By Ann McCreary

The U.S. Forest Service is proposing to regulate where and when “over-snow vehicles” such as snowmobiles are used on national forests, and is seeking public comment on the proposal.

The public has until Aug. 4 to submit comments on the proposed change to the Forest Service’s Travel Management Rule, which would require designation of roads, trails and areas on national forest lands where over-snow vehicle use is permitted, restricted or prohibited.

Motor vehicle use on national forests and grasslands is currently regulated by the agency’s Travel Management Rule, which designates roads, trails and areas for motor vehicles.

However, snowmobiles and other over-snow vehicles have been treated differently from other motor vehicles because they generally don’t have a direct impact on soil and ground vegetation. The Travel Management Rule has authorized but not required forest supervisors to develop a similar management system for over-snow vehicles.

A 2013 court case in Idaho, however, ordered the Forest Service to regulate over-snow vehicles, and as a result the agency is proposing to amend its Travel Management Rule to establish guidelines on how agency officials determine when and when their use is allowed.

Until the rule is amended and guidance is provided at the national level, no changes in snowmobile or other over-snow vehicle regulation is anticipated to occur locally, said  Jennifer Zbyszewski, recreation, wilderness and minerals program manager for the Methow Ranger District.

“We don’t know when we’re going to take this on … until the rule is officially changed,” Zbyszewski said.

There are currently many groomed snowmobile trails on forest lands in and around the Methow Valley. “The major drainages have groomed networks up them,” Zbyszewski said.

“What this is getting at more is cross-country travel,” she said. “In winter there are designated groomed snowmobile routes, but people can go anywhere they like. We’re seeing snowmobiles pushing farther and farther into areas that we never dreamed they’d go into.”

The Forest Service has designated some areas closed to motorized winter travel, including wilderness areas, areas designated for groomed cross country ski trails, areas that are off-limits because they are mule deer winter range or lynx habitat, and areas that are designated for non-motorized hunting.

“There are incursions into areas that are closed, but for the most part people are doing what they’re authorized to do,” Zbyszewski said.

Rich Stahl, a board member of the Methow Valley Snowmobile Association, said the valley has the second-largest network of groomed snowmobile trails in the state. “As far as I know, 100 percent of the groomed trails are on Forest Service land,” Stahl said.

Except for avoiding areas specifically closed to snowmobiles, the machines don’t have to stay on groomed trails. “Technically, right now there’s nowhere we can’t go,” Stahl said.

Snow bikes — motorcycles that are retrofitted with a track — have far greater ability than snowmobiles to travel across snowy terrain, Stahl said.

A relative newcomer to winter motorized sports, “they’ve really picked up steam the last two years in the valley,” Stahl said of snow bikes.

“It’s amazing where they can go. They don’t want to stick with the groomed trails because they’re not much fun on the groomed trail,” Stahl said.

The proposed rule change would give local Forest Service officials the authority to manage over-snow vehicle use to address local conditions and establish appropriate restrictions, according to a news release from the Forest Service’s national office.

The process of regulating over-snow vehicle travel would be similar to the process of regulating motor vehicle travel on roads in the national forest, said Methow District Ranger Mike Liu.

“The difference with over-snow vehicles is that obviously a snowmobile can travel outside of designated routes,” said Liu. “I imagine we might look at areas rather than specific routes.”

Over-snow vehicles have been managed differently than other motorized vehicles, because “when properly operated and managed, over-snow vehicles do not make direct contact with soil, water and vegetation,” the Forest Service said.

“However, in addition to adequate snow cover, the Forest Service must consider other factors including impacts to winter wildlife, the soundscape and air quality.” 

The proposed rule change is published in the Federal Register. Comments can be submitted electronically at www.regulations.gov.

Comments may be submitted by mail to: U.S. Forest Service, Attn: Joseph Adamson, Recreation, Heritage and Volunteer Resources Staff, 1400 Independence Ave. SW, Stop 1125, Washington, DC, 20250-1125.

For more information contact Joseph Adamson at (202) 205-0931.