Long-Awaited Winter Rule is Out

WWA Seeking 1,000 Comments in 45 Days

Last April Winter Wildlands Alliance won a historic victory when a Federal Court agreed with our claim that the Forest Service has an obligation to manage snowmobiles under the same guidelines used for all other off-road vehicles in other seasons. The court ruled that the exemption of over-snow vehicles (OSVs) in the 2005 Travel Management Rule was unlawful and it directed the Agency to develop a new rule outlining the process under which each national forest will create a winter travel plan to complement their existing summer travel management plans. This new Over-Snow Vehicle Travel Rule (OSV Rule) is a huge opportunity to protect winter ecosystems and bring balance to the backcountry.

But, the proposed rule released today falls short of its potential, and your engagement will be crucial if the Forest Service is going to get it right. Stakeholders have just 45 days – until August 4 — to comment on the draft. WWA has an ambitious goal to rally at least 1,000 backcountry and Nordic skiers, snowboarders, snowshoers and winter mountaineers to weigh in with unique comments to ensure the Forest Service finalizes a rule that meets its obligation to minimize the impacts of winter motorized use, and finally brings balance to the backcountry.

The draft says each national forest must now take a proactive approach to designating appropriate trails and areas for winter motorized use as either open or closed, or with certain restrictions (like dates or a minimum snow depth). Forests that have previously completed comprehensive winter travel plans also would not have to redo them. Both of these aspects of the rule are great, but when we dig a little deeper the draft is problematic.

  •  The draft would allow individual national forest units to choose either an ‘open unless designated closed’ approach or the opposite ‘closed unless designated open’ approach, as is the case with all other off-road vehicles in all other seasons. This element of the draft is inconsistent, and would be confusing on the ground.
  • The draft also appears to grandfather in past decisions about over-snow vehicle use, regardless of whether they were comprehensive, minimized conflict and resource damage, or involved the public. Administrative decisions that did not allow stakeholder involvement, or that apply to only part of a forest, should not be allowed to pass for proper planning.
  • Also, the rule proposes to change the definition of an “area” to include landscapes even broader than a Ranger District, with groomed trails in that area not subject to analysis. Groomed trails concentrate use, and cross-country snowmobile travel, while certainly appropriate in some places, also has impacts. Both of these deserve a harder look than is possible when designating areas that could be hundreds of thousands of acres as the draft proposes.

The Forest Service needs to hear from skiers and snowshoers about how management of the backcountry has the potential to improve your experience on national forest lands — or how a lack of management has degraded your experience. This is a chance for WWA members to share your story.

The Take Action page at https://winterwildlands.org/take-action/provides everything you need to comment. Personal comments are proven to make the biggest difference to decision-makers — so please take 10 minutes to weigh in on this once-in-a-generation opportunity to impact how the backcountry is managed.
Once the public comment period closes the Forest Service will analyze all comments and will issue a final rule no later than September 9, 2014 as directed by the court. After the final rule is released the Forest Service will issue guidance and a schedule for developing individual winter travel plans on national forests.
The draft rule can be viewed online here: http://www.regulations.gov/#!documentDetail;D=FS-2014-0004-0001
For questions on the draft rule, or help writing comments please contact:

Hilary Eisen
Recreation Planning Coordinator