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An Open Letter to the Snowmobile Community

Re: Boise, Payette and Bridger-Teton National Forest litigation

Dear Fellow Winter Enthusiasts,

I understand many of you are upset with Winter Wildlands Alliance right now. I also understand the catalyst for your anger is a recent round of alerts from the Idaho State Snowmobile Association and American Council of Snowmobile Associations warning that Winter Wildlands is attacking snowmobiling on the Boise, Payette and Bridger-Teton National Forests through a frivolous lawsuit.

A few of you have reached out directly demanding explanation. Thank you. We’re glad for the opportunity for dialogue. I appreciate and respect your passion for snowmobiling and for winter outdoors. I share your passion for winter and public lands, and I think I understand your anger. I’d be mad as hell if I thought someone was trying to shut me out of my public lands or keep me from doing what I love in a responsible way. The privilege of adventuring into our wild snow-covered landscapes is one I hold dear and I’m here to tell you, despite what you’re hearing from certain leaders in the snowmobile industry, Winter Wildlands has no interest in denying that privilege to anyone.

Mark Menlove and his family using sleds to access a backcountry yurt on the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest. Photo by Troy Boman.

Many Winter Wildlands members enjoy riding snowmobiles, either as part of their ski day or as another way to have fun in the snow. I myself have hundreds of hours on a sled. My family had snowmobiles growing up (though those old blue SnoJets were a far cry from today’s machines) and just before coming on board with Winter Wildlands Alliance I spent three winters commuting daily by snowmobile to and from a remote cabin where my family and I lived.

I still use a snowmobile on occasion to access backcountry huts and remote trailheads, and I know from experience I can always find common ground with a fellow winter enthusiast. I also know if I make the effort I can find mutual understanding of other perspectives and mutual respect for those who share my passion for winter. Invariably I find far more that unites us in our shared love of winter than anything that might divide us. In an effort toward understanding and respect, I hope you will hear me out in response to the recent alerts.

First, in regard to the litigation we recently filed, here’s the backstory and intent:  In 2015 the Forest Service issued a regulation known as the Over-Snow Vehicle Rule directing each national forest unit that receives regular snowfall to gather public input, analyze current conditions and uses, and then based on that information determine which areas on the forest should be designated as open to snowmachines. The rule includes a passage known as the grandfathering clause that allows forests to carry prior designations into a new winter travel plan if those decisions originally included public input and also meet the rule’s criteria requiring that open areas be located in a way that minimizes impacts to natural resources, wildlife and other recreational uses.

The point of the lawsuit is to ensure that ALL stakeholders have an opportunity to provide input into how each forest manages winter use.

Three forests – the Boise, Payette and a portion of the Bridger-Teton – are interpreting the grandfathering clause to mean they can simply add a sticker to their current winter travel maps, in each case a hodgepodge of piecemeal decisions going back as far as the 1970s, and call it their new winter travel plan. No chance for public comment, no analysis of current conditions, just a rubber stamp that says they’re done. Incidentally, these three are the only forests in the nation attempting this approach. We don’t agree with their interpretation, we’ve taken our concerns directly to each forest to no avail, and now we’re asking the court to clarify the intent of the grandfathering clause.

The point of the lawsuit is to ensure that ALL stakeholders – snowmobilers, skiers and those of us who are both – have an opportunity to provide input into how each forest manages winter use. If forests just cement the status quo then we all lose the opportunity for intentional, balanced planning that will affect future recreation on public lands for years to come. We all know the backcountry is becoming more crowded each winter, with more of us using new technologies, both motorized and non-motorized, to venture out into our favorite places. Thoughtful planning with input from all of us will ensure we can all continue to enjoy our shared public lands in the future.

Winter Wildlands staff get ready for the approach to the Hellroaring Hut in Montana’s Centennial Mountains – 7 miles of snowmobiling followed by 3 miles of skiing.

We don’t take litigation lightly. We do understand it’s sometimes necessary as a last resort—when the feds aren’t listening. In the 17 years since Winter Wildlands Alliance was formed this is the fourth lawsuit we’ve filed against the Forest Service. Official snowmobile organizations have a similar track record as evidenced by the Idaho State Snowmobile Association’s recent lawsuit against the Clearwater National Forest and its lawsuit against the Kootenai/Idaho-Panhandle National Forest.

I don’t fault snowmobile organizations for turning to litigation when they disagree with actions taken by federal agencies. Petitioning the courts for clarification over government action is a right as fundamental to a working democracy as the right to free speech or the right to vote. I for one am deeply grateful we all have the opportunity to exercise that right. And for better or worse, in our great democracy, this is sometimes the only way to be sure things are done properly.

As to the broader claims that Winter Wildlands Alliance is out to eliminate snowmobiling or that we think we should have our kind of recreation but you shouldn’t have yours, let me be crystal clear: that is not true. Yes, we do advocate for balanced planning and management of our public lands to provide for some protected and accessible areas for quiet winter recreation – as just one component of public lands use in a range of other opportunities. That’s our mission. But that doesn’t mean we advocate against snowmobiles. We don’t.

It might be helpful to put those accusations in context: The alert from the Idaho State Snowmobile Association that ignited this round of anger toward Winter Wildlands is a fundraising appeal. I understand the need for fundraising in any organization but it’s disappointing to see some leaders in the snowmobile industry stoop to fear-based and intentionally misleading statements intended to pit snowmobilers against skiers, and to incite anger and distrust as a way of raising money. That approach sells everybody short, disrespects both the motorized and human-powered communities and divides us where we should be unified in our support and defense of public lands and our ability to use them responsibly.

I know there’s a better way to move this conversation forward, and I remain committed to open and respectful dialogue with all those who want to enjoy our public lands in winter. Winter travel planning, the very public process we’re trying to open up for all of us who use and care about the Boise, Payette, Bridger-Teton and other forests across the country, is one of the best ways I know to facilitate that open respectful dialogue. I hope you’ll meet us at the table to advocate for your preferences as snowmobilers and fellow public land owners.

Sincerely,

Mark Menlove
Executive Director
Winter Wildlands Alliance