As an outdoor educator, I receive questions about cross-country skiing every winter. Lately, one common question is: "Where do I go to get away from snowmobiles?"
Unfortunately, the fact is that there are fewer and fewer
places on the West’s national forests where we can enjoy the
natural peace and quiet of winter. We are seeing this in Utah, and
we are seeing it across the West.
Like many Utah
residents, part of me lives for winter and the chance to get out in
a forest made pure and quiet by a thick blanket of snow. But in
recent years, the thousands of us who prefer to venture out under
our own power have been getting crowded out by the noise, fumes and
horsepower of snowmobiles. In some places, our national forests
feel and sound a lot like a city street.
A new report by
the nonprofit Winter Wildlands Alliance in Boise, Idaho, analyzing
forests around the West, confirms as much. The study, "Winter
Recreation on Western National Forest Lands," found that
snowmobiles dominate 70 percent of national forest land and 90
percent of groomed trails on national forests, even though they
represent a minority of users. It’s happening in California,
Colorado, Utah, Idaho. About everywhere there are snowy mountains,
the pattern repeats itself.
Across the West, the Forest
Service needs to restore balance. Everyone has a right to enjoy our
national forests, either with or without machines. But we cannot
allow a noisy minority of users to shatter the peaceful, natural
glory that the majority seeks out. I’ve been spending winters
in Utah’s backcountry for more than 20 years, exploring just
about every canyon and mountain peak from Logan Canyon to the Bear
River and Wellsville mountains. It’s a rare gift to have so
much adventure and natural beauty in your own backyard. The
stillness and quiet at this time of year is magical, with the snow
dampening sound and reflecting the low morning sun. It’s calm
and peaceful. When I come back out, I’m revitalized for work,
to be a dad and to deal with modern living.
seen the same reaction from the hundreds of people I’ve
introduced to winter sports as past director of Utah State
University’s outdoor recreation program, where we rent
outdoor equipment and teach people how to use it. Experiencing the
outdoors in winter changes people’s lives, engaging them in
their surroundings and inspiring them to share with others their
passion for physical activity and our natural surroundings.
The winter recreation report showed that Utah national
forests have 12 times as many groomed motorized miles as
non-motorized trails. For every mile of motorized trail, there are
369 snowmobile visits; for every mile of non-motorized trail, there
are 3,756 visits by people on skis and snowshoes. The imbalance
even more striking in the Wasatch-Cache National Forest. The forest
has 50 percent more cross-country skier and snowshoer visits than
snowmobile visits, yet only a fifth of the groomed trails are
designated non-motorized. The area around Logan is a particularly
good example of the disparity. We have no miles of groomed
cross-country trails. And while new skiers and families with
children have struggled to compete with machines that are more
abundant, powerful and intrusive, the Forest Service has neglected
to manage the problem.
The Forest Service can do better.
Because people and skis can get only a few miles from a trailhead
in a day, forest managers could arrange to give them more trails
closer to roads. Snowmobiles, which can range 70 to 150 miles in a
day, can be channeled on specific trails away from the
Managers for Idaho’s Sawtooth
National Forest and western Colorado’s Grand Mesa National
Forest found a way to designate large portions of public land
during the winter for motorized use and other areas for
non-motorized use. The agency can do the same here, guaranteeing
that snowmobile users still have room to roam while the thousands
of people going into the forest on foot can be sure of finding a
good measure of peace and quiet.
Kevin Kobe is a
contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News
in Paonia, Colorado. He directs outdoor education programs in