Kaniksu Winter Travel Plan Update

The Idaho-Panhandle National Forest recently published the Kaniksu Over-Snow Vehicle Travel Plan for final review and objection.

Photo by Sam Reinsel

Update from WWA on January 10, 2024: The Idaho Panhandle National Forests issued a final decision for the Kaniksu Over-Snow Vehicle Use Designation Project on December 29, 2023. This decision designates a system of over-snow vehicle routes and riding areas, along with seasons of use, for motor vehicles that travel over snow on tracks or skis. The project area covers more than 1,046,000 acres of National Forest System lands across the Sandpoint, Bonners Ferry, and Priest Lake Ranger Districts. The new winter travel plan will go into effect when the Forest Service produces an over-snow vehicle use map that describes the riding routes and areas and the seasons of use. The map will be free to the public and available in both hard copy and online. The map is expected to be available by next winter, 2024-2025, but not for the current winter. We are grateful to have had such a collaborative experience and are celebrating the ability to find compromise in the name of backcountry balance.

July 31, 2023

Balancing Winter Recreation and Wildlife Conservation

The Kaniksu OSV Plan charts out designated routes, areas, and season dates for Over-Snow Vehicle (OSV) use in the northern part of Idaho’s panhandle, encompassing the Sandpoint, Bonners Ferry, and Priest Lake Ranger Districts, along with a small portion of the Coeur D’Alene River Ranger District.

This picturesque region is not only a favored winter recreation spot but also serves as a habitat for several rare and threatened wildlife species, including grizzly bears, wolverines, and Canada lynx. Until recently, it was even home to endangered woodland caribou.

A Collaborative Effort for a Sustainable Future

The journey towards the Kaniksu OSV Plan began in late 2021, when the Idaho-Panhandle National Forest initiated a collaborative process, seeking input from various stakeholders through the North Idaho Working Group.

WWA Policy Director, Hilary Eisen, and a local backcountry skier represented the interests of non-motorized winter recreation enthusiasts in the Working Group. Building on the Group’s recommendations, the Forest published a Proposed Action in August 2022, followed by a draft Environmental Assessment in April 2023, which analyzed the Proposed Action (the “no action alternative”) and a third alternative developed in response to scoping comments.

After careful consideration, the Forest has decided to proceed with the Proposed Action, with a few minor tweaks.

Protecting Winter Wilderness

The final plan, subject to potential changes in response to objections, takes crucial steps in protecting high-value backcountry ski zones and wildlife habitat. To achieve this, areas such as the Scotchman Peaks, most of the northern Selkirk Mountains, and portions of the southern Selkirks have been excluded from cross-country OSV use.

Additionally, all groomed Nordic ski trails within the project area will be closed to OSV use, except for grooming equipment. Seasonal use restrictions have been set on most of the lands designated in the Selkirk and Cabinet Mountains to safeguard wildlife during sensitive times of the year and provide tranquil spring skiing opportunities.

Balancing Access and Conservation

For late-season OSV use (April 1-May 31), designated ungroomed routes will be available in many areas that close to cross-country OSV use on April 1. South of Lake Pend Oreille, in regions not considered grizzly bear or woodland caribou habitat, designated areas will remain open until May 31 annually. Furthermore, additional acreage in the Selkirk and Cabinet-Yaak Grizzly Bear Recovery Zones will open for OSV use once the Forest reduces road density to meet grizzly bear habitat management goals.

Opportunities for OSV Use

The Kaniksu plan designates several hundred miles of roads and trails for groomed OSV use through March 31, and over a thousand miles of ungroomed trails and roads for late-season OSV use in areas closed to cross-country travel after March 31.

It also allows for OSV use on over 50 miles of ungroomed, snow-covered roads through areas closed to off-trail travel throughout the year.

Overall, the Kaniksu OSV plan strikes a balance, offering ample opportunities for OSV use while safeguarding wildlife and their habitat. The plan also ensures peaceful and non-motorized spaces for skiers and snowshoers to cherish the beauty of the forest.

Support and Open Dialogue

While we would have liked to see a couple of additional areas protected for quiet recreation, we recognize that this plan – like all land management – is a compromise and we appreciate the members of the motorized community who participated in the Working Group with us.

Next Steps

We support the Kaniksu plan and will not be filing an objection. However, those who have previously commented on the Kaniksu OSV plan (at scoping and/or on the draft EA) and have concerns about the current draft have the option to file an objection before August 28, 2023. It’s crucial for objectors to carefully follow the Forest Service’s formatting instructions.

If you have any questions or need further guidance, please feel free to contact WWA’s policy director, Hilary Eisen at heisen@winterwildlands.org.

Let’s continue working together to ensure a thriving winter travel experience that respects both nature and recreation!