Ten years after the US Forest Service started requiring off-highway vehicles to stick to designated routes, a similar policy has now been adopted for snowmobiles. When the OHV policy was developed, much of the concern was on streamside erosion and damage to meadows, so similar limitations were not considered as important for vehicles traveling over snow. However, from the start, cross-country skiers and snowshoers pushed for limits to snowmobiles, as well, stressing the impact of motor noise, which can travel far across mountain basins in otherwise very quiet landscapes. In recent decades, as snowmobiles have become more powerful, remote high-country snowfields popular with skiers have been attracting more snowmobiles as well.
Now, the Forest Service will require each National Forest to designate specific areas for snowmobile use. Unlike OHVs, which are generally limited to trails and roads (with modest excursions off roads allowed for hunters), the snowmobile rule allows extensive areas to be opened to snowmobiles. While generally very pleased with the new policy, the Winter Wildlands Alliance (a leading quiet recreation advocacy group) expressed concerns that this areas can be nearly as large as a ranger district.
Over 40% of National Forests that get consistent snow cover already manage snowmobiles as required under the new rule, so nothing will change there. In other forests, user groups have collaborated to achieve similar ends:
“About four years ago, we worked with snowmobile groups to reach an understanding about riding areas near Stevens Peak,” said John Latta of Spokane, co-founder of the Inland Northwest Backcountry Alliance. “The people that sit down with us have gray hair and like to ride the trails. We have a pretty good understanding of each other’s needs.”
Still, some riders have broken these informal agreements, so the new rules will help alleviate such problems. Snowmobile groups tend to support the measures as well; Paul Turcke, a lawyer who works with the Idaho State Snowmobile Association and Blue Ribbon Coalition, said “We want people to have a plan so they know where they can and can’t go and coexist with other users. We hope this is a step in the right direction.”