National forests to decide where snowmobiles are welcome

A new rule requires the government to specify areas for winter motorized users.


Just past the town of Delta, on Colorado’s Western Slope, state highway 65 climbs out of adobe badlands, through fragrant spruce forest and onto the world’s largest flat-top mountain, Grand Mesa. There, the snowpack is the deepest around, and on winter weekends it’s packed with two groups notoriously at odds with each other: snowmobilers and Nordic skiers. 

Occasional HCN contributor and former intern Terray Sylvester skiing on Grand Mesa.
Sarah Gilman

But on Grand Mesa, there’s little bad blood. That’s because in 1994, the Forest Service implemented a winter travel plan that clearly designates which trails are for motorized users and which are for human-powered users. Twenty years later, it’s still (mostly) working.

Yet more than half of all national forests in the U.S. lack such plans. During summers, forests are required to designate where off-road vehicles can and can’t go, but in winter, snowmobile management is optional. “The overall policy is everything’s open to motorized use unless it’s closed,” says Keith Bauer, director of the Crested Butte Nordic Center. “It’s the complete opposite of how summer has been managed.”

That’s about to change. As more and more Westerners get into backcountry snow sports, conflicts between skiers and snowmobilers have ballooned. The Idaho nonprofit Winter Wildlands Alliance has spent much of the last decade tangling with the Forest Service in court to try to force the agency to implement mandatory winter travel plans across its 193 million acres of public land. Last summer, a federal judge ruled in favor of the Alliance, and on Jan. 28, the Forest Service released its final rule. Likely by next year, all forests that receive adequate snowfall will have to create and distribute maps showing where snowmobiles are and aren’t allowed.

For Keith Bauer, this is welcome news. The Gunnison National Forest, just a couple of hours from Grand Mesa, lacks a comprehensive winter travel plan, relying instead on a mishmash of forest orders and piecemeal closures that some consider terribly outdated. Near the winter sports mecca of Crested Butte, for example, five out of six popular drainages are completely open to whoever wants to use them. When Bauer moved to town 20 years ago, such mixed-use worked fine. “But it didn’t take a rocket scientist to see this coming,” he says. Today, “there are just so many people out there (that) quiet users are feeling pushed out.”

It’s a common refrain among skiers, but many snowmobilers feel they, too, are being pushed out. Terry Peterson, who’s been snowmobiling in the Gunnison since the 1960s, is concerned that the new rule will force motorized users out of some of their favorite places. But though he’d like access to remain unchanged, he acknowledges that with more and more people vying for the same limited space, creating a kind of backcountry zoning is a necessary next step. 

Snowmobiling in national forests will be more strictly regulated, starting next month.
Flickr user Mike+Tiffy

While the Forest Service rule is welcome, it isn’t perfect, says Mark Menlove, director of Winter Wildlands Alliance. The rule allows old management decisions to be rolled into the new plans; Menlove would prefer that all ranger districts without formal plans be forced to create new ones. That would mean outdated decisions — which may have been made when there were fewer users in the backcountry and snowmobiles and skis were less advanced — would be revisited with more public involvement.

But Forest Service spokeswoman Lee Ann Loupe says she doesn’t know if that will be the case on the Gunnison. Maybe so, maybe not. The various decisions, closures and forest orders mashed together over time may add up to something that constitutes a winter travel plan, and if so, they could well be rolled over. But few in the recreation community want to see that happen, including Peterson. “I don’t want to see snowmobiling areas close,” he says. “But I know we have to come up with different ways to manage these areas over the next 20 years. We’ve got to start those talks now.” 

Krista Langlois is a contributor to High Country News. She tweets @KristaLanglois2.

High Country News Classifieds