Today is a big day for the future of balance in the backcountry. Almost 10 years after the Forest Service issued the Travel Management Rule – directing the management of wheeled-vehicle use, but making management of snowmobiles optional – we finally have a national rule that does the same for winter use. The long overdue Over-Snow Vehicle Rule was published in the Federal Register today and you can read it online here.

During the comment period on the draft rule, our community spoke out in unprecedented numbers and with overwhelming support for strengthening the rule. We’re pleased to report that the Forest Service heeded some of that public input by adopting a prohibited-unless-allowed approach to snowmobile use that is consistent with motorized management in other seasons, rather than the confusing “either/or” approach proposed in the draft rule.

We do still have several concerns with issues that remain in the final rule. Like the draft, the final rule allows for past management decisions to be incorporated into new travel plans without further opportunity for public involvement. While this makes sense for decisions that were done recently and with a full environmental review, we are concerned that this loophole will allow forests to sidestep the intent of travel management planning and scrape by with out-of-date decisions that avoid minimizing the impact of snowmobiles on wildlife, the environment, and non-motorized recreation.

In addition, a revised definition allowing a designated “area” for over-snow vehicle use to be nearly as large as an entire Ranger District is troubling in that it may result in snowmobiles and other over-snow vehicles continuing to dominate the winter landscape, posing serious threats to other users and to critical wildlife habitat.

Under the new rule, National Forests must designate specific roads, trails, and areas for snowmobile use and publish these designations on an Over-Snow Vehicle (OSV) use map. Once an OSV map is published, snowmobile use outside of designated areas and trails will be prohibited. Forests that already have snowmobile designations in place must also publish an OSV use map, and we expect to see many of these Forests publish maps for the 2015-2016 winter season.

By zoning different areas for motorized and non-motorized use, winter travel planning is an opportunity to bring local stakeholders and communities together to find balanced solutions for winter use. With the national framework in place, winter travel planning now transitions to place-based processes where local advocates are essential. As forests across the country begin to implement the new OSV Rule, Winter Wildlands Alliance will be leading the way and looking to you to help advocate for balanced opportunities for winter recreation in the places you visit.

We want to send out a giant Thank You to our community for all of their work and support over the past decade. This new opportunity is a direct result of 10 years of never-give-up effort by Winter Wildlands Alliance and our members. It wouldn’t exist without a strong community of people who value wild winter landscapes and the human-powered recreation opportunities such places provide. We aren’t finished yet but we now have a critical tool for bringing balance to the backcountry.

This winter we are working with Wild Things Unlimited, the Montana Wilderness Association, the Helena National Forest, and Defenders of Wildlife to organize a cadre of volunteer backcountry scientists to help Wild Things Unlimited in their efforts to survey wildlife on the east side of the Continental Divide in Montana. The goal for the project is to document lynx and wolverine – 2 species that are extremely rare in the lower 48 and closely tied to wild and wintery landscapes – as well as other forest carnivores. The area where we will be working, the Little Prickly Pear Creek drainage on the Helena National Forest is just over the Divide from where WTU has previously documented wolverine and lynx but little is known about how forest carnivores use this particular area. In addition, while most of the Helena National Forest has a complete – winter and summer – travel plan, this area was omitted from winter travel planning. We hope that the information gathered through this project will help the Helena National Forest determine how to best manage this area in all seasons.

We kicked off the Little Prickly Pear Backcountry Scientist project this past weekend with a workshop and training session in Helena MT, led by Wild Things Unlimited and co-sponsored by the Montana Wilderness Association. 68 people showed up on Friday night to learn about winter wildlife tracking and we had to expand our Saturday field day to accommodate everybody who wanted to attend. On Saturday 35 of us traveled to the Little Prickly Pear area for a hands-on, snowshoes on the ground, lesson in wildlife tracking. After splitting into small groups we spread out across the study area and went to work. By the end of the day we’d documented fresh wolverine tracks in 3 different drainages and found a snowshoe hare that had been killed by a wolverine along with an elk carcass that a wolverine had scavenged upon. Wolverine scat collected at the elk carcass will potentially yield valuable DNA that can help scientists to better understand this elusive carnivore. In addition, the groups found coyote, red fox, mountain lion, grouse, snowshoe hare, squirrel, deer, elk, weasel, and marten tracks, and a mule deer that had been killed by a mountain lion. After finding so much in just one day all of the workshop participants were excited to volunteer as backcountry scientists for the rest of the winter. All in all, the day was a smashing success.

If you live in Montana and are interested in attending our next training workshop, we will be hosting another on February 6 and 7 in Helena. You can find out more and sign up to attend on the Montana Wilderness Association website. Or, email Hilary Eisen at heisen@winterwildlands.org