The Environmental Impacts of Winter Recreation

We break down the latest science on winter recreation’s impact on wildlife, soundscapes, snowpack, air and water quality, and more.

Photo by Josh Metten (on the ancestral lands of the Shoshone-Bannock, Eastern Shoshone, Cheyenne and other Nations)

Winter Wildlands Alliance is excited to share this comprehensive survey of the best available science on how undeveloped (non-resort) winter recreation affects wildlife, soundscapes, snowpack, air and water quality, and more.

This literature review breaks down the ways in which winter recreation can impact wildlife and the environment in order to better inform public land management decisions.

This is a burgeoning field of scientific research, as climate change threatens – and shrinks – winter landscapes even as snow-based recreation use grows. It is important to research and learn about the effects of winter recreation so that we can manage these activities in a sustainable manner.

Brief Summary of Our Findings

WILDLIFE: Regardless of our intentions, many species perceive humans as a threat and respond accordingly. In general, wildlife tend to have stronger responses to less predictable forms of recreation (such as off-trail/off-road travel). We summarized studies specifically considering impacts to: elk, deer, moose, caribou, bighorn sheep, mountain goats, bears, gray wolves, lynx, wolverine, marten, fishers, subnivean mammals, and birds.

SOUNDSCAPE: Natural soundscapes are intrinsic elements of the environment and are necessary for natural ecological functioning. Anthropogenic noise is pervasive and has a profound impact on wildlife, causing changes in behavior, density, and community structure. Motorized recreation is a particularly concerning source of noise due to its far reach in backcountry environments and ability to mask or otherwise disrupt animal communications, alter behavior, increase stress, and reduce fitness.

SNOWPACK, SOILS, AND VEGETATION: Winter recreation compacts snow, which affects soils and vegetation (and therefore wildlife). Snow compaction lowers soil temperatures, reducing the survival of vegetation and soil microbes. Because of the greater weight of motor vehicles, and the fact that motorized recreation generally has a larger footprint than non-motorized recreation, these impacts are more significant with motorized use. Winter recreation can also cause direct physical damage to vegetation, slowing growth or causing direct mortality.

AIR AND WATER QUALITY: Over-snow vehicles create localized air pollution which settles into the snowpack and affects snow chemistry. This may affect water quality once the snow melts.

CONCLUSION: Given our growing understanding of the catastrophic declines in biodiversity, along with fast-increasing pressures of habitat fragmentation from climate change, increased and expanding recreation use and development, we must incorporate this science into sound recreation management that errs on the side of conservation and protection of species and natural resources.

Where does WWA come in?

From our founding in 2000, we have always understood that all forms of winter recreation will have an impact on the environment. We believe, however, that human-powered recreation has a lesser impact than motorized recreation on winter wildlands. And, as the winter recreation community continues to grow, we feel it is more important than ever to thoughtfully manage all winter recreation activities, regardless of whether they’re propelled by a motor or muscle.   

As of 2015, the US Forest Service is required to write a winter travel management plan for each National Forest that receives sufficient snow to support winter recreation, designating specific routes and areas for over-snow vehicle (OSV) use and prohibiting OSV use beyond the designated system. Areas designated for motorized use must comply with a list of requirements intended to minimize impacts on the environment, wildlife, and other uses. At WWA, we call this the “OSV Rule” (but it is also known as Subpart C of the Travel Management Rule).

Out of 154 national forests, approximately 80 see enough snow each winter to support winter recreation. Of those, 5 have forest-wide winter travel plans in place, 7 are in the process of writing a winter travel plan, and a handful of others have winter travel plans for a district or smaller area of the forest.

As human-powered winter advocates, WWA is involved as the Forest Service writes winter travel plans across all snow-covered national forests. Our main concerns center on protecting winter places and opportunities for quiet winter recreation for recreation in generations to come. 

Join us for another twenty years of advocating for wild winters, wildlife, soundscapes, snowpack, and all the elements that make getting outside a retreat to the greater part of ourselves. 

by Melinda Quick