The Winter Wildlands Alliance is at it again, hoping via a lawsuit to set the stage to eliminate motorized winter recreation from Idaho’s public lands. Their suit alleges that the Forest Service erred in their 2005 Travel Management Rule by not making it mandatory to include over snow vehicles (snowmobiles) when designating routes and areas open to off-road vehicles. Under this rule each Forest Supervisor decides, based on local use and conditions, whether he or she needs to include winter use in travel plans. The Alliance says the rule violates an executive order signed in 1972 by Richard Nixon that established policies and procedures for control of off road vehicles on public lands to protect resources, promote safety, and to minimize conflicts among users.
In their 2005 travel planning rule, the Forest Service felt they had complied with the 40 year old executive order, establishing the policies and procedures for which the order called. Forest Supervisors review over snow use in their travel planning, deciding whether the conditions require inclusion of winter use, considering issues such as safety, environment, wildlife, and user conflict. They also must set priorities. The federal pot of gold is no longer unlimited and they must aim their resources at the greatest need. Some forests separate summer and winter use travel plans because they are different, directing efforts first towards summer use where concerns are more immediate. Others incorporate winter travel with summer travel plans. Some with little over snow travel and issues choose to forgo winter travel plans. This makes sense in these times of shrinking staff and budgets.
The Winter Wildlands suit cites as its basis old studies, many irrelevant today, such as each snowmobile producing almost as much pollution as 100 automobiles. According to Ed Kim, President of the International Snowmobile Manufacturers Association, “the new 2-stroke snowmobiles produced meet or exceed all the EPA standards and are cleaner than many engines used in other products.”
On one hand, they condemn old machines as polluters and on the other new machines for being faster and more capable. In fact, very few old machines are in use, the average snowmobile’s lifespan being 9 years. The new machines are quieter, cleaner, and have a lighter footprint and better traction because of improved track and ski design. Environmental impact studies cited in the lawsuit, such as delaying flowering of spring plants, are highly questionable. Studies done in Vermont and Yellowstone conclude that snowmobile emissions are not retained in the snowpack.
A big part of the Alliance’s argument is based on conflict. Their members just don’t like to see or hear snowmobiles when performing their “human powered” activities. That Forests with significant non-motorized winter recreation have set aside areas for their exclusive use is not enough. The fact that they can access the entire scope of national forest land, including big game winter range and over 4 million acres of Idaho wildernesses which are off limits to snowmobiles, is not enough.
We can’t really blame the Alliance for citing conflict. In the past by simply stating that they found conflict in encounters with snowmobiles, they were rewarded with more exclusive access. They use the exclusive areas and everything else, however, there are still shared use areas so the cries of conflict continue.
Lastly, many non-profits and their legal representatives have become litigation factories, bullying agencies into giving them preferential treatment, and draining the agency of money and personnel better directed to actual resource management. We pay twice for these lawsuits, many frivolous, once for defense of the government and again, thanks to an oversight in the Equal Access to Justice Act, for the lawyers suing the government. There are big bucks involved in these lawsuits, all from your pocketbook.