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Snowmobiles and other over-snow vehicles eventually will be allowed to ride only on roads, trails and areas specifically designated for their use, according to a rule being adopted by the U.S. Forest Service.

The policy for managing over-snow vehicles on national forests and grasslands was posted in the Federal Register on Feb. 4.

A federal court directed Forest Service managers to bring snow machine use in line with the 2005 Travel Rule that was applied to wheeled motorized travel, including all-terrain vehicles and dirt bikes.

“Designating over-snow vehicle travel areas was considered optional for us under the 2005 rule,” said Jason Kirchner, Idaho Panhandle National Forests spokesman in Coeur d’Alene.

However, a federal judge in Idaho ruled in 2013 that the Forest Service broke the law by not crafting specific rules to govern snowmobile travel, handing a victory to the Boise-based Winter Wildlands Alliance and other backcountry ski and snowshoe enthusiasts.

The alliance had argued the agency’s decision to allow individual forests to exempt snowmobiles from the 2005 rule was illegal and would lead to conflicts between snowmobiles and backcountry skiers.

The judge agreed with the skier’s group, ordering the Forest Service to write a new rule consistent with his decision.

During the public comment period on the new rule, the Forest Service received more than 20,000 comments, mostly in support of strengthening the rule.

“This isn’t like a landscape-level shift where all of a sudden there’s a complete new way of doing business,” said Paul Turcke, general counsel for the Idaho State Snowmobile Association and Blue Ribbon Coalition. “A lot of Forest Service units, such as in Montana, already have designated over-snow vehicle access.”

More than 40 percent of national forests where snow depths can accommodate over-snow vehicles have guidelines consistent with the new policy, Forest Service officials say. The new rule directs all remaining forest supervisors in snow “to make the providing local guidance a priority,” they announced.

That includes the Idaho Panhandle National Forests.

Nationally, the Forest Service manages more than 200,000 miles of roads and 47,000 miles of trails that are open to motor-vehicle use. Riding off designated routes tends to cause the most conflicts and resource damage.

“Even in the Panhandle, where it hasn’t been done formally, they have the functional equivalent,” Turcke said. “It’s not like a free-for-all where you can ride wherever you want. There’s a designated process.”

Backcountry skiers who’ve seen snow machines encroach on their favorite powder runs near Lookout Pass in the past welcome a more formal process.

“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.”

The problems arise with the unaffiliated over-snow riders “who go pretty much wherever they want,” he said.

Turcke, a Boise motorized recreation advocate for more than 20 years, said the new rule will help assure more consistent management from forest to forest.

“We want people to have a plan so they know where they can and can’t go and coexist with other users,” he said. “We hope this is a step in the right direction.”

“On the Panhandle Forests, we’ve talked about general areas where snowmobiles are and are not allowed, but not to the point of route designations,” Kirchner said.

“The exception is in the North Zone where there’s a court-ordered snowmobile closure due to caribou management. Basically, if you’re snowmobiling north of Sandpoint, you may have to be on a designated route.

“Our over-snow travel plans will be tackled in three parts as we’ve done for wheeled travel planning. The number one priority is for our North Zone in order to get the court-order closures lifted.

“For us this is entirely budget driven,” he added, noting that winter travel planning won’t start until 2016. Immediate changes could be enacted for specific areas if the need arises, he said.

“As budgets come in for continued planning, we’ll tackle Central Zone (Lake Pend Oreille south to the Silver Valley) and South Zone (St. Joe region) after that.”

Although the rule officially goes into effect in 30 days, no immediate changes will occur, Kirchner said. “The plans will be made with public outreach and collaboration,” he said.

Winter Wildlands Alliance, which filed the lawsuit challenging the 2005 exemption, welcomed the new rule as a first step but expressed concern over several loopholes that:

• Allow forests to carry forward existing designations for snowmobile use without further opportunity for public input.

• Allow an “area” designated for snowmobile use to be nearly as large as an entire ranger district.

“Despite its shortcomings, this new rule does require national forest units to designate routes and areas for snowmobile use and in doing so, we hope it provides a framework to find balance in the backcountry and to protect the winter landscapes we all enjoy,” said Mark Menlove, alliance executive director in Boise.

The group is not pursuing management changes in order to ban snowmobiles, he said.

“Many places historically used by skiers and snowshoers have been overrun by snowmobiles because of an anything-goes approach to winter management,” he said.

“Our hope is this new rule will provide the framework to bring local stakeholders together with forest officials to work toward balanced management plans.”

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