April saw the release of two draft travel plans in Montana. The Bitterroot National Forest published it’s long-awaited Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) and a draft Record of Decision (ROD) on April 7 and the Helena National Forest published a FEIS and draft ROD for it’s Divide Travel Plan on April 23. Although both plans were started long before the advent of the Over-Snow Vehicle Rule, they comply with the new rule. Both of these plans include over-snow vehicle management and provide good examples of what winter travel planning can look like. Each travel plan designates large consolidated blocks of land as non-motorized in all seasons while also providing many miles of trail and acres of forest for motorized recreation.
One of the most important decisions that the Bitterroot National Forest made in the travel planning process was to recognize the interplay between motorized and non-motorized recreation experiences and to assess motorized travel planning within a larger context that includes non-motorized activities. While this may seem obvious, many forests choose to undertake motorized travel planning in isolation, leading to plans that don’t account for how motorized and non-motorized recreation experiences are intertwined. Because the Bitterroot recognized that motorized recreation impacts human-powered recreation experiences, the draft plan addresses conflicts between non-motorized and motorized uses and aims to improve the quality of all types of recreational experiences. This benefits everybody who visits the forest. The Bitterroot draft plan prohibits snowmobiles in all recommended Wilderness and Wilderness Study Areas, as well as in important wildlife winter range. It also permanently closes Lost Trail Powder Mountain ski area to snowmobiles – previously this closure was based on temporary forest orders.
The Divide draft plan protects roadless areas that provide critical wildlife habitat from motorized use year-round, preserves backcountry non-motorized recreation opportunities near the MacDonald Pass cross-country ski area, and designates much of the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail as non-motorized. Unlike the Bitterroot National Forest, which chose to cover the entire forest under a single travel management plan, the Helena National Forest tackled travel planning one ranger district at a time. With the publication of the Divide Travel Plan the Helena National Forest will have completed comprehensive year-long travel planning across the entire forest.
These travel management plans provide good examples for other forests to look to as they implement the Over-Snow Vehicle Rule. Zoning the forest into large cohesive blocks that are either motorized or non-motorized, as the Bitterroot and Helena National Forests have done, will simplify management and reduce conflict between uses. In particular, we hope that other forests will follow the Bitterroot’s lead and recognize that motorized activity impacts non-motorized recreation and create travel plans that analyze motorized use within the context of all uses that occur on the forest.