Important Nez Perce Clearwater Forest Service Planning Meetings This Week, Next Week

News Sandra Mitchell, Public Lands Director, Idaho State Snowmobile Association

The Nez Perce Clearwater National Forest Plan Revision Open House meetings for the Draft Environmental Impact Statement are coming up.

They are:

Jan. 28             Riggins, ID     5-7 p.m.           121 Lodge Street, Conference Room, upper level

Feb. 4              McCall, ID      5-7 p.m.           Supervisor’s Office, 500 N Mission Street, Conference Room Weiser & Idaho

March 3           Boise, ID         2-4 p.m.           Idaho Department of Fish and Game, 600 S Walnut Street, Trophy Room

Why should you attend? This Forest is the home of the Great Burn. The Idaho State Snowmobile Association has been involved for decades in the fight to reopen it.

I have attached a column that explains the issue. We need snowmobilers and all motorized recreationists to attend. This is our opportunity to convince the Forest to right a wrong done to the snowmobile community.

The Forest Service wants to hear from snowmobilers. Let’s not let them down. We need to show them they have support for reopening the Great Burn to snowmobiling and that motorized recreationists stick together.

Here is the column:

How Snowmobilers, Mountain Bikers Lost Access To The Great Burn In The Nez Perce Clearwater National Forest

Since the early 1970s snowmobilers primarily from Montana and Idaho have enjoyed sledding in the Great Burn in the Clearwater National Forest. Then came the Travel Plan and an amazing cast of characters and circumstances. These include one former Chief of the Forest Service, the current agency Chief, an unwritten/written policy/guideline, a federal judge and finally a new Forest Supervisor caught in the middle. All of this adds up to what should be considered one of the greatest injustices in the history of federal land management. The saddest part of this tale is that if not corrected, it could impact every snowmobiler who rides on our national forests.

It all started during the tenure of Forest Service Region One’s (R-1) Regional Forester, Brad Powell. An unwritten regional policy was created and transmitted to the region’s forest supervisors requiring them to manage all their Recommended Wilderness Areas (RWAs) with the same restrictions to public use that apply to congressionally designated wildernesses. (That policy was officially ended in 2019). In other words, no motorized or mechanized recreation. The current nationwide Forest Service policy requires that all RWAs be managed in a way that will not impair their future qualification for wilderness but doesn’t specifically exclude all historic motorized and mechanized access.

Regional Forester Abigail Kimball, who replaced Mr. Powell, supported this policy. When Ms. Kimball was appointed Chief of the Forest Service, her replacement and now Chief, Tom Tidwell, continued to support the policy. However, in 2007 he took the next step by putting the unwritten policy onto paper, including with it a system of evaluating wilderness potential of roadless areas in view of existing motorized use. The policy statement says under “Topic: Management of recommended wilderness” that the region “will be evaluating the areas that were recommended for wilderness designation in the first round of planning to determine if they should still be recommended. They also will be evaluating all other inventoried roadless areas to see if they should be recommended. For all these areas, the forest needs to determine, through public involvement and the wilderness evaluation process, the best use of each area.” The document goes on to say that areas with a significant amount of motorized use should not be designated as RWAs and if motorized use of an RWA was significant it would be removed from that designation or the boundary adjusted.

All these happenings set the stage for what was about to take place in the Clearwater National Forest. The forest supervisor was forced by a federal court decision to put forest planning on hold but decided to move forward with travel planning because of the 2005 Off Highway Vehicle Rule deadline. He also decided that the forest would not amend its 1987 Forest Plan with the travel plan. As a result, they would not analyze RWA boundaries to determine, as directed by the Regional Forester’s 2007 policy guideline, if they should be adjusted to exclude areas with significant motorized/mechanized recreation use, such as snowmobiling and mountain biking.

As a result, the deck was stacked against them with no way to protect their use in one of the finest backcountry alpine areas in North Idaho, the Great Burn. Regardless of the persuasiveness of their arguments, the history of their use, or the support of Idaho’s Congressional delegation and Governor, the Forest Service said, ‘no way,’ completed the Travel Plan and closed the Great Burn. No resource, wildlife or social issues were at stake; snowmobiles were banned simply because of a policy created behind closed doors with absolutely no input from the public. No NEPA was ever done on this policy and yet every Forest in Montana and the two Forests in Region 1 in Idaho have abided by it.

There are many reasons to be angry over the actions of Region 1 and the Clearwater National Forest, but the most glaring is the fact that this decision was made because a few people decided that managing RWAs as wilderness would reduce future opposition to the passage of wilderness bills! When did the Forest Service become a political activist organization? The Forest Service is responsible for the stewardship of the public’s land, not for managing the political landscape. Even more sobering is the possibility that this policy, which effectively creates an enduring system of administratively designated wildernesses, could be adopted nationwide.

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