Action Alert: Lolo National Forest

Comment by April 1, 2024 on the Proposed Action for Lolo National Forest in Montana and Idaho

Photo courtesy Montana Backcountry Alliance

March 28, 2024

On January 31, 2024, the US Forest Service released the Proposed Action for the Lolo National Forest plan. This preliminary draft of the plan marks the first official phase of the process to revise the 1986 Lolo Forest plan, which is currently in effect. The Forest Service is now accepting public comments on the plan through April 1, 2024.

We have worked with our partners at Montana Backcountry Alliance and Wild Montana to review the Proposed Action and submit our comments together. As part of our Alliance, it’s critical the USFS hears from you at this early stage of the Forest plan revision so that the final plan has standards and designations in place that protect wildlife habitat, watersheds, and quiet, human-powered recreation opportunities.

What’s the Background?

Backcountry skiing and snowboarding in Montana occurs primarily on USFS lands due to the relatively high elevation and large amounts of snowfall. However, Forest roads are often impassible to cars and trucks in the winter and combined with the laborious nature of winter backcountry travel, the opportunities for safe, backcountry skiing daytrips for most users are often limited to areas near plowed parking areas. Snowmobiles on the other hand have much more recreational opportunity due to the long distances that they can travel.  Additionally, new technologies (such as timber sleds, tracked UTVs, etc.) allow more extensive access to more complex terrain than in the past.  Dangerous conflicts arise when over-snow vehicles (OSVs) travel at high speeds in the same areas as backcountry skiers, or when OSVs “high-mark” on slopes where skiers are present, increasing the chances of avalanches or collisions.

The backcountry skiing and snowboarding community recognizes and values the multiple-uses and mixed recreation opportunities on the Lolo National Forest.  We see this forest plan revision process as an important step in creating intentional, safe, non-motorized backcountry skiing and riding opportunities and minimizing conflict among user groups. The select locations described below represent the most popular and accessible locations that our community currently uses in the Lolo National Forest (Appendix A). We recognize that the Forest Service will not be making travel management decisions in the forest plan revision, however, the winter Recreation Opportunity Spectrum (ROS) map will set the stage for future winter travel planning under Subpart C of the Travel Management Rule.

Our Comments and Concerns

First and foremost, we were made aware of “data processing errors” halfway through this comment period regarding the maps shared in the Proposed Action. As stated by the Lolo National Forest Scoping Leader, Carolyn Upton, in an update on March 12, 2024:

“We are just past the half-way point of the comment period, which closes April 1, and have already received input that will help us refine our efforts in the next phase of plan revision. For example, we heard concerns that the desired recreation opportunity spectrum maps in the proposed action remove substantial amounts of existing winter motorized recreation opportunities. This was not our intent; the team and I took a closer look and discovered data processing errors. The intent was for the proposed action to approximately reflect the current condition of motorized and non-motorized recreation opportunities.We have also received a variety of requests for additional information, data, and more detailed or comparative maps. We are taking these requests into consideration as we analyze all the input that will be received from the comment period and work on products for the future. To limit confusion and promote consistency, we do not plan to share any new information or data during this comment period.

I have received requests to extend the scoping comment period due to issues described above. These issues are expected during scoping – the recognition of errors in data, requests for better communication products, submission of additional information, issues, and options. This input is the purpose of scoping and does not require an extension of the scoping period. Rather, I have committed to taking these scoping comments seriously and will provide updated products, as appropriate, as soon as our team can work through the necessary processes. Our team and I will continue to engage with all of you as we provide updated and additional information throughout the upcoming months. Public involvement is ongoing and continuous.”

With this in mind, we feel that the proposed action is faulty in significant ways that impacted our ability to comment effectively and are hoping the Forest Service will re-scope with accurate data and maps shared during the next comment period.

More specifically, and given the importance of these areas for the non-motorized winter recreation community, we believe the areas bulleted below should be classified as Semi-Primitive Non-Motorized or Primitive in winter. Our comments submitted alongside Montana Backcountry Alliance are organized by Geographic Area and focus on the Winter Recreation Opportunity Spectrum (ROS).

  • Lolo Creek: Lolo Pass
  • Saint Regis: Saint Regis Basin
  • Clearwater Upper Blackfoot: Morrell Mountain
  • Middle Clark Fork: Hoodoo Pass
  • Greater Missoula: Marshall Mountain and Wisherd Ridge – specifically in the case of the Morrell Mountain Lookout Road (FR 4365), we feel it’s appropriate also to include a Semi-Primitive Non-Motorized setting, narrowly buffering the road.
Take Action: Submit Your Comment by April 1, 2024

Comments can be submitted here. It’s critical the Forest Service hears from you at this early stage of the Lolo Forest plan revision. Be sure to share some experiences you have had in the Lolo, what you like to do there, and why the Forest is important to you.

Here are our suggested talking points:

  • I support the designation of a Semi-Primitive Non-Motorized setting for our favorite local spots at Lolo Pass, Hoodoo Pass, Saint Regis Basin, Wisherd Ridge, Marshall Mountain, and Morrel Mountain. These popular areas provide opportunities for accessible human-powered backcountry skiing/riding day trips on public lands.
  • Please restrict motorized access into the Crystal Amphitheater on Lolo Pass, which is heavily used by the backcountry ski and snowboard community. I oppose FS 16675 as a Semi-Primitive Motorized setting. Please consider it as a Semi-Primitive Non-Motorized setting to prevent snowmobile conflict and trespass into this beloved ski area.
  • Please restrict motorized access into Saint Regis Basin. I oppose FS 18591 as a Semi-Primitive Motorized setting. Please consider it as a Semi-Primitive Non-Motorized setting to lessen snowmobile conflict.
  • Please significantly reduce the excessive size of the motorized buffer along Morrell Mountain Lookout Road (FR 4365) to protect non-motorized access to this terrain near one of our very few backcountry yurts in this range.

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