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for people who care about the West

Let’s not allow winter’s quiet to be shattered everywhere

  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.

I’ve 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 human-powered crowd.

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 Logan, Utah.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].