Snowmobilers booted from Montana forest

  • Mike and Michelle Byrnes at a snowmobiler gathering - Jesse Tinsley/Spokesma

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SUPERIOR, Mont. - About 300 snowmobilers from across the Northwest congregated here Jan. 2 for a bittersweet rally. For many, it was likely the last ride to their favorite destination - the 89,500-acre proposed Great Burn Wilderness Area that straddles the border of Montana and Idaho.

Two days later, the Lolo National Forest closed 400,000 acres of its 2.1 million-acre holdings, including the Great Burn, to snowmobiling and other motorized vehicles.

"It's kind of disappointing," said Kevin Elmstrom, a wildland firefighter from Huson, Mont. "It should be for multiple use and not one-sided. People are losing their freedoms."

Business people in Superior, the gateway to the Great Burn, were incensed. During winter weekends, town restaurants are packed for breakfast and dinner and motels are booked solid to accommodate out-of-staters who come to snowmobile the high, lonely country looming above the Clark Fork River.

"You can see nothing but snowmobiles lined up along the street at night," said Mike Byrnes, president of the local Chamber of Commerce. "The Chamber feels the (annual) economic impact is going to cost Superior between $350,000 and $500,000."

Two weeks after the closing, the Montana Snowmobile Association filed a lawsuit to keep the area open. "That's an area in which we've always been able to snowmobile for the last 20 years," said Alan Brown, president of the 4,000-member organization. "They have arbitrarily closed the forest."

Lolo officials say more than 500 miles of groomed trails on the forest remain open to snowmobiles and that closing the Great Burn will cost the county just $44,000. They add that the decision to ban motorized vehicles from these areas was made more than a decade ago and the forest is only now beginning to implement its own rules.

"There have always been statements about no motorized vehicles in those areas (wilderness and roadless) in the (1986) Forest Plan," said Ken Britton, resource manager at the Ninemile Ranger District. "But snowmobile use has never been an issue until the last few years."

A winter boom

Backcountry snowmobile traffic has increased dramatically as the industry has developed more powerful machines that can push through deeper snow and climb steeper hillsides. Only a decade ago, a few dozen riders might have been able to plow through 10 feet of snow to reach a trail that follows the Bitterroot Mountains ridge separating Montana and Idaho. About 2,000 made the trip last winter.

"Many managers didn't anticipate the expansion of specialty vehicles," said John Gatchell of the Montana Wilderness Association, one of the groups that pressured the forest to enforce its forest plan. "As snowmobiles, all-terrain vehicles and jet skis expand into new areas and seasons of the year because of greater speeds and all-around capabilities, they create new conflicts. They have more impacts on the natural world and the human enjoyment of it."

Biologists say the loud machines disrupt wildlife such as the wolverine and Canada lynx, the latter a candidate for the Endangered Species list.

Last winter, the Helena National Forest closed 16,600 acres to snowmobiles. Other forests, such as Beaverhead-Deerlodge in southwestern Montana, tightened restrictions on motorized vehicle use in proposed wilderness and roadless areas. Except for designated wilderness areas on that forest, however, snowmobiles are still allowed in most areas that are not wildlife winter range.

"The impact from snowmobiles is much more minimal," said Jack DeGolia, spokesman for the Beaverhead-Deerlodge. "They don't create erosion problems."

Building a new economy

About 20,000 Montanans own snowmobiles - some 2.5 percent of the state's population. The higher-powered machines, capable of reaching remote mountainous places like the Great Burn, cost from $7,000 to $9,000. Not many residents of this small town in this snug valley own such machines.

Five years ago, the town's lumber mill shut down and many laid-off workers packed up and left. Logging and the Forest Service are the two main employers in Mineral County, probably one reason why speakers at the Superior rally did not bad-mouth the agency.

"People were very polite to us," Britton said.

Although Mayor Gordon Hendrick has tried to entice new industry to the area with tax incentives, there have been no takers thus far. Expansion of the town's tax base with housing development is also hampered, since the federal government owns about 85 percent of land in the county. Tourism seems the only option to get the town back on track.

"I don't like low-paying, service-style jobs," Hendrick said, "but we're not going to sneeze at something that provides new jobs."

Mark Matthews writes from Missoula, Montana.

You can contact ...

* John Gatchell, Montana Wilderness Association, 406/443-7350;

* Alan Brown, Montana Snowmobile Association, 406/549-4429;

* Ninemile Ranger District, U.S. Forest Service, 406/626-5201.

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