in managing all other motorized use."
In denying the request to remove the over-snow vehicle exemption, the Forest Service did agree to develop guidelines or factors for local officials to consider if they choose to implement winter travel planning, but gave no timeline for when those directives might be announced. "We appreciate the offer to establish better guidelines," said Menlove, "but guidelines are of little use without a directive to actually follow them."