By Ann McCreary
Areas where motorized “over-snow” vehicles are allowed to travel on U.S. Forest Service land in and around the Methow Valley will need to be designated by the Methow Valley Ranger District under a policy adopted last week by the Forest Service.
Previously, local Forest Service managers had discretion to decide whether to designate specific areas open to over-snow vehicles including snowmobiles and snow bikes.
The new national policy requires that local forest managers specifically designate roads, trails and areas where over-snow vehicles are allowed. It will likely be a while before those designations are completed, according to a local Forest Service official.
“What it means is that at some point we’re going to have to do an analysis,” said Jennifer Zbyszewski, Recreation and Wilderness Program manager for the Methow Ranger District.
“When the project is started it will start with a public involvement process,” Zbyszewski said. “We haven’t been told a deadline. It will probably be a few years before we get to it, unless the Washington, D.C., office comes out with a tighter timeline for completion.”
Motor vehicle use on national forests and grasslands is currently regulated by the agency’s Travel Management Rule, which designates which types of motor vehicles are allowed or not allowed on roads, trails and areas in national forests.
Okanogan-Wenatchee Forest officials have been working for more than a decade on a travel management plan governing where vehicles — including cars, motorcycles and ATVs — are allowed or prohibited, and are under a deadline to complete the plan by the end of 2015.
Snowmobiles and other over-snow vehicles have been treated differently than other motor vehicles because they generally don’t have a direct impact on soil and vegetation.
“That’s why it hasn’t been a big environmental concern, because snow protects vegetation and soil to some extent,” Zbyszewski said.
Many routes already
There are many groomed trails and designated routes for snowmobiles in and around the Methow Valley. Most major drainages have groomed networks, Zbyszewski said.
The rule change is more concerned with cross-country travel, she said. “There is more cross-country use in the winter” than in the summer by motorized vehicles because snowmobiles are capable of traveling over a wide variety of terrain, Zbyszewski said.
She predicted that the process of designating routes and areas open to over-snow travel will generate interest and concern among snowmobile and snow bike users, similar to concerns among ATV users with regard to the travel management planning.
“We’re getting an awful lot of concern from the ATV community. We’ll get the same concern and angst from the snowmobile community,” Zbyszewski said.
The Forest Service has designated some areas closed to motorized winter travel. These include wilderness areas, areas designated for groomed cross-country ski trails, areas that are mule deer winter range or lynx habitat, and areas that are designated for non-motorized hunting.
The new Forest Service policy was adopted as a result of a 2013 court case in Idaho, in which the court ordered the Forest Service to regulate over-snow vehicles.
According to the Forest Service, about 40 percent of forest and grasslands already have over-snow designations.
The policy requires that all designations be made with public input and ensure protection of natural resources such as water, soils and wildlife, while continuing “appropriate recreational opportunities for over-snow and other recreational uses,” according to a Forest Service announcement.
Local forest management units will be required to create maps showing where over-snow vehicles are allowed that are separate from use maps for other kinds of motor vehicles.
The Forest Service reviewed more than 20,000 comments on the new guidelines. The policy change is published in the Federal Register.