Snowmobiles can obviously travel much farther distances than humans on foot do. Backcountry skiers can really only access the edges of the Great Burn and that’s only when the road is cleared in the late fall or spring. That kind of limited access is a good thing. Iconic species of the Great Burn like wolverines and mountain goats need time away from humans, especially in the winter. This time of rest is crucial to their survival. Mountain goats, especially. They are native to the Great Burn, but their population there is declining and wildlife biologists are concerned. When a snowmobile echoes up a canyon, or a human comes into view, goats run. This displacement happens in deep snow and often precarious places atop rocky cliffs and it not only breaks up groups, separating nannies from kids and causing injuries to animals, it also wastes precious energy that the goats must ration until spring if they are to survive.
“Preservation of wild spaces without human influence is ever more important as we continue to fragment habitat and expand our footprint as human beings,” says Greg Peters, president of the board for Montana Backcountry Alliance, one of the local grassroots groups that Winter Wildlands Alliance works closely with.
The Idaho side of the Great Burn is closed to snowmobiling because a fairly recent travel plan in the Clearwater respected its values as potential Wilderness. However, through the forest plan, the Forest Service could open the Great Burn to snowmobiling in a number of ways—and motorized groups are pushing the agency toward that direction. For example, the Forest Service could reverse its position and say that snowmobiles are allowed in recommended Wilderness areas. Or, they could shrink or eliminate the recommended wilderness designation currently protecting the Great Burn to carve out key areas at the bequest of the snowmobile community—areas that are also extremely important mountain goat habitat. Finally, anything that’s not recommended for Wilderness in the Forest Plan will be opened to road building, logging, and increased motorized recreation—not just in winter, but in all seasons.
“Once that area loses its wilderness management status by allowing snowmobilers and motorized recreation, it’s game over,” says Peters. “If you get that motorized incursion, that will be really hard to pull back from. That’s the biggest reason to get involved.”
The Forest Service prefers comments to be written and sent to them directly, which is why we don’t have a letter-writing tool for you this time. To weigh in on the forest plan draft environmental impact statement, use their online comment portal. Here is a guide to help you write effective comments. And, to make it easier for you, we’ve outlined a few talking points for you to consider including in your letter:
- The Forest Service should continue to protect the entire 151,874-acre Hoodoo Roadless Area as Recommended Wilderness in the revised forest plan.
- The Forest Service should not allow snowmobile use in any Recommended Wilderness areas. This use is not compatible with protecting wilderness characteristics or potential for designation within the National Wilderness Preservation System.
- Only the Clearwater portion of the Forest currently has a winter travel plan. The revised forest plan should include a commitment to begin winter travel planning within three years on the Nez Perce portion of the forest, including the Moose Creek, Salmon River, and Red River Ranger Districts.